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ART REVIEW : Lisette Model’s Eloquent Photographs

TIMES ART CRITIC

Beginning in the 1940s the United States enjoyed an artistic flowering that picked up strength through the ‘60s. There is a justifiable tendency to ascribe this burst of cultural energy to America’s ascendancy as a world power after World War II.

A friend who likes to dig a bit deeper into paradox insists that none of it would have happened had it not been for Adolf Hitler. By driving many of Europe’s best and brightest into exile, he argues, the Fuehrer fertilized the American landscape with genius that spread from refugee Surrealists who landed in New York to displaced masters of film, music and literature who roosted in Los Angeles.

It’s a moot argument but hard to entirely shout down since we continue to enjoy their legacy to this day. There is the Galka Scheyer collection at the Norton Simon Museum and the Schoenberg Institute at USC and Schoenberg Hall at UCLA. And at the moment there is an exhibition of photographs by Lisette Model at the J. Paul Getty Museum. At just 35 prints, “Lisette Model: Daring to See,” a selection from the museum’s holdings, is hardly definitive but it is pungent.

But wait. There are decently cultivated museum-goers who still have not heard of Lisette Model. Born Elise Amelie Felicie Stern in Vienna in 1901, Catholic by faith and half-Jewish by inheritance, she was in many ways one of Hitler’s classic cultural victims. The troubles she shared with all Europeans may have been compounded by a father who changed the family name to Seybert and who molested her.

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By 1920, she was studying music with Arnold Schoenberg and seemed destined for a career as a singer. In 1924, her father died. The family moved to France two years later. In 1933, Lisette Model abruptly dropped music in favor of photography, possibly influenced by her beautiful and favored older sister. The facts of Lisette Model’s life are clear enough. In 1937, she married Russian painter Evsa Model. The next year they moved to New York.

Beyond that, Lisette Model’s story grows a bit vague. She gave conflicting accounts of her background. She would talk about her childhood and then change her story. That may have been about a common artistic unwillingness to have one’s character defined by somebody else’s theory--Freud or whoever. She might have consciously been building her own artistic myth, or was so burdened by trauma she was legitimately confused about her identity.

Whatever is garbled in the narrative becomes eloquent in her pictures. The earliest on view here are street photos from the ‘30s taken in Paris and on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. A shot of a handsome young peanut vendor sets the empathic stage. Like filmmaker Jean Renoir, Model’s work reveals strong but detached feeling. Maybe her most telling works are not in the exhibition. They show primitive animals in the Vincennes zoo, a hornless rhino, a wrinkled sea lion, laughing camel and self-satisfied elephant. She photographed people like that, vaguely monstrous but ultimately innocent as beasts.

Most pictures draw sharp contrasts between wealthy loungers and destitute street people. This gained her a reputation as a social, politically engaged satirist. She certainly knew what she was doing. She’d frame a picture of a derelict against a newspaper society page. But she was not a propagandist. A bourgeois matron lounges bovine in a deck chair. She’s repellently smug but Model does not rob her of resourcefulness or intelligence. A blind beggar gets his due adamantly resisting despair, but Model doesn’t leave out the possibility he is a con. She is at her best dealing with the ambiguities of a lounger who looks like a Nobel literary laureate while dressed like a flasher in stained tennis shoes. Model is sometimes compared to her colleague Weegee but she was not a caricaturist, she was an Expressionist.

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She had a long career in the States. She died in New York at age 82. In between she did commercial work, taught at the New School for Social Research, exhibited persistently and knew everyone worth the trouble in the sphere of serious photography, from Beaumont Newhall to Edward Weston. She did portraits of Dylan Thomas, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Hofman but she was most clearly in her element at the extreme margins of society among the dwarfs, bag ladies and female impersonators.

A sleek woman finishing dinner at the St. Regis Hotel is as relaxed and alert as a big cat. An ancient lady in youthful finery looks ridiculous in her flowered hat and smeared lipstick but Model understands her longing. She admires the energy of barroom singers with Sophie Tucker proportions. She understands the casual desire behind a flirtation between a lean white sailor and an ample black good-time lady. She looks at a human skeleton at the freak museum and believes in the aristocratic air of his top-hat and spats.

Model’s most famous student was Diane Arbus. Both of them looked at the world unflinchingly like people with no protective carapace over their nerves. Arbus’ sensitivity got to be too much for her. Model survived it. Maybe that had to do with Model’s curious objectivity. Her pictures of window reflections and hurrying legs often find her wondering if everything she sees is a kind of spectral illusion. In spirit they recall the Existential vision of a Giacometti or Bacon.

Model’s photographic contribution surely has to do with her role in introducing a European sense of humanist tolerance into the absurd polarities of post-war civilization. There were years when that seemed a bit dated. Not now. Americans are presently faced with real sights that echo Model’s images of heedless wealth and daily misery. We seem to flinch from them as she did not.

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The J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, to Oct. 20. Closed Mondays. Reservations required: (213) 458-2003 .


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