Jacques Henri Lartigue, Bibi au restaurant d’Eden Roc, Cap d’Antibes, 1920 © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL. Courtesy of Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue
Jacques Henri Lartigue didn’t read Proust until he was in his seventies: that’s to say, in the mid-to-late 1960s, some years after his belated ‘discovery’ in France and following his 1964 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Who knows whether the photographer — feted in old age as a boyish time-traveller from the start of the century — ever finished À la recherche du temps perdu? I suspect not: he still had his own diary pages to fill daily, all the young photographers wanted to meet him, and in Paris, London and New York there were girls in miniskirts he simply had to photograph, lest he forget.
Lartigue left us this comment on the writer: ‘I admire Proust enormously, but he was a man of the night, and I am a man of the day.’ He wasn’t only referring to their social and working habits — the Ritz and the bedroom versus aerodromes and the beach at Biarritz — but a fundamental matter of temperament and memory. Where Proust knew that the tides of time dumped fragments of the past unpredictably on the shores of recall (why this teacup, this madeleine, this teeming return? why now?), poor little Jacques wanted complete control: over what to remember, and what to forget. Why did Lartigue wait so long to read À la recherche, and then very likely just because everybody now told him there must be some affinity? Perhaps because all along he had had his own madeleine — or rather, Madeleine, whom he had tried very hard to fix in his memory, and then to forget.
“The world these pictures show is still that of a turn-of-the-century aestheticism, as if Lartigue the lover is performing a preciousness or sensitivity he knows is not really his — or hers.”
It is said that she disliked having her photograph taken. (Of how many great photographers’ ‘muses’ must this have been true?) When Lartigue met Madeleine Messager, known as Bibi, in 1917, he described her in his diary as ‘a sweet little thing who leaves you quite indifferent to her charms’. By the time they married in 1919 he had already photographed her many times, notably in the Autochromes that he eventually gave up because the process was so static and slow. The colours, starchy and muted like dust-laden jewels, suit this first phase of their decade-long collaboration: Bibi awash with lacustrine light, or lost among pale pink roses. Proust, with his allergies and asthma, would have fainted dead away amid all that pollen; but the world these pictures show is still that of a turn-of-the-century aestheticism, as if Lartigue the lover is performing a preciousness or sensitivity he knows is not really his — or hers.
Jacques Henri Lartigue, Voyage de noces a l’Hotel des Alpes, 1920 © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL. Courtesy of Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue
Bibi and Jacques became properly modern in of all places the Romantic redoubt of Chamonix: Wordsworth’s and Ruskin’s favoured site for feelings of light-headed awe. But honeymooning in January 1920 at the Hôtel des Alpes, the couple hardly cared about the touristic sublime outside; Lartigue was too busy forcing into his memory the impressions of a morning with Bibi. Here she is, half awake, sitting up in bed with her breakfast things, while he clambers in for a closeup. He snaps her sitting on the toilet; the angle is low, so we may guess that her ambiguous expression is less one of mock disapproval than amused distrust: he smiles at her over the camera, but she knows what he’s up to. He performs the same trick while she’s in the bath, but more elaborately this time, placing his face in a mirror and framing his wife in the bathroom doorway. Half dressed by the wardrobe mirror, she gives in again to his playful attention: after all, they’re alone here on this alpine morning, and nobody else will ever see these pictures, or steal these memories away.
Lartigue’s honeymoon photographs are among his most intimate and affecting, in part because for the first and maybe last time Bibi seems fully present, because despite all the energy and allure of the pictures he took of their life together in the next decade, he seems in these subsequent pictures to want to make her vanish. Consider one of the last Autochromes he took of her, later in 1920: Bibi au restaurant d’Eden Roc, Cap d’Antibes. Half the squarish frame is made of solid mediterranean light, falling through the huge windows, flattening the coastline behind her head. The restaurant table is a still life with roses and wine bottle, the silver coffee pot and glass vases almost wiped out by the sun. The chairs are agleam, the carpet an abstract study in the harshest of shadows. And Bibi? She is scarcely more than a bare arm and a chin; her big hat with its solid hyphen of a hatband has nearly erased her from view.
Jacques Henri Lartigue, Bibi à Londres, 1926 © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL. Courtesy of Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue
Time and again in Lartigue’s photographs from the 1920s — I almost wrote ‘Lartigue’s work’, but for him it was never that — Bibi seems to fade out from the gilded milieu, the life of cosseted adventures, that her husband longed to fix forever. Here she is again in London, in 1926, stranded between traffic and crowd, detached from ‘that vast republican army of anonymous trampers’ (as Virginia Woolf put it four years later in her essay ‘Street Haunting’). Allowing for the fact that Lartigue was in love with his new panoramic camera, which encouraged such compositions, it is still amazing how frequently she is isolated in the scene, a distant mote or shadow. Near the end of the decade, in Marseille, she’s an anxious blur in the bottom right corner, while two vast liners in perfect focus threaten to steam her out of shot.
Jacques Henri Lartigue, Bibi, Marseille, 1928 © Ministère de la Culture-France/AAJHL. Courtesy of Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue
By his own lights, Lartigue was above all a photographer of happy memories — and who could deny the careless energy and languid moments that he and Bibi clearly share in so many of his images? But the idyll was short-lived, and she it seems knew that before he did. His childlike desire to capture and recapture all — including the idea of his own childhood — is a kind of delirium, so that at times he seems like the lover of another Madeleine: the fatal blonde of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Except of course that when the time came and Bibi divorced him in 1931, Lartigue fretted for a while in his diary and then let her go — not quite indifferent now, he had whole albums full of ghosts to be getting on with.
Brian Dillon’s books include Sanctuary (Sternberg Press, 2011), Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (Penguin, 2009) and In the Dark Room (Penguin, 2005). He writes regularly for the Guardian, the London Review of Books, frieze and Art Review. He is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and reader in critical writing at the Royal College of Art. A collection of his essays, Objects in This Mirror, is published by Sternberg Press in November 2013.