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The Changing Faces of Fame

A Getty exhibition looks at two visions of celebrity through the lenses of 1850s French photographer Nadar and his 20th century Pop successor, Andy Warhol.

July 18, 1999|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Nadar did not say, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," but he could have. Although the notorious remark came from Pop artist Andy Warhol, its spirit is shared by the photographs of Nadar, the French photographer who made celebrities of the artists, writers and social theorists of the 1850s.

Striking parallels between the two artists led to the exhibition "Nadar / Warhol: Paris / New York," opening Tuesday at the Getty Museum, including about 40 photographs by each artist.

Gordon Baldwin and Judith Keller, associate curators in the museum's department of photography, conceived the exhibition as a way to gain fresh perspective on the artists' work and to look at the changing nature of fame. Baldwin, who focused on Nadar, says, "Each was the most important visual artist of his time to set out deliberately to create celebrity for his subjects." Keller, who selected the Warhol photographs, adds, "the studios of both artists were gathering places for the artists of their time."

Four years in the planning, the exhibition was conceived because the Getty owns some 350 prints by Nadar as a result of purchasing the Sam Wagstaff collection in 1984. The museum owned only one Warhol photograph when the idea for the show came up, but it has since acquired 13 more and has borrowed others from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and other institutions for the exhibition.

The curators felt the show would help less familiar pictures by Nadar gain currency, while also placing Warhol's photographs within a larger historical framework. "We decided this juxtaposition would help people look at Nadar in a different way," Baldwin says. "In addition, it is a chance to let people know about Warhol as a photographer.

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As they prepare to install the work in the galleries, the curators are reviewing the show's dozens of framed prints, for the moment installed on shelves in the streamlined, blond-wood study center of the museum's photography department. Nadar's sepia-toned likeness of famous 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt rests next to Warhol's close-cropped Polaroid of Liza Minnelli. Illustrator Gustave Dore, posed rakishly by Nadar with a checked scarf around his neck, is adjacent to Warhol's Polaroid of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, stylish in a red necktie and black leather jacket. Baldwin points out, "They [Dore and Mapplethorpe] are both young men on their way to being very successful artists, both were close friends of the photographers, both were ambitious and ultimately made rich by their work, and both died young."

Although these prints are in the exhibition, the curators don't belabor such comparisons, presenting each photographer in his own gallery.

Today, Nadar may not have the name recognition of Warhol, but he was very much a celebrity in 1950s Paris. Journalist and caricaturist Gaspard Felix Tournachon invented his pseudonym by changing his last name to Tournadar, then shortening it to Nadar. The son of a publisher who was slowly bankrupted by well-meaning but ill-conceived ventures, Nadar struggled to support himself in Paris. With friends like Dore and writer Alexandre Dumas, Nadar lived the impoverished but creative existence romanticized by writer Henri Murger in "Scenes From the Bohemian Life." The book inspired Puccini's 1896 opera "La Boheme," further mythologizing the notion of the noble but unappreciated genius artist.

With his lanky figure and bright red hair, Nadar was a whirlwind of productivity, writing and editing for small newspapers as well as providing illustrations. He reproduced his caricatures of 249 artists and writers, led by Victor Hugo, in a popular, self-promoting lithograph called "Pantheon Nadar."

After he had attained a certain financial stability, Nadar helped his younger brother set up a photography studio, but wound up taking over the business. Soon after he abandoned his other interests; his bohemian friends, who had also established their own successes, became his clientele. Within a few years, Nadar opened a larger portrait studio with his name in red letters emblazoned across the front of the building on the fashionable Boulevard des Capucines.

Like Warhol, Nadar flattered his sitters. In the 1850s, however, expectations were not terribly high. "If they had been daguerreotyped, they knew that every flaw would be recorded. Baudelaire rails against how unattractive they are," Baldwin says. Using a soft lens and salt prints, Nadar presented his sitters against a flat, white background, making the then-radical decision to remove clues as to social or professional standing.

Since Nadar knew most of his sitters, he was able to capture insightful and relaxed expressions. "A great virtue is that he was not interested in formal presentation," Baldwin says. "Partly, that is because a good many of them were friends and people he admired."

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