The Personal Collection of Elsa Schiaparelli - Paris, January 2014

Horst and Man Ray

Horst P. Horst’s portrait of Elsa Schiaparelli dressed in one of her baroque-inspired hats and jacket with baroque frogging framed in a baroque mirror is one of the seminal images of the 20th Century. It shows Elsa at the height of her creative powers, a time in which she used such elaborate curving baroque shapes and embroideries married to crisp angled modernist silhouettes to create a perfect fusion of opposites. This important image is presented in this sale in its original Vogue studio mount, signed by the photographer himself.

Born in Germany, Horst P. Horst attended the Bauhaus as a young man and later in the l920’s went to Paris to work as an assistant to the modernist architect Le Corbusier. This was a hard time for the young German as Le Corbusier was making no money and his assistants were often so hard up they had to miss meals. ‘We had to eat weeds’ Horst later remembered. Horst took up photography, and being good looking and personable started to move in fashionable society, introduced by his friend the Baltic Baron and high fashion photographer Hoyningen Huene. He was soon spotted by Vogue’s talented art director of the time, Doctor Mehmet Agha who put him under contract to Conde Nast. All the way through the l930’s he turned out extraordinary modernist portraits of fashion designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli, film stars, social stars and landmark fashion photographs for Vogue, always using the drama imparted to such work by his favoured Tungsten lighting. This gave high, dramatic contrast to his work – a certain brooding shadowy yet liquid quality – presaging the tough days which lay ahead.

The surrealist photographer Man Ray, born in New York was in the early years of the century part of the avant garde circle that surrounded the photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his downtown 291 gallery. A circle that included Duchamp, And it was there, in New York where Elsa had fled when her first marriage broke down, that she first met this master photographer, probably introduced by another member of the avant garde and Dadaist circle, Gabby Picabia, the first wife of the painter Picabia. Arriving in Paris in the mid-twenties, Man Ray was introduced by Duchamp to the entire Dadaist and Surrealist cast of characters and soon became a well-known figure in avant garde Parisian circles which is where he would have met Elsa again.

The series of photographs here, taken by Man Ray when Elsa was first beginning to become very well known in Paris as a trailbreaking couturier, gives us a glimpse of the inner, contemplative Elsa as well as the outer chic model whom Man Ray turned into just as much an advertisement for her designs as was Chanel during the same period.

We see her in a series of photographs in a fluid evening dress with front pleats and gold starburst embroideries under the bust, looking very streamlined and modern. In one of these photographs the dress has a swansdown bolero over it. The portrait of her using the solarisation technique Man Ray had adopted captures Elsa’s inner intensity and what might be termed spiritual focus and highlights her delicate bone structure and hypnotic eyes emphasized by her short, elfin cap of hair. Elsa always loved furs and there is a wonderful fluid photograph of her in a beaver coat and her trademark knitted ‘madcap’ hat which she invented and which, after being worn by the actress Ina Claire sold millions of copies.

Portraits of Schiaparelli