The Play of Life (Self-portrait)

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  • Provenance

    The collection of Tom Jacobson, San Diego

  • Exhibited

    The London Salon of Photography, 1931
    Pierre Dubreuil: Photographs 1896-1935, Musée d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 28 October 1987- 5 January 1988
    Pierre Dubreuil Rediscovered, The Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, 1988; Alliance Francaise, New York, 1989; The Detroit Institute of the Arts, 1990

  • Literature

    Mortimer, Photograms of the Year: The Annual Review of the World's Pictorial Photographic Work, 1931
    Jacobson, Pierre Dubreuil: Photographs 1896-1935, frontispiece there titled La comédie humaine/The Puppets (self-portrait)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Pierre Dubreuil was a master constructor of images. He did not “take” photographs, he “made” them. The man behind the mask in his masterpiece The Play of Life (Self-portrait), circa 1930 is the photographer himself. He is the wizard behind the scenes pulling the strings. French born, Dubreuil was an extremely astute photographer who created beautiful and complex images. He started as a Pictorialist in the first decade of the Twentieth Century, but by the time he made this self-portrait, and the other four photographs being offered as lots 174-176 and lot 179, Dubreuil was creating outstanding images of modern life that are multilayered in both their dynamic construct and in their meaning.

    T.S.F., circa 1928 (lot 179) is a constructed Modernist image that depicts life in relationship to new technology with an unusual perspective and layered meanings. Using a large format camera mounted on a tripod, Dubreuil cleverly angled his lens (and our focus) through the foreground of an opened case of a wireless radio (Transmission Sans Fils) - literally framing the image of a contemporary woman by the technology she is using. Peaking out from under the wildly popular new technology for transmitting communication is the (not so obvious) cover of Camera Work, Alfred Stieglitz’ quarterly magazine that carried overseas to amateur photographers such as Dubreuil the latest ideas in photography and modern art.

    At the time Dubreuil created The Play of Life (Self-portrait) and T.S.F. (lot 179) he was a Modernist living in Brussels, Belgium. His career began, as did Alfred Stieglitz’ who was eight years his senior, as a Pictorialist. But while other pictorial photographers favored domestic and rural scenes, both Stieglitz’ urban shots of New York City taken at the turn of the century and Dubreuil’s radically layered and juxtaposed images of Paris from 1908-1910 distinguished them as proto-modernists.

    In 1903 Dubreuil was elected into The Linked Ring, the highly regarded English photographic society that included the most respected photographers of that time including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Frederick H. Evans and Gertrude Käsebier. The goal of the Pictorialist movement was to ensure that photography be appreciated as an art form. They did this through the beauty of their prints and as seen in the present lot as well as lots 174 and 179, Dubreuil made stunningly beautiful prints. All three are oil prints, a process that was introduced in 1904 by G.E.H. Rawlins. Robert Demachy described the Rawlins oil process in Camera Work (which Dubreuil was an avid reader of) in 1906. The process uses dichromated gelatin -which when exposed to light will harden and subsequently accept oil-base ink. Dubreuil contact printed his 8 x 10 glass negatives on paper, and then applied ink with a brush to the developing photograph’s hardened and sticky surface. By hand-applying the oil-based ink, and using several applications of ink on the same print, he could darken or lighten the final print as he wished. Dubreuil was possibly the greatest master of the permanent process of oil printing with these three prints being superb examples.

    That Dubreuil continued to use the oil print process in the 1920s and early 1930s got him relegated to showing with the late Pictorialists in America, but by European standards his later photographs were considered radical and Modern. In America, Modernism in photography became defined by the rejection of the printing processes used by the Pictorialists. Alfred Stieglitz’ transformation to a Modernism is seen historically to have occurred at the time of his introduction of Paul Strand and the “straight” photographic print. Dubreuil never left the graphic softness of his beautiful oil prints, instead his European Modernism was defined by two movements that came to the forefront during the first decade of the 20th Century while Dubreuil was living in Paris: the fracturing and layering of an image introduced by Cubism; and the heightened movement created by modern technology as seen in cars, airplanes and motion pictures – and exalted by the Futurists.

    Dubreuil was an amateur photographer who battled for self-expression, first against the conservative faction of Pictorialism, and later as a Modernist. He was always recognized, but his unique and complex art was never completely understood. When The Play of Life (Self-portrait) was first exhibited in London in 1931, under the title “Puppets”, an astute critic wrote, “Dubreuil provides an instance of his freakishness and something to puzzle us with speculation as to his motive.” This is on the mark. Dubreuil embraced the bizarre, reveled in eccentricity, and challenged his viewers with his puzzle pictures. More questions are raised than answered. In Defensively, (lot 174), the question is: where is this boxer fixing his gaze? Is he cowering low, looking up at his opponent, or is he facing his opponent straight on? In T.S.F. (lot 179) where is the woman’s other arm? Where is her other leg? What is the meaning of the drunken puppets in “The Play of Life”? Who is actually pulling the strings? Are they not attached and fixed? These are the hallmarks of Dubreuil’s art of ambiguity.

    All of the Dubreuil works being offered (lots 171-176 and lot 179) come from the collection of the Dubreuil authority, collector and photographer Tom Jacobson, who after much research was able to unearth a treasure trove of Dubreuil’s masterful early Pictorial and later Modernist photographs. In 1987 Jacobson’s findings reignited interest in Dubreuil’s work through an international travelling exhibition, which opened in Paris at the Musée d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue Pierre Dubreuil Photographies 1896 -1935.

    The present lot is believed to be one of only two known prints of this image and the only known oil print (exhibition print). The other known print of this image is a proof contact print, on printing out paper. Further, Dubreuil's diapositive of this image is included in lot 172.

173

The Play of Life (Self-portrait)

circa 1930
Oil print.
9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in. (25.1 x 20 cm)
The artist's monogram on the recto; signed, titled 'The Play of Life' and annotated in pencil on the verso.

Estimate
$80,000 - 120,000 

Contact Specialist
Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head, Photographs

Sarah Krueger
Head of Sale, New York

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Photographs

New York Auction 8 October 2015