From April 2 through June 1, 2019, the student-curated exhibition “Intentional Exposure: Photography from the Permanent Collection,” was on view at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art in the Malinda Berry Fischer Gallery. Part of my Spring 2019 course on the history of photography and museum studies, the exhibition prompted a series of responses from students. Those responses will be featured on the blog throughout the next few months—starting with this post by art history MA student Catarina de Araújo.
My goal in this blog entry is to expand upon the exhibition label I wrote for the photograph titled Mademoiselle Anita (1951) by Robert Doisneau (French. 1912-1994), which was on view in “Intentional Exposure” (OSU Museum of Art, April 2 – June 1, 2019).
Although Doisneau is mainly linked to straight photography and a photojournalistic style, his portrait of Anita has a mysterious, almost pictorial quality thanks to the out-of-focus people in the background, her feathery hair, and Doisneau’s dramatic use of light and dark values. All of these elements instill a magnetic and poetic quality in the work. More so, and which is true of all old photographs, we are drawn to the past by the trace of a person who may no longer exist.
While talking about this image with others, Édouard Manet’s painting, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), and Edgar Degas’ L’Absinthe (1875-76) were brought up in comparison to Mademoiselle Anita.
I wondered how much impact these works had on Doisneau. Was he carefully composing this photograph thinking about these French Impressionist painters? I assume that he was at least familiar with both Degas and Manet’s approach to a similar subject.
From day one, I felt drawn to this photograph, advocating for its inclusion in the show on several different occasions. I envision myself as her, sitting on the leather banquette, alone, arms crossed, gazing down. The punctum* here, for me, had to do with the personal feeling of being alone in a room filled with people: a deep sense of disconnect with the environment. So the story I invented for Anita was a familiar one. Urban girl sits in a quiet bar, coming down from a late night of partying elsewhere.
Later, it was brought to my attention that another print of this photograph included the following inscription, signed by Doisneau:
“Ce n’était sans doute pas son vrai prénom mais on l’appelait: ANITA un nom de dancing bien sûr. Elle avait vingt-ans – c’est à peu près tout ce que je sais d’elle – Il y a trente ans – Ne sombrons pas dans la mélancholie.”
Which roughly translates to: “This was probably not her real name but what she was called: Anita, a dancing name, of course. She was twenty years old – that is almost everything I know – this was thirty years ago – do not become melancholy.”
In the end, the story I made for Anita was most likely not the most accurate one, yet, it is still my favorite.
Catarina de Araújo
* To Barthes, unlike the studium which refers to our intellectual experience of any image, the punctum pierces us with an unexplainable, familiar feeling, deeply bonding us to the photograph (Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. 1st American ed.. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).