A secondhand book found in Paris takes Elodie Rose Barnes on a curious foray into the fantastical Studio Manassé, a portraiture business that specialised in glamorously surreal and, at times, problematic photographs of women.
The woman stands in close-up. Only the top part of her body is in the frame, and her body is placed against a background of darkness speckled with tiny lights like stars. Her bare skin is covered in the lacy shadows of flowers and leaves: a pattern that drapes over her like a clinging dress and extends over her hair like a veil pulled back. Her face, milky-white, betrays a subtle desire with closed eyes, heavy kohl, full lips. Nothing is obvious. Everything is drenched in half-light. Yet the erotic is powerful. She isn’t so much lost in her own longing as leading the way. The viewer is simply invited to watch.
Reality or fantasy, art or glamour? Or are they all the same? I’m hovering in between words, spaces, times; the dusty back corner of a secondhand bookshop in Paris and a small studio in interwar Vienna, a battered soft back art book held open in my hands, the creation of an image and the creation of a reality. I say creation, because very few photographs are ever just taken. Very few realities are ever simply there. But for the moment I forget reality and look at the image. In the chimerical journey from plain photograph to glamour shot, this woman has been cropped, retouched, painted over. Painstakingly, she has been transformed from the real to the surreal. Who is this woman? And who created her?
The image is simply called Study (1935). It’s signed, in the bottom right corner, Manasse Wien. Study has no name, but there is a little information about the photographers behind the image. Olga Wlassics (or Vlassics, in some spellings) was born in 1895 in a small town on the Danube River, not far from Budapest. Her father was Vilmos Spolarics, her mother Anna Pavlidesz. Beyond that, nothing is known about her family. Her husband and business partner, Adorján Wlassics, was born in 1893 into a military family, and served in World War One before setting up a photography business in Budapest in late 1918. They married in November 1920 in Vienna and opened their photography studio there not long afterwards. In the late 1930s, they opened additional studios in Budapest and Berlin; in 1940 they moved themselves to Berlin, but after air raid damage returned to Austria, and were back near Vienna by the end of the war. Adorján died in 1947 after illness. Olga continued the studio until her own death in 1969.
There is no personality in the facts. There very rarely is. The only place to look for that – the only place the Wlassics left – is the photographs, and even then, nothing is certain. The pages of the book are shiny, snagged at the corners with age and handling, (whose else’s fingers)? Glossy images glint in the low light. Dip the book to the left or the right and a different element is revealed, a sharper angle, a deeper shadow. In the heady years between the wars, Olga and Adorján made a name in portraits – but these were not just any portraits. For a price, Studio Manassé transcended the everyday. Movie and theatre actresses, cabaret singers, vaudeville stars, models, and even society women came to the studio to be transformed. This was the ‘golden age’ of cinema; people were in thrall to the drama and exoticism and the Wlassics provided them with the fairytale. For some, it was an escape. For others, it was a chance to be noticed, a chance to have their publicity photographs stand out from the crowd. For everyone, it was the perpetuation of a fantasy. As well as the plainly erotic, Olga and Adorján seemed to delight in the surreal, in jokes, in role-playing, in cliché. There are women as dolls, as mermaids, as tiny figures plucked like lumps of sugar from coffee cups. Masks, feathers, and whips abound, as do minuscule women in boxes or cages (often with a pair of male hands in the frame, ostensibly for scale). Men are giants, women are nymphs; in My Snail (c1930), a nude woman is seen emerging gracefully from a snail shell while a man, stern and bespectacled, looks on through a magnifying glass. The nudity comes as standard: in most of the images the woman is either completely or almost naked.
Such provocative, elaborate fantasies required artistry. As a studio, Manassé made extensive use of retouching techniques, not only to exaggerate the dream but to evade the censor. Pubic hair was often painted out. Backgrounds were painted in when the studio couldn’t provide the kind of exotic kitsch that the image required, and the models themselves were smoothed over, thinned out, made smokier and sultrier than they actually were. There is no indication that either Adorján or Olga had any kind of formal art or photography training, nor is there any indication of who did what in the studio. It unsettles me, in a way, this unknowing, because for me photography – as well as the erotic – always has an element of power play. There is the one looking, and there is the one being looked at; a dynamic that can shift in a second. Whose gaze, here, are we seeing? Adorján’s? Olga’s? Or the gaze of a culture that demanded certain ‘types’ and symbols, and wanted women to be seen in a certain way? Studio Manassé certainly wasn’t the only studio producing portraits of this kind: d’Ora (Arthur Benda and Dora Kallmus) and Trude Fleishmann were only two of the most well-known. In reality it’s most likely a combination, and yet the question hovers in my mind over the images.
The woman stands, naked apart from a pair of Mary-Jane heels and a camera bag that crosses her body and covers her crotch. Her stance is wide, commanding, and unlike in many Manassé images, the background is plain, a simple white wall. There is nothing to distract from her, the photographer, who gazes straight at the viewer with her right eye and looks through the camera, held up to her face, with her left. The glamour and kitsch are so understated as to be almost non-existent, and alongside the immediate and obvious question – who is gazing out at who? – there is a sense of a joke here. We sense that we, the viewers, are being laughed at; that even though we aren’t quite sure what the joke is, it’s on us.
Provocative, elaborate, fantastical – and also, in some cases, what we would see today as deeply problematic. Many of the images push against conventional ideas of what photography should be, but some also clearly conform to the stereotypical and widespread misogynistic view of women as objects, as (sex) toys, as role-players in a world of men. The concept of ‘the New Woman’ emerges as conflicted, as women are placed in outwardly emancipated poses and yet are still there as available commodities. Their expressions are often naive, enthralled, dumb with wonderment. They are waiting for the man to see them, and for the man to act. There are also elements of overt, unpalatable racism; in one image (Fortuna La Creole, 1934), a Black dancer called Fortuna La Creole laughs while clutching a monkey doll, while in another (Study, 1926) a grotesque figure of a Black minstrel raises a baton while the naked woman looks on, coy and seductive and half in shadow. The humour is dark, cruel and twisted. The eroticism is dated and out of touch, and then I wonder. How far have these stereotypes truly been left behind? It’s not a question I can answer.
The woman stands, her back against a wall – or perhaps she is lying, her body resting on a bed. Perspective is not important, nor context. What draws the eye is the light and the shade, what they reveal and conceal. She is naked. Her chest and face catch the glow from a ray of sun through a window, or from a strategically placed spotlight, and her skin is dappled with the shifting shadows from a spray of twigs. One hand lazily fingers a leaf, the other hand is invisible; like her waist and legs, it fades into darkness. One breast is at the centre of the frame. Her head is tilted back, her eyes closed, her full mouth slightly open. She holds the invitation, waiting for someone – a man – to accept. Power play at its most clichéd; an elaborate illusion of glamour with a shadowy undertone. Another nameless Study, 1935.
I bought the book. The images lost nothing of their fascination in the bright light of a Parisian apartment, nor in the dull rainy days of an English summer. I still look at it sometimes – aware of its issues, aware of what makes me cringe – when I want an escape, to try and lose myself in the space between fantasy and reality. That desire for flight, at least, seems timeless.
Divas and Lovers: Photographic Fantasies from Vienna between the Wars by Monika Faber (Thames & Hudson, 1998) is now sadly out of print, but worth looking for in dusty corners of secondhand bookshops.
About Elodie Rose Barnes
Elodie Barnes is a writer of short things. She isn’t a fan of labels, and her writing hovers in the spaces between fiction, poem, prose poem, and creative nonfiction. Despite this, her work appears regularly in online and print journals, and has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is Books Editor and Creative Writing Editor for Lucy Writers Platform, and was guest editor of their 2020 Life in Languages series exploring languages and translation. She has a somewhat obsessive interest in women writers of the early twentieth century modernist and surrealist periods, and is currently working on two creative nonfiction projects: a series of fragmentary ‘essayettes’ on the modernist writer Djuna Barnes, and a series of hybrid pieces on grief, nature and place. Find her online at elodierosebarnes.weebly.com
This piece was commissioned for our latest guest editorial, BAROQUE
The ‘baroque’ is an intemperate aesthetic. Once a period term to describe the visual arts produced in the seventeenth century, its use and significance has exploded over the last fifty years. No longer restricted to the fine arts, the baroque has fallen into pop culture and become an icon.
Inspired by the work of Shola von Reinhold, this series takes ephemera and excess as its starting point for a new exploration of the b a r o q u e. It wants to look back at the past and queerly experiment with it, to rip it up and reclaim a new space for the future – or, in von Reinhold’s words, ‘to crave a paradise knit out of visions of the past’. The b a r o q u e is present in moments of sheer maximalism, in ornament, frill and artifice. It celebrates the seemingly bizarre and the unintelligible, the redundant and fantastical. Disorienting and overwhelming, it offers a decadent way of experiencing present and past worlds.
Click here to see the full Call Out and submit to b a r o q u e, Guest Edited by Frankie Dytor.