What I really wanted to be was a photographer pure and simple, dedicated to his art for art's sake, a denizen of the new world, which Man Ray had triumphantly discovered. Erwin Blumenfeld
Erwin Blumenfeld is perhaps best known for his fashion photography. He possessed a very distinct alter-ego, however, exemplified in his powerful 1937 study Dictator (sometimes titled Minotaur). Alexander Liberman considered Blumenfeld's photographs 'the most graphic and rooted in art' and, indeed, upon his arrival in Paris from Amsterdam in 1936, he immersed himself in his new cultural surroundings and enthusiastically photographed paintings, sculpture, tapestries, architecture and landscape. In March, after only two months in the city, Blumenfeld mounted a show of fifty images at Pierre Worm's Galerie Billiet on the rue de la Boëtie. Paul Valéry (despite Blumenfeld's rather unflattering portrait of him made shortly before), contributed a quotation from his book Idée Fixe for the invitation: 'What is deepest in man is his skin'. To this, Blumenfeld added: 'Through psychological photography one searches for the definitive portrait: as a consequence a new kind of beauty is discovered.'
This fresh approach attracted E. Tériade, publisher of the influential Surrealist magazine, Minotaure, who chose a number of Blumenfeld's photographs for the first two issues of his new art quarterly Verve, published in Winter 1937 and Spring 1938. Blumenfeld had 'arrived' on the French art scene, sharing magazine space with some of his most illustrious contemporaries - Man Ray, Ubac and Alvarez Bravo, not to mention the Old Masters, whom he revered.
Dictator is, of course, an expression of Blumenfeld's pronounced anti-Fascist views, although it is effected in a more direct way than his stark Hitlerfresse (Hitler's face imposed on a skull), a photomontage created in 1933 on the eve of Hitler's appointment as Chancellor. In Holland, Blumenfeld had used collage elements to achieve the complexity of his message. In Paris, however, he began to experiment with the immense technical possibilities offered by straight photography.
Dictator is a photograph with no such manipulation. It was composed of objects assembled by Blumenfeld in his studio where he kept a classical plaster torso and a swathe of silk fabric, a prop he used often to drape his beguiling nudes, notably the Nude under Wet Silk (see lot 219). The calf's head came from a local butcher.
Dictator shows us Blumenfeld the iconclastic rebel. He was by nature a humorous man with a keen sense of the ironic, characteristics rarely seen in his reverential photographs of women, but clearly evident in this powerful study.
Early prints of this important image, selected by Blumenfeld to be included in his Hundred Best Photographs, are extraordinarily rare. Blumenfeld was forced to flee France in 1941, leaving behind all of his negatives. Although he presumed them lost forever, almost miraculously some were returned to him after the war, including Dictator, printed at around this time after Blumenfeld had settled in New York. Also worth noting is that the photographer typically never signed or annotated his work. This print is not only titled and dated in the artist's hand, but bears an early Central Park South credit stamp.