Reutlinger and Walery postcards from the Belle Époque
“Beauty and femininity are ageless and can't be contrived, and glamour, although the manufacturers won't like this, cannot be manufactured.”
In Paris at the turn of the last century, female dancers employed at one of the premier theatres or music halls needed to have their portrait taken and the best known studios in the city were Reutlinger and Walery’s. The artiste was expected to pay for the portraits herself and these studios weren’t cheap but they had cachet, and something else. Given the proper treatment, an appearance in one of the studios’ postcards could be enough to transform a dancer from one among the thousands into a star.
The careers of Leopold Reutlinger and Stanislaw Julian Ignacy were mirrors. Both were born in 1863, into wealthy families that had left Germany and set up photographic business in France and both inherited their studios from their fathers, who had established reputations as portraitists to theatrical stars and minor royalty (Walery also inherited a title, Count Ostroróg of Pomerania, though he seldom used it). In portraits taken of the two men in the 1920s they even look uncannily similar, with the same clipped, steel grey hair, stiff and alert appearance and impeccable dress. Presumably they knew each other, since they operated in the same milieu, but you wonder whether they were friends or not. It’s one thing to admire another photographer’s work but when that photographer is in competition for the most reputable studio in Paris egos can get a little sensitive.
The sons came on to the scene just the bohemian era of their fathers was passing and the Belle Époque was beginning. During their fathers’ time notoriety was expected from actors and writers but it was accepted because they were an exclusive group and widely if thoughtlessly assumed to be geniuses. During the Belle Époque the axis shifted from genius to beauty. At its centre were the music halls like the Folies Bergère and the Casino de Paris where thousands of young women from Europe and beyond applied in the hope of becoming stars. In the 1860s George Sand had scandalized Paris by smoking and wearing men’s clothing. By the 1890s the George Sand look was everywhere in the theatres; all that was missing was a sense of rebellion.
In the 1860s and 70s the bohemians kept a discreet distance from the nobility, in public, either because they were politically opposed to each other or in Sand’s case, flaunting of her noble lineage would have damaged her credibility. By the 1890s backstage at the Folies Bergère was a meat market and dukes, princes, ageing fat bankers and wealthy, indolent sons of industrialists jostled each other for a place. There was scarcely a queen in Europe who didn’t have to step in and tell her son that his very public affair with a young starlet had to end now. Reutlinger and Walery didn’t photograph this world in the sense that Toulouse Lautrec painted it. Their job was not to expose its reality but sustain the fantasy of a magical land full of beautiful and glamorous young women, closer to the exteriors of the theatres with their elaborate Art Nouveau façades of classical goddesses than any of the stuff that went on behind the doors.
By the time Reutlinger and Walery took over their respective businesses the technology of photography had advanced to the degree the style of portraiture their fathers had built their reputations on was passé. Electric lighting for one gave them much more freedom in the studio and the carte de visite and the cabinet card had been superseded by the photo postcard, which were cheaper and more disposable. More crucially, the cheap, portable amateur camera had arrived. Anyone could take a photo of a starlet with their five dollar camera if she let them. Studios were pushed to create work amateurs couldn’t reproduce and this might be one reason why Reutlinger especially embraced photomontage.
Once a re-toucher’s job was to remove blemishes or add some coloured inks to a portrait. Upstairs from where Reutlinger took his photographs and the maquettes were made was a room employing women whose job it was to receive the portrait, apply combination printing, montage, hand colouring, even paste jewellery and turn it into a small triumph of Art Nouveau design. He could also come up with an idea, a woman floating on a butterfly’s wings for example, and apply it to portraits of dozens of women, creating sets that encouraged collectors to buy twenty cards at a time.
In their more standard portraits Reutlinger and Walery images are often indistinguishable save the studio autograph. It takes practice to tell them apart at a glance yet it’s usually very easy to spot either one among the lesser competition. They took greater care in the production of their images than most, beginning with the photography, which was sharp and clean and both had a practiced sense of how to photograph costumes. The hand colouring was assiduous with little to no leakage of colour and they knew how to apply colour, that muted pastels worked better than bold primaries on photographs and sometimes only the barest amount was needed. It’s pushing things to call either man a great artist since they were obviously more interested in business than art but they understood aesthetic principles better than any of their rivals.
One thing that distinguished Reutlinger’s portraits from Walery’s was that he put women on a higher pedestal. In Reutlinger’s world, and this was true across the Art Nouveau movement, women were ethereal creatures devoted to high culture, for whom living was apparently a work of art in itself. The truth, need we say, was more complicated than he let on. Some of his most popular subjects had sex lives that put famous rakes to shame and a lot came from backgrounds far removed from sophistication. All that was easy to disguise behind a tendrilled border or a classical Greek backdrop, but he also sought a particular demeanour from the women. They ought to have been aware of their beauty of course but too absorbed in art or nature to attach much importance to it. Walery’s women were more likely to play the gamin for the camera. As a general rule, (very general; between them they produced thousands of images) Reutlinger’s women were dangerous because they were unobtainable, Walery’s because they weren’t.
Walery was less interested in the special effects - he rarely used any apart from hand colouring – but the notion of erotic fantasy was just as strong, especially lesbianism. Actresses in male attire became one of his specialties. The source may have been the theatre – cross-dressing was popular in the music halls – but he understood something sharp minded photographers have since the beginning; two fully dressed women getting passionate with each other can excite some men more than a naked man and woman will. At the time postcards were the main source of income for both men they were running profitable sidelines in soft porn for more exclusive customers. Mostly they kept within particular boundaries for while France was considered freer than either Britain or the U.S there were morals agencies about and an arrest could set back business. The closest most customers were likely to get to the real erotica were in images like the one above, that left little to the imagination yet remained within the law.
A mistake they usually avoided was to suggest cuteness. One of the most popular motifs in photo postcards of the time was of a young woman coyly gazing out from behind a posy of flowers or about to slip a letter in the post box, usually embossed with some message about as deep and sincere as, “ je pense a vous”. They sold by the truckload back then and turn up in truckloads today at second hand stores, where a dollar for one can seem a bit steep. Some of Reutlinger and Walery’s models may have only been seventeen years old but they never played the sweet little girl next door. There was always an edge. Well, the women at the Paris music halls were seldom innocent for long anyway and they learned what the photographers wanted and how to give it.
After World War 1 and the death of his son, Leopold Reutlinger began to retire from photography and did little work in the 1920s. Walery on the other hand was to produce his best known work. Beginning in the war erotic postcards appeared in Paris bearing the signature Julian Mandel, a name now assumed to be an alias. In trying to identify Mandel people have pointed the finger at Walery. The postcards were more explicit than anything he had produced for general consumption but as they fell within his métier he was a logical suspect. In the 1920s he also produced a book of photogravures of nudes that straddled the line between Pictorialism and modernism, this time under the pseudonym Yrelaw. His fondness for aliases was another causer for suspicion; that and his middle name being Julian left some in no doubt who Mandel was.
Walery died in 1935, just two years before Reutlinger. It seems strange now that when so much attention is given to the history of photomontage and fashion photography they are often overlooked. Part of the problem was their popularity. Neither has ever been taken seriously in any artistic sense and after the First World War Art Nouveau was regarded as an embarrassing indulgence, especially compared to the stripped back clinical approach of modernist architects. All those pretty women framed within folding fans, turned into domino chips or set against painted backdrops of classical landscapes suddenly looked anachronistic. When you look at their work now you realize they were ahead of their time, pushing the idea of what a photograph could be beyond what had come before.
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