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Monday, 26 April 2010


Leopold Reutlinger, Art Nouveau and the tinted photo postcard

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.”
Oscar Wilde; Preface to the Picture of Dorian Gray

“Her enemies, in their honester moments, would have admitted she was svelte and knew how to dress, but they would have agreed with her friends in asserting that she had no soul.”
Saki, The Unbearable Bassington

Art Nouveau was the most feminine of art movements. Floral embellishes, lacy filigree and curvaceous typography have never been exactly manly in their intent although some of the best examples can be found in the unashamedly masculine skyscrapers constructed in New York and Chicago from the 1890s to the 1920s. Whether used in printmaking or the design of a gate, there was always something subversively erotic about Art Nouveau. It suggested beautiful, rich people indulging themselves by lying about all day in silk kimonos, sipping Japanese tea and smoking Turkish cigarettes through long, alabaster holders. Consider Frederick Evans’ iconic portrait of one of its most famous practitioners, Aubrey Beardsley, his chin cupped in his hands, his long, womanly fingers extending past his ears. This man wouldn’t hold a cricket bat, let alone a spade yet his output suggested he spent a lot of time in the presence of naked women, and that must have infuriated to a lot of working men. (Beardsley’s gaunt appearance was largely due to tuberculosis, which killed him when he was 26.)

Leopold Reutlinger inherited the Reutlinger Studios in Paris from his father, Emile, who had taken them over when his brother Charles fell ill. Charles had built the business up as a successful portrait studio. Leopold would expand it into one of the best known in France and along the way he’d expand into postcards and more or less create the idea of Art Nouveau photography.

Reutlinger didn’t invent a single element in his postcards but he brought some together in a way that made them distinctive, incidentally allowing him to charge a price that defied the petit bourgeois to buy them. Take a portrait of an actress or dancer, preferably a current attraction at the Casino de Paris, then montage it into a country scene or against flowers, in a heart or some other obviously romantic image. The most difficult part was the tinting, which had to be done by hand. The secret to tinting was to only select particular details, her scarf, her lips or a flower in her bonnet, and only use pastels. The idea wasn’t to create colour photographs but give the illusion, and illusion was everything. However Reutlinger’s models behaved in private, in his world they were delicate, diaphanous creatures with sensibilities as fragile as a petal. 

Reutlinger had his rivals in the market for tinted postcards of women; “Professor” Edouard Stebbing in Paris and, the Steglitz Studio in Berlin being two whose style was often indistinguishable from his.  All of them produced images that were too soft to be pornography, too banal to be erotic but suggested the women in their cards were unobtainable to any man save the most aesthetically minded. Meanwhile, before seaside postcards became synonymous with a smutty, working class humour, holiday-goers could buy tinted photographs of girls in swimsuits. Images of women using classical Greek themes implied paganism was for the very sophisticated. There were also markets for veiled girls from the Orient and Valentine’s Day cards. Despite the efforts of their creators, some of them stand up today as passably beautiful objects. 

‘Dancer’ or ‘actress’ was often a euphemism for prostitute and in popular opinion most of the women posing for photo postcards would have been regarded as being on the same level or just a shade above it. The women who posed for Reutlinger were too famous to suffer that insult. Aino Ackte was a Finnish soprano, Marville a celebrated singer and actress. The Casino de Paris where they performed opened in October 1890 and on the 19th of that month a reporter from the New York Times described ‘stained glass windows signed Champigneulles …  a huge electric sun … quite as stupendous as the luminous fountain’ and the performances; chorus girls in one hall, a ballet in another and clowns appearing between variety acts. ‘There is so much to see and so little monotony that it takes several visits to place every attraction in its proper locality.’ This was la Belle Époque at its most extravagant.

In 1930 a friend was opening a bottle of champagne when the cork flew off and struck Reutlinger in the eye, blinding him and ending his career. That may not have been fair but it had an undeniable poignancy to it.  Today Reutlinger’s postcards can be found sandwiched in dusty piles in junkshops and antique stores. They deserve better than that. Reutlinger’s postcards avoid the cheesy sentimentality of most of his competitors and his women are placed in the design to suggest that art wasn’t ornamentation so much as a lifestyle choice. In the way that Art Nouveau architecture has come to define certain cities like Budapest better than their recent history, his photo postcards suggest the glamour of the age better than any documentary photographer we know about.


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