Jacques Henri Lartigue: Snapshots of a Marriage

Honeymoon at the Hotel des Alpes Chamonix 1920

The photographs of Jacques Henri Lartigue occupy the other side of that divide between public and private.  Lartigue saw himself as a painter rather than a photographer – as did Man Ray, but unlike his contemporary Lartigue did not use photography commercially as a means of making money, nor indeed was he particularly interested in scientific experimentation with the medium.  No; what makes Lartigue’s photographs so unique is the intimacy that can only come from personal pictures never intended for public display.  Thus none are deliberately posed, the perfect compositions entirely intuitive and spontaneous, the incentive behind them purely a passion for the camera – and for Bibi.

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The Photographers’ Gallery chooses to focus on the 10-year period during which Lartigue was married to Madeleine Messager, known as Bibi.  They married in December 1919 after meeting in the Alps the previous winter, and the exhibition traces their lives together among the beau monde of 1920s France.   We are permitted to glimpse – almost voyeuristically – Bibi on her honeymoon at the Hotel des Alpes, Chamonix (top, 1920).  What at first appears a solo portrait, Bibi’s head just over the bath’s edge looking distant and solitary, is actually the portrait of a couple: Lartigue captures himself in the mirror to the left as he operates the camera, so that the two small figures, in reality smiling at each other, here smile back at the viewer exuding all the confidence and exclusivity of partners both in love and art.

‘Ubu et Bibi sur la route entre Londres et Pau’ (above, 1925) is a simple yet intense character study.  The landscape is out of focus, as is the enclosing frame of the car which is hardly discernible as such; out of these soft grey surroundings, however, the heads of Ubu and Bibi are picked out, pin-sharp, in a fleeting moment of hilarity.

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The year 1924 is regarded as the turning point in the marriage – and consequently also, the one being dependent on the other, in the way that Bibi is depicted.  The couple’s second child, Veronique, died shortly after her birth, and in response to this traumatic event both threw themselves into the well-documented decadence of Riviera life in the twenties.  Only the year before, Lartigue’s family home at Rouzat had been sold, leaving a gaping hole where his identity, rooted in happy childhood memories, had once been. Superficially the couple continue to enjoy life, constantly surrounded by friends and larking about on boats or beaches.  However, the change in their relations caused by grief and infidelity is clearly visible in images of Bibi from this point on – such as ‘Bibi a Londres’ (above, 1926) in which she appears an isolated, anonymous and vulnerable figure, wrapped in furs like a protective armour against the world.

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Even where she is pictured with friends, informal and companionable – as above, on the left, with Freddy and Margot (1928) – she no longer catches her husband’s eye through the lens; her eyes are lowered, her smile wistful and a little sad.  Most tellingly, from Lartigue’s point of view she is no longer at the centre of his world; gradually pushed to the peripheries of his pictures, she is always one of several women, denying the special bond that once existed between them.

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And there is little sense of the family here either.  At the beginning of the decade, the marriage and the exhibition, Lartigue’s photographs centre around his family and their home at Rouzat, and when Dany is born he and Bibi become inextricably entwined within this family scene.  Once this sense of family is severed with the loss of the place that contained it, everybody in Lartigue’s world seems a little lost – a reflection through his lens of Lartigue’s own feelings.  Bibi and Michelle Verly, sunbathing on the Lac d’Aix-les-Bains (above, May 1928) are transient, impermanent figures as they float sleepily, both their faces –  and their thoughts, their essential selves – hidden.

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In ‘Tempete a Cannes’ (above) the precarious figures seem to escape the photographer’s grasp, unknowable and separate from him.  The picture of Bibi at Marseille (below, 1928) is the culmination of this visual narrative of  the unravelling of a marriage.  Not only is Bibi relegated to the bottom right corner of the frame, but she is out of focus – it is the inhuman hulks of the ocean liners beyond that are the subjects here.  Throughout the exhibition, the subtlety of their shifting, unspoken, emotions is almost unbearably poignant.  From an initial joyful tenderness Bibi withdraws to a remote melancholy, until she almost entirely disappears from Lartigue’s pictures – and from his life.  “My broken heart only wishes her well” wrote a stricken Lartigue on the occasion of their eventual divorce in 1931.

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