Freaks, Poets Compete in Paris Shows of Arbus, Freund: Review

"James Joyce in Paris" (1939) by Gisele Freund, included at the Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent through Jan. 29. Source: Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent via Bloomberg

Nicole Kidman played her as a neurotic New York housewife in love with her hirsute neighbor, a modern variation on “The Beauty and the Beast.”

The 2006 movie “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” may not be a masterpiece. Yet the mere fact that a biopic about a photographer, a generation after her suicide, found a producer is remarkable.

In the U.S., Arbus (1923-71) is a star whose prints fetch astronomical prices. In France, she had been virtually ignored. The retrospective at the Jeu de Paume is the first major exhibition of her work in Paris.

Regrettably, the organizers follow neither a chronological nor a thematic order. They present the 200 or so photographs in a muddle, leaving it to the visitor to decipher the sense.

To justify their unhelpful attitude, they quote the artist: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”

It’s only in the last two rooms that you find biographical and critical information about Arbus’s life and work.

Diane and her husband Allan started out as commercial photographers for “Glamour,” “Vogue” and other fashion magazines. Only after she had studied with Lisette Model at the New York School for Social Research did she hit on the subject of her life -- freaks.

Although she later regretted it, Arbus became famous for her giants, dwarves, transvestites, retarded children in Halloween costumes and other marginal figures.

Man in Curlers

The best known of her black-and-white, square images, shot with a twin-lens Rolleiflex camera, are all here. including the effeminate young man in curlers, the boy with toy hand grenades in Central Park or the identical twins in identical dress who reappeared as ghosts in Stanley Kubrick’s movie “The Shining.”

Not everybody appreciated Arbus’s taste for the bizarre. Some accused her of voyeurism, others -- such as Susan Sontag in her 1977 book “On Photography” -- found her pictures repulsive. Norman Mailer quipped: “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.”

The exhibition, which is supported by Neuflize Vie and Manufacture Jaeger-Le Coultre SA, runs through Feb. 5, 2012. Information:

Freund’s Authors

Arbus is almost the exact opposite of another, no less celebrated woman photographer whose work is on view in Paris.

Berlin-born Gisele Freund (1908-2000) fled Germany in 1933 for France and moved during the war to South America, where she worked for the photo agency Magnum.

She was proud of her photojournalism and loved to tell the story of her being thrown out of Argentina after the publication of a photo series revealing Evita Peron’s appetite for jewels.

Freund is best known for her sensitive portraits of writers. The Foundation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent has selected prints (some in color), diaries and other documents from her prewar years in the French capital.

The sitters include Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau, Colette, Jean-Paul Sartre, Andre Malraux, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

To give you an idea of the literary world in the 1930s the organizers have reproduced the facades of the bookshops where Freund stalked her prey -- Adrienne Monnier’s “La Maison des Amis des Livres” and Sylvia Beach’s “Shakespeare and Company,” both on Rue de l’Odeon.

It’s a small yet exquisite show.

“Gisele Freund: L’Oeil Frontiere Paris 1933-1940” runs through Jan. 29, 2012, at the Fondation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent. Information:

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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