Quicksilver Brilliance: Adolf de Meyer Photographs @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 45 largely black and white photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against light grey walls in a series of three small rooms on the second floor of the museum. All of the works have been drawn from the museum’s permanent collection.

The works by Adolf de Meyer consist of the following:

  • 13 platinum prints, 1900, 1906, 1907, 1912, 1917
  • 2 photogravures, 1908, 1912
  • 2 carbon prints, 1900, 1925-1926
  • 1 autochrome in lightbox (facsimile), 1908
  • 4 gelatin silver prints, 1912, 1923, 1925, 1928
  • 1 set of 9 gelatin silver prints (framed together), 1890s-1910
  • 1 trichrome carbro print, 1929
  • 6 collotypes, 1914 (with full collotype book showing 1 image in nearby vitrine, 1914)
  • 4 magazine spreads (in bound volumes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, 1913, 1919, 1927, in vitrine)

The show also includes works by other photographers, as listed below, and 1 tuxedo (owned by De Meyer) from the 1930s:

  • Sarah Choate Sears: 1 platinum print (portrait of De Meyer), 1905
  • Alfred Stieglitz: 1 photogravure, 1903-1904
  • Gertrude Käsebier: 1 platinum print (portrait of De Meyer), 1903

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While the predictable tops of the waves artistic survey is the one we typically get when a museum invests the time and effort to gather up all the linchpin loans necessary to fill out a comprehensive exhibit, a different kind of narrative often emerges from shows drawn entirely from the confines of permanent collections.

On bad days, such shows can feel grab bag random, maddeningly incomplete, and even cost consciously lazy. But on very good days, especially when the curators can draw from an extremely deep collection like the Met’s, a kind of eclectic magic can occur, where treasures and rarities rub elbows with truly obscure finds that haven’t seen the light of day for decades, the sum of which comes together as a wondrously eccentric and purposefully uneven portrait of an artist.

This sampler-style exhibit of the work of Baron Adolf de Meyer doesn’t reach gloriously quirky heights, but it does find some smart back alleys and overlooked paths worth walking down to better understand the photographer. Using a handful of iconic images as tent poles, it surrounds those classics with lesser known images and a few unlikely discoveries, providing a succinct summary of some of the key ideas we should remember about De Meyer.

A thumbnail portrait of De Meyer and his art includes his glamorous Pictorialist aesthetic, his career as a society and celebrity portraitist, and his place as the first staff photographer at Vogue and Vanity Fair (thereby making him an early and influential pioneer in fashion photography), and the exhibit hits all of these high points, albeit quickly. The first room of the show uses two images, one of water lilies in a glass bowl and the other of a woman in a kimono and headscarf, as superlative examples of the tactile elegance of his early work. Both shine with shimmery brightness, the meticulous control of the light making the floral still life glow with delicate grace and the fabrics in the portrait glisten with flashes of silvery sparkles. A third image (found in the next room) sinuously inverts this approach, turning the dark ethereal shadows of a bouquet of chrysanthemums into something like ominous jellyfish floating in the sea.

De Meyer’s iconic image of Josephine Baker decked out in long strands of pearls and silvery glamour is the centerpiece of the selection of works that chronicle his society and celebrity portraiture. Others recall the refinement of Whistler’s paintings, from the curve of the American socialite Rita de Acosta Lydig’s back seen from behind, to the dark folds, pearls, and lace of Lady Ottoline Morrell’s ensemble as lit from the side. And women weren’t the only ones looking to be captured for posterity by De Meyer – a dashing Count Étienne de Beaumont in top hat and morning suit stands against the open door of a Parisian salon, the epitome of aristocratic suavity.

De Meyer’s more direct fashion work is given shorter shrift. A handful of spreads from various magazines show us examples of his photo essays on bridal trends, highlights from recent collections, and “what’s new in Paris”, while shots of models focus the attention on their couture hats, from the sleek sparkle of the form fitting “Violette” to the extravagance of an elaborately plumed creation. An unusual color image (executed in the brash carbro process) takes a slightly surreal turn, the dead-eyed mannequin adorned in an symphony of blue, her lilting dress, chunky necklace, and textural hat set against an amorphously shimmering backdrop.

The only nude ever made by De Meyer is a bit of a stylistic outlier. His model in Dance Study stands against the brightness of a window, her stylized arm-angled pose offset by her bare torso and a strange mask. But the nearby images of the 1912 ballet L’Après-midi d’un faune as artfully staged by Nijinsky’s Ballets Russes seem to provide some potential context. A set of 6 rarely seen collotype images of the performance (including the original book itself in a vitrine) are full of nymphs in exaggerated choreographed positions, from extended arms and bent elbows to interlocked gestures and prayerful raised limbs. These unexpected pictures connect De Meyer more directly to the world of dance photography, as well as providing evidence of the stylistic influences that were percolating around in his head.

While De Meyer’s scenes from Japan, his travel photos of his wife Olga at the Acropolis and in St. Moritz, and his experiments with autochromes in the early 1900s are also included in this eclectic sampler, these rarities aren’t particularly compelling or noteworthy, aside from their supporting role in filling out a broader picture of the artist and his life. In the end, this modest but handsome show succeeds in delivering a well-edited appetizer-sized summary of the photographer’s work, with just enough unexpected inclusions to stave off the dullness of predictability.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. De Meyer’s work has been only intermittently available at auction in the past few years, with a wide range in prices based on the rarity of the lots on offer. Lesser known works/gravures have recently sold for as little as $2000, while rare platinum prints of iconic subjects (particularly the water lilies) have topped $170000. A broad gallery show of De Meyer’s work was on view at Robert Miller Gallery in 2010.

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