My encounter with Alexey Brodovitch
As a teenager, portrait photography fascinated me. It was at age 20, when my life was consumed with images that I discovered in conjunction with Avedon and Penn’s works, the work of Alexey Brodovitch‘s layouts. The November 1982 issue of “PHOTO” magazine chronicled his life as an art director and his American epic at Harper’s Bazaar.
In February 2017, for the purposes of a television reportage to which I participated, I learned of the passage between 1942 and 1945 of Georges Brodovitch, younger brother of Alexey in Oppède-le-vieux. Later, following my research, I discovered Alexey’s link with this village. In fact, as early as 1938, he owned an oil mill and a Priory-located above-in which he wanted to teach art to students. The advent of the second world war stopped this project. Despite the quality of the information that I had, through the academic works of Nathalie Cattaruzza or those of Gabriel Bauret, it was impossible for me to grasp the reasons for the return of Brodovitch to Oppède-le-vieux in 1966 and the end of his life in Le Thor.
Today, with regard to the presence of Alexey Brodovitch in this department of Vaucluse he loved so much, it is clear that it has gone completely unnoticed! Indeed, to this day, no street, no cultural center or art school, no plaque affixed to one of his houses evokes his memory. At the communal cemetery of Le Thor where he is buried, there is nothing; Before I came to the town hall, the civil registry was unable to locate the place of his burial!
From Camus to Picasso, via André Lhote and Dora Maar or closer to us, Yves Bonnefoy, Henri Cartier-Bresson, François Nourissier or Jean Lacouture among others, this region of the Luberon has always recognized the legitimacy of artists and people of letters that created or loved it; not one of them really vanished.
It is a little after 11 pm, this October 24, 2018. I am about to leave Michel Brodovitch, retired architect. His home is located on the heights of Avignon. We have just evoked a part of his family’s history and more precisely the itinerary of two men with unlikely destinies united by a fraternal bond. That of Georges his father, and that of his uncle Alexey. On the computer screen of my host, were scrolled several dozens of snapshots of a little over a century of family archives. Portraits and moments of happiness of a family of white Russians, captured between St. Petersburg, New York, Paris and Provence; There are also some sketches made by his uncle on yellowed paper. Faces nearby, side by side during one of his hospitalizations.
On this clement day of October 24, despite the deep intensity of the sky, I became aware of the culmination of the Indian summer. Under the impetus of the mistral, rare white clouds break off over the Rhone. Strangely, the distant, silent view of the high-speed train that crosses the bridge between the two banks of the river gives me a sense of calm. It is as if, steeped in this farandole of images, from this dominant point of view, I was able to follow the path of an arrow and know its purpose. But let’s go back to Michel’s family and especially to his uncle Alexey.
I first heard about Alexey Brodovitch in November 1982. An exhibition conceived at the initiative of photographer Georges Tourdjman had been devoted to him at the Grand Palais. Parallel to this event, Photo magazine published an article: “Brodovitch, tribute to the greatest artistic director of all time”. I discovered the existence of a man with an unusual destiny.
Born in Ogolichi, northwestern Russia in 1898, his father Cheslav, who came from a Polish aristocratic family, is a psychiatrist. His mother Ludmilla is an amateur painter.
In 1905, during the Russo-Japanese war, Brodovitch’s father was appointed director of a Japanese prison hospital. A professional transfer will lead the family to St. Petersburg where Cheslav will run a psychiatric facility. Having received an important legacy, the family lives very comfortably.
In 1914, on the eve of World War I, while he was supposed to enter the Academy of Arts, Alexey made a runaway and joined the Russian army. He is brought home by his father who finally acceded to his request in 1915; the year he joined the Corps des Pages, a military academy to train officers for the Tsar’s army. He obtained the rank of Lieutenant, then Captain and joined the Imperial cavalry on the battlefield.
Fighting the Bolshevik Reds in the ranks of the White Army, he was wounded in Odessa and convalesced in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus in 1918. There he met Nina Proskouiakoff, a nurse, who later became his wife.
A few months later, it is from Constantinople, where the family is reunited again, that they will depart for France.
Alexey Brodovitch chose to settle in Paris, in Montparnasse; he wanted to become a painter. Shortly after, Nina joined him and worked as a seamstress. They lived very modestly in a hotel room. While working as house painter, Alexey attended Vasilyev Academy with Altman and Chagall. He obtained his first work in 1920, hired by Serge Diaghilev to paint the sets for the famous Ballets Russes. Brodovitch met many personalities, Picasso, Matisse, Léonor Fini, Cocteau and befriended Salvador Dali. Starting in 1922, his work is noticed, he started selling his paintings, realized sets of fabrics, porcelain, crystal for Parisian houses such as Rodier, Poiret, Bianchini, and regularly intervened on behalf of the Tolmer printers, Deberny-Peignot and Draeger. This period is decisive in his approach to illustration and typography.
In 1924, he won a poster contest sponsored by Picasso for the Bal Banal of March 24. His son Nikita was born on August 5th of that year. In 1925 Alexey Brodovitch participated in the international exhibition of modern decorative and industrial arts. He received several awards that allowed him to approach a career as a “commercial artist” by creating, for example, as early as 1926, interior design and graphic work for the Prunier restaurant as well as advertising posters for Martini, Le Printemps, Le Bon Marché, as part of his collaboration with the advertising agency Maximilien Vox.
In 1928, Brodovitch was hired by Robert Block, director of the Trois Quartiers art studio, Athélia. He quickly became the artistic director of this structure, but also of its annexes Madelios and Medith. He nonetheless continued to produce independent advertising posters signed “Atelier A.B”.
In 1929, he created “Le Cercle” an association to promote the work of commercial artists.
The Brodovitch family moved to the United States in 1930. Alexey taught photography and advertising graphics at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. He also pursued his job as an independent graphic artist and his activity as a painter. His works were exhibited in 1933 at the Crillon Gallery in Philadelphia. He began organizing a think tank at the Philadelphia Museum School called the Design Laboratory, where students and professional artists from theater, photography, design and fashion came together.
In 1934, he directed in New York the installation of the annual exhibition of the Art Director’s Club. His work was noticed by Carmel Snow, fashion editor of the magazine Harper’s Bazaar who invited him to take the artistic direction of the magazine. From then on, devoting himself to editorial design, Brodovitch’s quest will be to reform layout techniques by playing more with the visual content of printed space. Wishing to establish subtle relationships between typography, white space and photography, he re-appropriated a neo-classical obsolete font, the Bodoni, and established the principle of a dynamic within a double page, proposing sometimes a series of sequential images that incited the reader to enter into his own narrative discourse.
From 1935, he designed numerous catalogs, won several awards, organized exhibitions, became artistic director of Saks Fifth Avenue and I.Miller & Sons, then artistic advisor for government agencies such as the American Red Cross.
In 1945, he signed the layout of André Kertesz’s book “Day of Paris”. The same year was published “Ballet”. This is a book of photographs taken by Brodovitch during performances of the Ballets Russes in the United States between 1933 and 1937. The avant-garde approach of the book, including an essay by the poet Edwin Denby, is considered disconcerting; the publisher published only a few hundred copies. Indeed, all that is proscribed in the conventional discourse of the photograph of spectacle of the time is used to enrich the artistic approach of the author. Equipped with a 35mm camera and high-sensitivity films, Brodovitch captured the low ambient light . Confronted the violence of backlighting to capture the fluidity of entrechats, dared the blurs induced by times of poses lengthened on some whipped pirouette, or the stealth of a high kick. Hiding in the shadow of the velvet curtain, it is with kindness that he reveals an attentive female profile behind the scenes. His technique and his angles of view are unusual, he is inventive, brilliant.
In just over two decades, Alexey Brodovitch had become the archetype of the modern art director and mentor to a whole generation of photographers, from Diane Arbus to Georges Tourdjman via Lisette Model, Man Ray and George Hoyningen – Huene among others. . After 24 years as the creative director of Harper’s Bazaar, his repertoire of visual realisations was colossal; he had explored everything: large double white pages with reiterations for Brassaï or Munkácsi, parity embellished with banner headings for Avedon and Penn, diagonal pagination for Henri Cartier-Bresson or Blumenfeld, or dimensional contrasts for Hiro and Kertesz.
Between 1949 and 1951 he was editor-in-chief and artistic director of the graphic arts journal Portfolio. In 1953, he worked on a number of occasions at Yale University’s Department of Design and Architecture.
From 1958, Alexey’s health deteriorated. At the same time, the collaborative and entrepreneurial spirit he had always shown to the Hearst family, owner of Harper’s Bazaar, started to run out of steam. Often absent, taken with alcool, his duties as artistic director were affected. He left Citizen Kane’s press group the same year and left fashion and advertising. From then on,his existence, which could have been described as romantic, is going to experience a series of vicissitudes. In 1959 Brodovitch devoted a part of his time to the layout of Richard Avedon’s “Observations”. Taken to the pinnacle by all critics this book prefaced by Truman Capote became a great commercial success, but little by little, the loss of his job, the burning of his home in East Hampton, the death of his wife Nina in 1960s made him sink into a long depression and lead him to make several stays in psychiatric hospital. However, he carried out rare projects: David Attie’s Saloon Society in 1960, a poster for the Container Corporation of America, as part of the “Great Ideas of Western Man” campaign in 1962. As of that date, his interventions in the Design Laboratory became sporadic; he also signed his last collaboration working on the layout of Pedro Guerrero’s book on Calder in 1966. Being unable to honor any order, he definitively left the United States that same year, to return to France at the request of his brother Georges. Alexey and his son Nikita moved to a house in the hamlet of Petitons in Oppède-le-Vieux.
He died at Le Thor in 1971. This revelation in the article of the magazine Photo published in 1982 raised questions that remained long pending until, by chance, in February 2017, for the needs of a television reportage in which I participated, I looked briefly at the history of Oppède-le-Vieux.
The period 1939-1942 caught my attention. It concerned a community of artists and architecture students who came to the free zone in 1940 to flee Nazism. There were, among others, Consuelo de Saint-Exupery and Bernard Zehrfuss, Albert Remy and his wife Yliane, Florent Margaritis, Etienne Martin and a certain Georges Brodovitch, brother of Alexey. These young people were ambitious to raise the village in ruins. The “Oppède Group” counted up to 37 members, but in January 1945 they were only five following the departure of their leader Bernard Zehrfuss in 1942.
In the course of my investigations, I discovered that Alexey, wishing to help his American students discover Provence, had preceded so to speak his younger brother by buying a priory of the twelfth century and an oil mill, a few months before, in 1938. However, the fraternal epic aborted, the stigmas of the utopia of Georges and his acolytes continued for a while. The Provençal Design Laboratory of Alexey never saw the light of day because of the war and the success that his editorial and advertising work encountered across the Atlantic.
Handicapped by the effects of a fractured hip that occurred a few months before his departure to France, Alexey was able to embark on a long and expensive renovation of the Priory of Oppède-le-Vieux. The latter was sold on March 22, 1969 to Count Pierre De Beaumont. The sale of this property allowed Brodovitch to acquire a modest single-storey house in the village of Le Thor. Little concerned with the material aspect of things, but very attached to family values, the coming together in Avignon, of the family of Georges, his younger brother and friends photographers or artists made his life less difficult than what it could have been in New York.
Today, I tried to meet people who knew him there, in Provence. In early summer 2018, I met Raymond, too young at the time to have memories of the years 1968-1971. We walked towards a walled garden where we met Marie and Robert, a couple of octogenarians.
“Yes, Russian photographers! They lived there, at number 179, at the time it was not indicated … Sometimes the son went to photograph people in the village, we felt all excited! The elderly gentleman was a courteous but discreet man. In the early days, we saw them a lot, they sometimes received the visits of people equipped with cameras, and then later, following an amputation, the youngest of the two men became very handicapped! We could see him falling from his wheelchair and trying to get up, but it is a long time ago now … They were both very sick. At the end, some time before his death, the old man barely stood up and walked with two canes. It was so sad … “
I was about to say goodbye to the couple when I heard the noise of commotion on the other side of the street. A young woman with her children came out of number 179. Without hesitation, I went to meet her and clumsily explained my errand …
Sandra brought me into her house, it was dark. I had trouble talking, if only briefly. A few words come to my mind in a messy refrain, I tried to gather them: it is this precept delivered to students by Professor Brodovitch “Starts without a camera, cut out a window in a piece of cardboard. Observe, find out what you are going to photograph.” Unconsciously, I applied the instructions.
Behind this imaginary gap, space is circumscribed, there is like a tunnel, and probably from my imagination, some flickering reflections, witnesses of an invisible presence. The walls of this little house where Alexei finished his days have no windows east to west, on the north side, the door overlooks an avenue used by cars. Beyond the veranda to the south, is a modest garden stretching all the way to the railroad.
Sandra and I talk about photography: I show her two portraits of Alexey published. That of Tony Ray-Jones from 1968, taken in Oppède-le-Vieux, on which he seems amused to be licked by “Hop”, the small dachshund of Nikita, installed in his arms. And then another, more tragic, probably seized here, in this house, standing in front of a neutral background. This photo of Richard Avedon, dated February 9, 1970 shows a cacochyme. Cigarette in hand, perched on crutches, he is lanky, ready to blend in with the immaculate whiteness of the background.
I probably should have felt reassured at the end of this meeting, but in the depths of myself, I fumbled on incongruous details, related to the end of Alexey’s journey. I decided to return to Oppède-le-vieux.
René De Beaumont, owner of the Priory was kind enough to give me access to what was the pride of his father and the illusion of Alexey. The front door on the north side is like the majestic facade. As I enter, I am struck by the infinite height of the vault. To reach the cloister above, you have to cross thick polished slabs. We walk in the grassy yard before we sit down for a few moments under the arcades to look at photo albums tracing the gigantic renovation work undertaken by two generations. At the end of the courtyard, between imposing rocks and some low walls following the espaliers is a narrow passage leading to a cottage located to the west. Right next to the entrance to it, a staircase, whose steps stuck to the outside wall gives access to a terrace with panoramic views. In the distance, on the north side, we can see the pale summit of Mont Ventoux, Gordes and, further to the east, the village of Ménerbes. A stone’s throw to the west, stands the medieval fortress and closer to me still, as laid on the rocky spur, the Collegiate Church of Notre Dame d’Alidon. I can not take my eyes off the sweetness that emanates from the valley further south; from below the crest, it is populated with cedars, oaks, pines and secular junipers that seem to emerge from a mist of incense. This sacred view could very well have been sketched by a Chinese painter. No doubt soothed by so much serenity and by this perfect mineral and vegetable equation, it was legitimate for Alexey – at the time in his forties – to have chosen this idyllic place to set up his “Design Laboratory” because this place is undeniably conducive to reflection, for work and for creation.
Shortly after, I made contact with Bénédicte Tourdjman. The latter gave me valuable informations and the coordinates of one of her photographer friends: Jean-Claude Dewolf.
Jean-Claude and I cordially exchanged phone calls, he told me he had photographic testimonies of his visits to Alexey. His words are clear and his memories extremely precise; it troubles me. Shortly before concluding he asked me:
“Did Benedict tell you that Alexey had died in my arms? No, I did not know …
Had he lacked clairvoyance ?, he who had hitherto been able to impose on his destiny a straight line without pitfalls? Certainly not … At the height of his art, this wealthy man will successively own: an apartment in New York, a second home in Connecticut, a farm in Pennsylvania, a property in East Hampton, a Priory and an oil mill in Provence! Unfortunately, none of these properties will become the scene of a peaceful retirement. Three were destroyed by fires and one of those Oppède-le-Vieux, in this year 1966 is only ruins. Brodovitch could not escape unscathed from all these vicissitudes; but who could have?
On this afternoon of Thursday, April 15, 1971, the ultimate chapter, to these five years of forced exile, ended definitively, at the antipodes worldliness.
A short time ago, wanting to pay hommage to the tomb of Alexey, I went again to the Thor, with in hand, as a plan, the detailed photographic testimony that Jean-Claude, present at the funeral, had kindly send. One sees in particular, about twenty persons sheltered with umbrellas, following a funeral procession going towards the cemetery, and some snapshots seized along a patinated wall. This is happening in the grayness of a rainy spring day and, strangely, the drops of water and moisture did not fog the lens of the Leica.
I try to locate the place with the help of the photographs but there is nothing, no name, nor tombstone, the high cypresses which I see on the other side of the wall on the left part of the test were cut off …
Several unsuccessful attempts made me give up because even in the town hall they did not know. Finally, by enlarging a detail on one of the photos taken during the burial – between an umbrella and four men bending to put the coffin in the ground – I glimpsed a name affixed to a dark wooden cross, that of the neighboring tomb.
Alexey Brodovitch’s grave is there, I told myself, just below that Valerian flower standing on its stem. Even if he had not been looking for light and flamboyance for a long time in his provencal retreat, Jean-Claude’s photographs contributed to the fact that this arid rectangle of anonymous land will not fall definitively. in oblivion.
I welcomed the conclusion of this story, on the threshold of this invisible stele, as a humble wink of fate. But who remembers Brodovitch today, I asked? and Bénédicte told me:
The world of photography will never forget him, he has sown the world of art with his genius for eternity.
I am especially thankful to: Bénédicte Tourdjman, Jean-Claude Dewolf, Michel Brodovitch, Victorine de Beaumont and the civil service of the commune of Thor of their precious help as well as Nathalie Cattaruzzaand Gabriel Bauret whose work helped me to progress in my research.
1Georges Brodovitch (1912-1981) French architect behind the “Groupe d’Oppède”, led many projects in Morocco, France and the United States
2George Tourdjman (1935-2016) French photographer student of Brodovitch in New York in the 60s
3 Nina Proskouiakoff-Brodovitch (1898-1960)
4 Sergey Diaghilev’s approach influenced Brodovitch, whose entire career consisted of interacting with different categories of artists and having them collaborate with each other.
5 These courses were held in New York during the period 1933-1966, Brodovitch wanted to continue the experience at home in Provence. Until the end of his life he had the desire to transmit.
6 Writer, poet and American dance critic (1903-1983)
7 Press mogul William Randolph Hearst inspired this dramatic film directed and performed by Orson Welles in 1940.
8 American writer (1924-1984)
9 American photographer (1920-1982)
10 Mexican photographer (1917-2012)
11 Nikita Brodovitch (1924-1988)
12 Luberon village located in the Vaucluse department
13 Municipality located in the department of Vaucluse
14 Zehrfuss leaves Oppède in November 1942 to reach North Africa and the Free French Forces
15 Pierre De Beaumont (1910-1995) French diplomat, writer and translator
16 René De Beaumont (1941) French historian
17 The wife of photographer Georges Tourdjman, who was a pupil of Brodovitch in New York
18 French advertising photographer born in 1937
19 1938: Fire from his second home in Connecticut.
1956: Fire from his home in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.