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Marcel Fleiss and Roland d’Ursel in Antwerp by John Devos


Archives – may 25, 2023

Boris Vian or Jazz in words, poetry, spirit, music and… images.

In Antwerp in the maritime quarter there is a former shop called Rossaert which specialised in mariner’s caps & kepis, it is now the beautiful location of the Galerie Ronny & Jessy Van de Velde.

Today, there is a small exhibition dedicated to Boris Vian (1920-1959) and his generation, more or less comparable to the US Beat Generation. Boris Vian is the typical example of a polymath: author, poet, screenwriter, singer, librettist, translator, actor, painter, jazz musician, jazz critic, polemicist, critic and engineer – and believe me, this list is not exhaustive. Vian’s personality had a great influence on (French) culture, especially after his early death. In his own time, he was in the limelight as a polemicist (he took up the defence of bebop, thrillers and science-fiction, which were all three reviled by the older generation as decadent expressions), as a pacifist (he opposed the war in Indochina and the race for the nuclear bomb), as a harsh critic of morals (his novel, play and film ”I Spit On Your Graves” was banned and Vian was persecuted).

Two aspects in particular of the Rossaert exhibition will be of interest to readers of The Eye of Photography, the photographic portraits of Roland d’Ursel and the concert photography of Marcel Fleiss – not coincidentally two young men who represented their zeitgeist: d’Ursel was between 22 and 26 years old, Fleiss between 17 and 20!

Roland, count d’Ursel (1926-2006) realised a series of portraits of the most notorious artists of his time between 1948 and 1952: we see, among others, Magritte, Ensor, Permeke, Alechinsky, Marcel Marceau and… Boris Vian. Boris Vian poses in his studio with a surrealist self-portrait – Vian was certainly influenced by surrealism and absurdism, he joined the College de Pataphysique as early as 1953.

Marcel Fleiss (b 1934) is best known today as founder & director of the renowned Galerie Quatre Mouvements (founded with the encouragement of none other than Man Ray) and the Galerie 1900-2000 in Paris, but less well known is that between 1951 and 1954, he realised a brilliant series of images in the Jazz clubs of Paris and New York. The young Marcel Fleiss was sent to New York by his parents to learn the craft of ‘pelletier’ (furrier). He had already been introduced to Jazz in the music clubs of Saint Germain before his departure, but in New York he was in the right place at the right time. Originally he was refused entry to Birdland because they served alcohol and he was just 17, but he promised the owner he would only drink soft drinks. Once inside, he started taking photos of the performances, the enterprising young man soon befriended jazz musicians, and he sent reviews and photos of concerts to Jazz Hot, the official organ of the Hot Club de France. Besides Birdland, he also regularly visited the Apollo and Down Beat. The concerts he saw would make any jazz lover dream: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, Billy Taylor, John Lewis, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, Lee Konitz, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford, Stan Getz, Milt Jackson, Art Blakey, Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan.

In 1954, he was drafted (obliged to fulfil his military service) and had to return to France, but his musical tastes also changed: he became fascinated by Brazilian music – which immediately marked the end of his visits to Jazz clubs and his ‘photographic career’ – the images disappeared into a drawer for 50 years… Marcel Fleiss did not make the acquaintance of Boris Vian, although they both wrote for Jazz Hot –

In 2007, Fleiss was hailed at a Getty Research Institute colloquium as a pioneer of “high-contrast concert photography” along with William Claxton (1927-2008), but we had to wait until 2018 to see a first exhibition of a selection of his images. Today, a nice selection is on show at Galerie Rossaert in Antwerp.

Small exhibition on a striking time segment and an important figure in cultural history, which also sheds light on two photographers such as Marcel Fleiss and Roland d’Ursel.


Boris Vian (1920-1959) till Sunday, 25 June 2023

Nosestraat 7
2000 Antwerpen

The exhibition is spread over the ground and the three upper floors of house Rossaert, and may be less accessible to people with reduced mobility.

Opening hours from Fridays to Sundays from 1pm till 6pm
+32 0477 55 10 28
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