Pearly muse

For some time the French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) had believed she was a Mexican. He first met her on March 6, 1930, probably in the late afternoon, in Passy, Paris, when she crossed his path, wearing a parasol. He would nickname her ‘my parasol’. She made an impression; at twenty-six she was tall, slim, and elegant, with a slightly provocative style of her own.

The next evening he took her out to dance. When she made her entrance she wore a fur coat and long gloves. Her name was Renee Perle, she was a Jewish girl from Romania. Her long neck and ‘dark porcelain eyes’ fascinated him, and when they danced her hair, though short and slick in the Gay Twenties way, touched his mouth as well as hers. By now he must have learned that she worked as a fashion model for a Parisian couturier. That explained her looks and her self-assured manner of the coquette. Renee Perle would become Lartigue’s muse. She also was his mistress, for the next two years, but in the very first place she was his muse. If a camera can caress, his camera certainly caressed her. And if a camera can seduce, she certainly was seduced by his. In 1930 and 1931 she would, for many hours, be looking into Lartigue’s lens like a female Narcissus, as if that lens were a reflecting pond. She probably distracted him from making his usual, now iconic, photographs of dazzling car races, clumsy aeroplanes, lanky tennis players, and numerous people in free movement, jumping or diving as if they didn’t notice they were somewhat overdressed for the occasion. His photo’s seemed to freeze them in mid-air, just like they seemed to make the upper-class ladies float a few inches above the walks of the Bois de Boulogne.

Lartigue took his beautiful Renee to the beaches and the beau monde of Biarritz, Cannes, and Juan-les-Pins. These must have been endless summers of doing nothing in particular. In this sunny world of uncertain glamour, this Tender is the Night atmosphere, he created his pictures of her. We see her wearing enormous flapping hats, slim fit shirts, and baggy trousers that make her seem sporty in that particular female way. Then again she’s wrapped in fur, posing on a balcony not far from the sea. Or she sits in an open window, in white flannel, Riviera pines in the background. Other photographs, taken inside and therefore darker, show the mystique of her face, sometimes half covered by a sensual veil. Always there is this contrast between her large nightclub eyes and her small mouth with the peculiarly curved upper lip. To catch the camera’s attention, she performed as the femme fatale, or, stretching her long legs on a couch, as a Matisse odalisque, bringing out her feline qualities.

Her appearance was her artistic instrument, and purely by her looks she succeeded in creating a unique mixture of Parisian chic, bathing beauty, femme fatale, emancipated flapper, and avant garde muse. Especially the black nail varnish she used and the bracelets she heaped on her wrists added an exotic modernity to complete her style. She liked to paint, and when she took up the brush it was to create self-portraits. Obviously, she was herself fascinated by her appearance, no less than Lartigue.
These photographs are not the result of a creative man – Lartigue – registering the passive beauty of a woman. They are the result of co-creation. Maybe this is what a muse does: in her repeated posing it is her ongoing effort at self-creation and self-invention that inspires the artist. A pearl shines both out and in.

Today, Renee Perle is on Facebook. Her own process of self-creation has stopped, probably long before she died, in 1977. Whoever put her, posthumously, on Facebook must somehow have understood that our modern media open up the possibility to continue a person’s process of inventing his or her image, and of exposing it, brilliantly, in the name of that person.