Rediscovering Dubreuil : Modern Pictures From a Pioneer in Photography

Times Art Writer

It seems perfectly clear: Pierre Dubreuil was a Modernist. Take “Elephantaisie,” a 1908 photograph depicting the Eiffel Tower as a hazy structure behind an imposing bronze elephant. The picture not only romanticizes the emblem of France’s entry into the modern age, it makes bold use of the camera’s ability to play with scale and to rearrange or compress bits of reality into a striking new order.

In “Pierre Dubreuil Rediscovered: The Masterprints 1900-1935,” at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts (through Nov. 20), Dubreuil frames a miniature Place de la Concorde between massive columns and interrupts a view of Notre Dame with a sprig of big black leaves. Close-ups of machinery and cropped masses of keys and padlocks find majesty in industry, beauty in utilitarian objects. Yo-yos grow into monumental forms; teapot spouts emulate the necks of swans.

People, on the other hand, are smaller--or stranger--than life. The bodies of women playing skittles or setting up a game of croquet become harmonious elements that accentuate the rhythm of man-made forms. In a group of surreal images, “Ardent Desire” is enacted by masks, while “The Human Comedy” is a puppet show.

Working with great facility in an oil-print technique that allowed him to take liberties with photographed images, Dubreuil created pictures that have the patina of age but a distinctly modern viewpoint. He examines the meter on a taxicab, brings a wayward shadow onto center stage of a cityscape and peers straight down into a laundress’ courtyard.


So why isn’t the French photographer known as a Modernist? And, more important, why aren’t superior examples of his work found in standard histories of photography? Apparently because Dubreuil was also a Pictorialist who failed to see the error of his ways when photographers in the know stopped imitating art and started creating an independent art form.

The catalogue calls him the most modern of Pictorialists. It may be more accurate to think of Dubreuil as a Modernist who labored under a Pictorialist veil.

Works from his French period (1900-12) include

dreamy, soft-focus images of two little girls playing badminton in a curtained drawing room, a ballet dancer behind the scenes and several shots of Venetian gondolas. But misty as they may be, these are not mere reenactments of paintings; they repeatedly show a cameraman’s eye for cropped composition and high contrast. They also lay the foundation for more frankly modern pieces made in Belgium from 1923 to 1935.


Born to a prosperous family in Lille, France, in 1872, Dubreuil was able to pursue art without having to earn a living. But he endured an upheaval as a young man, serving in the French army during World War I and losing his wife and daughter to an influenza epidemic in 1918.

A few years later he moved to Brussels, where he reestablished himself as an artist and was occasionally recognized as “the Alfred Stieglitz of Europe.” But both his fame and his money ran out. Dubreuil died in poverty and obscurity in 1944.

It isn’t shocking to find a Modernist in Pictorialist clothing in an exhibition of early 20th-Century photography. The only surprise in the show is that Dubreuil’s art was so roundly denounced during his lifetime and that it has been so long suppressed. According to the exhibition catalogue, Dubreuil was castigated on the one hand as a die-hard Pictorialist and on the other as a creator of bizarre distortions.

It’s easy to imagine that his abstractions and arresting points of view might have startled his peers. What’s more difficult to fathom is that they couldn’t see through his painterly conventions and manipulative techniques. If he wasn’t one of photography’s foremost innovators, he was never far behind.


San Diego curator Tom Jacobson, who has spent seven years researching Dubreuil’s work, has made a major contribution to the field by organizing this exhibition that opened at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and will travel on to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Alliance Francaise in New York.

A concurrent exhibition, “Olivia Parker: Weighing the Planets,” presents works by a contemporary photographer who operates in a dreamier realm than Dubreuil. Composing mystical still lifes of found objects and fragments of antique drawings and celestial maps, Parker creates elusive puzzles that exist in free-floating space and time.

In the title-piece image, shadows of figures and unidentified objects fall over a model of the solar system. Shadowy horses leap over drawings of classical figures in a lovely piece called “Carrousel.” “Statue Seen by a Man and Observed by a Pigeon” presents fractured views of statuary and a bird in faceted glass.

Four large color prints compose the centerpiece of Parker’s evocative show. These predominantly blue works place figures from art history in a new but elusive context that suggests human connections to the cosmos.


A press release says the two artists were paired because of “experimental and thought-provoking techniques” that lead to mysterious images and meanings. True enough, but the two shows also contrast concepts of up-to-date art. Dubreuil kept up with the times by looking ahead to modern devices and casting a fresh eye on familiar sights. Parker delves into the past, constructing a sort of post-modern poetry from memories, shadows and clues to the unknown.

Jacobson will deliver a lecture on Dubreuil at 7:30 p.m. next Thursday and on Parker at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20. Both programs will take place in the auditorium of the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park. Information: (619) 239-5262.