Style and Substance

Photographs of the French upper class in the 1920s capture the emotions behind an elegant facade.

Although Jacques-Henri Lartigue's photographs of French aristocrats and their friends during the Roaring '20s are full of sports cars racing around European tracks, his main theme is not the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, but the lives of the upper-class men and women who frequented such events.

After all, competitions in that milieu (whether rabbit hunts, car races, or tennis matches) were not principally about winning; they were about how you played the game (what Americans call "sportsmanship"). Sportsmanlike behavior suggested superior social status.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue Photographs: Automobiles documents a world of fancy clothes, weekends spent in the country, and auto races (several vintage Bugattis make cameo appearances), but, though Lartigue himself was a member of this insular world, this Cleveland Museum of Art exhibit demonstrates that he was too much of an artist to accept it uncritically. Although these upper-class Parisians have joie de vivre in abundance, there is frequently a frenzied quality in their joy — the women sporting racing goggles grin a bit too broadly, the beaming twins identically outfitted in flapper dresses and cloche hats wear too much makeup, and the drivers, confident of their car's raceworthiness, seem just a bit bored. In a seemingly effortless display of artistic sleight of hand, Lartigue captures the mirth of the '20s while also hinting that these people may have been trying to convince themselves that they were having a good time.

Lartigue died in 1986 at the age of ninety. His work has been singled out by some as the most accurate artistic expression of the carefree '20s in France, and as support for the claim, one could cite the shot in this exhibit of Lartigue's mistress, Renée. She stands in front of an automobile painted in abstract interlocking shapes that echo the decorative patterns on her dress and the modish tilt of her hat. (The car was painted by Sonia Delaunay who, as a designer, made a strong impression on the international fashion scene.)

Renée's air of studied nonchalance is seconded by Lartigue's composition, which, on first glance, is distressingly ordinary (she's centrally placed and at eye-level with the viewer) but which, with its clever connections between car decoration and dress design, suggests that there is more here than meets the eye. The key is that things are not as improvisational as they seem — Lartigue has clearly placed his mistress in front of this particular car for a purpose. Is she, on one level, an object, like the car? Or is the sophisticated design on the car Lartigue's private metaphor for the sophistication he sees in his mistress's personality?

The famous French photographer Brassaï (like Madonna, he was known by one name) specialized in capturing Paris in all her moods. It has been said that he could identify iconic moments. At the very least, he had the talent for identifying promising subject matter and for presenting it to the public pared of all extraneous detail.

Lartigue didn't work that way. He was not, on the basis of these shots, a distiller. He was, rather, a talented fact collector who knew that if he could place his upper-class characters in a well-chosen landscape, he could go to town artistically by showing the audience how those people behaved in their environment. Similarly, Brassaï's method of fully developing his ideas through photographic series (Paris by Night, France and the Riviera, Secret Paris) would have been alien to a photographer like Lartigue. Brassaï's work suggests a narrative progression with a beginning, middle, and end. Lartigue's photos, by contrast, are self-contained.

Interestingly enough, Lartigue's active life as a photographer lasted only a few years. After a couple of shows in Paris in the mid-'20s, he decided to spend more time painting and thereafter made few photographs. Instinctive artists (one thinks of Gioacchino Rossini) often reach a moment of truth in their early thirties, when they either take their talents to the next level or they stop production altogether. For Rossini this meant no more music dramas after William Tell. For Lartigue it meant very few photographs after the age of about thirty.

The instinctive aspect of Lartigue's art is often found in his portraits. He captured the aforementioned twins at an automobile competition in 1929, and the resulting photo manages to remain a portrait, while it sums up an era. These identical twins were definitely auto aficionados. As they face Lartigue's camera, each caresses a gleaming fender or a polished front light. They delight in the car's surfaces. Their steady gaze suggests confidence, while their clothing style suggests affluence and a keen awareness of fashion. As one writer has tartly put it, having one's hair cut short was to the '20s what bra burning would be to the '60s. It was thought to proclaim a new spirit of independence among women. Cloche hats, sometimes likened to soldiers' helmets, and bold cosmetics completed the flapper effect.

The twins, as Lartigue photographs them, are literally on stage. They are intense, though there isn't much in the photo to be intense about. One leaves the picture knowing little about the twins aside from the fact that, in their choice of clothes, they were in step with their times. Perhaps that's the point: Lartigue might be suggesting that, in the circles that he documented, surface elegance and social grace were prized commodities, and it scarcely mattered that there may have been little substance beneath the facade.

Lartigue often found fissures in elegant surfaces. In some of these photos, Lartigue turned the tables on his rich compatriots and showed them at moments when their cars took fire on racetracks or when they seemed to be going so fast that equipment shutdown seemed just around the corner. The most compelling shot of this variety is titled "First Round: Eldridge's Fiat 400 HP catches fire after three laps, Montlhery Racetrack, 1924." There is something wryly humorous about the title itself, with its recitation of the car's precise model (the Fiat 400 HP was hardly a nickel-and-dime Model T), followed by the information that it went out of commission before the race was even truly under way. The photo itself shows the unlucky Fiat in long shot as a cloud of smoke emerges from its front hood. The pit crew is scrambling about (such things aren't supposed to happen on the third lap), and an intrepid cameraman has taken his tripod to the scene of the accident and is snapping away.

The thematic subtext of the image (technology doesn't always work; the size of your pocketbook doesn't guarantee success) is echoed in the formal treatment.

Lartigue cleverly sets up three levels of seeing within the shot. In the extreme foreground, with his back turned to us, is a man in shadow with a derby hat viewing the scene impartially. He is contrasted with the pit crew and the photographer, who are right in the thick of things in the center. Finally, Lartigue himself is a combination of the detached observer in derby hat and the gutsy photographer who has taken his equipment right to the scene of the disaster. He is the engaged participant as well as the cool spectator. The shot is a fine summation of Lartigue's achievement, and it's one of the finest photographs in the show.

Rules of the Game, film director Jean Renoir's 1939 classic about a dying French aristocracy on the eve of World War II, was about characters whose lives, as one writer has aptly put it, "are more performed than lived." So, too, are the lives of the characters in Lartigue's photographs, who seem to be forerunners of Renoir's doomed aristocrats. The early warning signs of impending cultural breakdown are on display at CMA (cars that don't work, elegantly attired women who lionize fashion at the expense of substance), but for the moment at least, mirth and entertainment rule the day in these 25 photographs.