Even those ones among us who are not into fashion probably remember a classic black and white image of a graceful model elegantly posing in Christian Dior's iconic "Bar" suit in 1947. That perfectly structured jacket nipped at the waist matched with a wide skirt that broke with the austere styles dictated by World War II officially launched the "New Look", propelling fashion into a new era and gaining Dior worldwide fame. But that image is important also for another reason - it introduces many of us to the art of Willy Maywald.
A new exhibition opening today at the Atelier-Musée du Chapeau (the restored plant of French felt hat maker Fléchet) in Chazelles-sur-Lyon, France, celebrates Willy Maywald through portraits of models and other interesting icons all wearing hats.
Entitled "Willy Maywald, Hommage aux Chapeaux 1936-1968" ("Willy Maywald, Tribute to Hats 1936-1968"), the show, curated by Jutta Niemann, member of the Willy Maywald Association and an authority in the art of this photographer, features around 60 images.
Born in Germany, Maywald studied in Cologne, Krefeld and Berlin, before moving in 1932 to Paris where he became the assistant of Polish photographer Harry Meerson. Living in Montparnasse, Maywald soon became part of the local bohemian scene photographing artists, dancers and Parisian fashion creations by designers such as Piguet and Schiaparelli, while chronicling the construction of the Palais de Chaillot for the 1937 Exposition Universelle. His work was also published in magazines like Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and Vanity Fair, but the Second World War marked a new adventure in his life. After being imprisoned in various camps for foreigners in Switzerland, he was allowed to work again in 1943 for publications in Zurich, and Basel.
At the end of the war he returned to Paris where he quickly resumed his career in photography, starting from fashion. One of the first photographers to take images of fashion models in the streets, and the exclusive photographer of Christian Dior (he had briefly met the designer already in 1936), Maywald also worked for other designers, documenting new collections by Jacques Heim, Jacques Fath, Madame Grès (in 1954 he took a picture of a caryatid-looking model with exposed breast wearing a Grès dress that perfectly shows the designer's classicism), Pièrre Balmain, Jeanne Paquin and Cristóbal Balenciaga.
He also continued taking portraits of painters, artists, musicians and actors (the list is long and includes Picasso, Fernand Léger, Nico, Marc Chagall, Le Corbusier, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Louis Barrault and Tamara Lempicka) and also shot architecture and interiors. Willy Maywald ended his career as a fashion photographer in 1968 with images for Pierre Cardin, Jean Dessès, Jeanne Lanvin, Nina Ricci, Jean Patou, and André Courrèges. The first major exhibitions of his work took place in Philadelphia and New York in 1981, and in Houston and New York in 1982, and he died in Paris in May 1985.
The images included in "Hommage aux Chapeaux 1936- 1968" are all perfectly staged proving he had a talent for image compositions with a sculptural quality about them. In Maywald's images the dual black and white palette usually turned into a hundred different nuances. Glamorous as ever, his models pose sitting at a table at an outdoor café, standing in the streets of the French capital or in an elegant interior. All of them are meticulously dressed and wear veiled designer hats that give them an air of mystery. Apart from being an elegant, sensual and poetic testament to his work, these photographs are important as snapshots of life in another time.
What kind of person was Willy Maywald?
Jutta Niemann: He was a very interesting and very human person and he treated everybody the same way. He knew a lot of very famous people, but there was no difference to him: once a week he had an open house and he invited everybody he knew and sometimes some people came who he didn't know, but it didn't make any difference to him.
You curated different exhibitions about Willy Maywald, what fascinates you about his work?
Jutta Niemann: When I took over his archives I was involved in other exhibitions and I didn't know a lot about his work. As I went on learning, I realised that his images were very interesting as they could be seen as vitally important documents of a time when nobody had access to all these different cultures and figures in France and it was very exciting to try and find out which international and famous people were close to him and how they worked together. He started in the '30s and always lived in Montparnasse and knew all the artists living there. He had his own studio and used to take images for reportages and publicity and take portraits of famous people as well. It was around the '30s that he also started taking fashion photos with designers such as Chanel and Schiaparelli. When he came back from Switzerland in 1946, Christian Dior was the first one who took him as one of his photographers, but he knew already quite a few designer who became famous in the '40s, like Jacques Fath or Jacques Heim.
What made him a good fashion photographer?
Jutta Niemann: He was already well known for his lighting and for the fact that he was very good at photographing textiles – when you look at his photos you know exactly what kind of fabric the design in the picture was made of.
Is there a garment by a specific designer that Maywald photographed that you particularly like?
Jutta Niemann: When I first started working on this archive, I began with the negatives as there were very few prints, and I went through a hundred thousand negatives in my work, so you can imagine it's difficult to pick just one. I think in each season I have at least ten photos which I just adore!
What kind of pictures were selected for the show in Chazelles-sur-Lyon?
Jutta Niemann: For what regards the exhibition at the Atelier-Musée du Chapeau in Chazelles-sur-Lyon, since that's a hat museum, we selected only portraits of models wearing hats, but there are very interesting photos as well of famous people wearing hats in different occasions like Marcel Marceau for example.
Why did Maywald move onto architecture and also interior design as the years passed?
Jutta Niemann: He used to say that one of the key events in his life after the war years was the death of Christian Dior in 1957. After that fashion photography started changing a lot for Maywald. When things change you have to move on, but Maywald had a very classic style. So, aside from fashion photography, he also took portraits of artists such as Picasso and Chagall, then he got interested in decoration and architecture and, after the '50s, he started taking more photos that focused on architecture or on the fascinating homes of interesting people.
Maywald also made several short films, have you ever seen them?
Jutta Niemann: He did three films, I have only two, one is about Montparnasse and it was in colour and another one was a sort of surreal film, with several abstract photos and images of people quickly changing. Unfortunately they were in a very bad condition because he never took care of them, and the original music doesn't exist anymore. I took them to some very good production houses and they said there is nothing you can do about them.
Will there be further Willy Maywald exhibitions in other countries soon?
Jutta Niemann: There was a very big exhibition of his work at the FIT in New York in 1982 that then went from there to Japan as well and there was a big show in Germany, plus further exhibitions featuring his portraits of artists. There are always ideas about new events as his images work at different levels.
Why is Willy Maywald important in our age and times?
Jutta Niemann: When I started working on this archive no one was interested in black and white photography, because it was all coming up in colour, but now black and white is important again and Maywald's works are particularly relevant because nothing was ever done to them. His images were not retouched, they're just photographs and they're all good and this is a key point since we're so used to retouched images that we often forget the importance of a simple photograph.
Willy Maywald, Hommage aux Chapeaux 1936-1968, 6th April to 15th September 2013, Atelier-Musée du Chapeau, Lyon, France.
Jacques Fath, white hat with swan feathers, Paris, 1951. © Association Willy Maywald / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010
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