Elegiac Pantomime: Arnaud Maggs After Nadar (2014)

“Elegiac Pantomime: Arnaud Maggs After Nadar,” Canadian Art 31:1, (Spring 2014), 84-89.

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Elegiac Pantomime: Arnaud Maggs After Nadar

One of the most remarkable codas to a career is the great Canadian artist Arnaud Maggs’s After Nadar. I say coda since this was his last work, and one made by the artist knowing that he was about to die: an end-work, therefore. After Nadar is remarkable for being so unexpected … and going against expectation. As such, the two series retain a problematic status, if one can say this of works of such charm and equanimity. They are remarkable because they are seemingly so antithetical to Maggs’s whole enterprise, opposed to his whole oeuvre. Remarkable because after a lifetime of works of strict, almost puritanical, taciturnity where the artist was hardly visible behind the objectivity of the apparatus and conceptual framework of presentation, the artist put himself on display—moreover performed a pantomime.

What was Maggs telling us? Of course, this work is equally taciturn because Maggs is not telling us anything, only miming it. Miming not only a pose, he mimics a photograph as well. In doing so, he simultaneously reproduces a series of Nadar photographs; he copies Nadar’s posing of his subject; and he imitates its subject’s actions.

Maggs’s title (After Nadar) is a convention of artwork in the style of another. Prodding the title, we can ask, who, or perhaps rather what, was Maggs after? He comes in time after Nadar, but also after Nadar capturing his subject Jean-Charles Deburau in his image, Nadar capturing Pierrot, too, in the role Deburau played. Maggs doubles this image, but so doing puts three artists in play: not just Nadar and Maggs (after Nadar), but Nadar, Deburau, and Maggs. Identification is double and triple, because Nadar himself, setting up the original scenario, also identified, like many other French Romantics, with the Pierrot character: the subject before him that he comes after—in pursuit of, that is. Not to mention that Pierrot comes after himself in that Jean-Charles Deburau reprises the character made famous by his deceased father Baptiste Deburau, coming later to step into papa’s costume and roles.

“After” can hardly be taken as a simple preposition here—or accepted with equanimity. After After Nadar, the same can be said of Maggs’s work as a whole: it is not as straightforward as we thought. We might stop to ask ourselves, in this language of “after,” who is hunting/haunting, imitating/honouring whom here? It’s like a pantomime unfolding before us. Shh!

In spite of Sophie Hackett stating that the “series title, After Nadar, seems straightforward,” the game is afoot; the hunt is on.

Let me explain the set up first, the historical set up that is. It is disputed whether in 1854 – 55 Nadar or his younger brother, Adrien Tournachon, photographed Deburau in his characterization of Pierrot. (For convenience, I will designate Nadar as the author.) Nonetheless, the photographs were exhibited at the 1855 Exposition Universelle and published as an advertising portfolio for the Nadar studio. The series is now incomplete. Pierrot is posed in stock attitudes of surprise, pain, listening, imploring, thieving, or gratifying himself, etc. But the most astonishing image is of Pierrot “photographing” an out-of-frame Nadar, sliding a photographic plate into a box camera, and indicating with his hand to his sitter: “look into the lens.”

Pictured on the cover of the 1995 Metropolitan Museum of Art Nadar book, this is the iconic image Maggs fell upon by accident in 2011. Surprisingly, our artist was not familiar with it since he claims, “Nadar was off my radar.” Nonetheless, it quickly—and quietly—worked its magic.

Maggs repeated the series, but with differences. To Pierrot’s appearance, he restored the ruff that Deburau père et fils had abandoned; he applied dark lipstick, eyebrows, and a beauty mole to the wan makeup, giving his face a doll-like look, as Sophie Hackett notes in her excellent essay on this work, but also lending the mask an allure of seduction. His are not stock gestures, however, but impersonations where Maggs uses props to signify his own history. In this succinct autobiography, he offers a jocular view on his professional and personal lives.

On the professional side, we see Maggs/Pierrot as an archivist of his own production, facing tottering stacks of archival photo boxes, sizing up his history, and holding in his hand an image of his earlier “other”: one of his stock self-portraits from thirty years previous. Or in Pierrot the Storyteller, we see Maggs/Pierrot reading from a pile of antique journals, the type he collected and, supplanting his earlier portraits, serially reproduced as if their rescued, battered and stained pages were worthy of portraiture, too. To this story we need listen as carefully as Pierrot in Nadar’s Pierrot listening. Or we see him gleefully carrying off an oversize Bauchet film box, the type used for advertising products in camera shops, as if the empty box was a wonderful find. The attitude is exactly that of Nadar’s Pierrot the thief sneaking off with a bag of money!

On the personal side, we catch Maggs/Pierrot the musician, sweetly withdrawn in his own world, playing a harmonica. Or in love, carrying roses. Or as a proud collector, clutching in his hands eight commonplace French enamel pitchers: his collecting was as serial as his photography. Surely the most poignant is Pierrot Receives a Letter, which reprises Nadar’s Pierrot with envelope. In the latter, Pierrot sneaks a peek into someone else’s mail: the envelope is addressed to Adrien Tournachon Nadar Jeune. In Maggs’s image, Pierrot stares ominously transfixed at a letter gripped in his two hands. We can’t see the addressee, but it is one of those black-edged envelopes, the mourning stationary that signalled death notices, a nineteenth-century collection from which Maggs’s created his Notification series in 1996. There is an exquisitely controlled irony to this image, given Maggs’s foreboding knowledge of his own death: in the pratfall world of Pierrot, Pierrot is receiving his own death notice. Peering into this envelope would make all the other attendant props of this series oblique memento mori.

Of the marvelous Nadar photograph of Pierrot catching up with the latest fad and exposing a photograph, and a photographer in turn, one author has stated, “Pierrot’s plate-holder presumably contains an undeveloped portrait of Nadar at work, just as the plate Nadar pulled from his camera held the image we see” symmetrically of Pierrot. I would rather think that, with his eyes contemplatively turned down, Pierrot is imagining the image in the plate he is holding: himself! Posing, he performs an image of himself; he is both subject and producer. Much like an impressionable photographic plate, mime was, as Mallarmé put it, “white as a yet unwritten page.” Deburau points to a silent “performance” we eventually see. And the miming magic of photography delivers the image, which Maggs received more than a hundred and fifty years later.

In the same vein then, Maggs does not just conveniently copy Nadar, adding his own flourish after the master. Rather, he initiates another performance, a mime more complex than meets the eye. Likewise, in his self-portrait, he doesn’t gesture “hold still” but “pay attention.” We should carefully attend to what he is showing as well as beware of his staged tricks, because the exposure is a wink that the image itself cannot make.

Much like Nadar, who was a man of shifting identities before settling into photographer, Maggs dramatically re-invented himself in and as his last artistic statement. And in re-inventing himself, he invites us to revisit his past work and look at it anew.

The second After Nadar series, Pierrot Turning, does exactly that. Pierrot doesn’t play a trick on the camera as much as the camera plays a trick on him: pirouetting him 360° and, in the process, draining the expression from him. Just as in Maggs’s earlier 1983 Self-Portrait, Pierrot is shown in rotation, the Paris police having caught up with him: hung silent, sans glee, in a grid of twelve clinical images—the complete mug shot. Thus Pierrot made a straight-jacketed appearance in Maggs’s last exhibition, an exhibition Maggs himself curated at the Ryerson Image Centre. Was Pierrot surreptitiously snuck into the white cube as a pratfall joker? Miming Maggs (after Maggs the artist, that is, having re-invented himself as a curator), was Pierrot indeed the curator here: in this last performance, Pierrot the Curator?

It’s amusing to think that the revolving shots might be a pantomime all along. I’m thinking of the unspoken relation of this photographic carrousel to pantomime, etymologically speaking. Is it a coincidence that the “panto” of pantomime, meaning all or universal, is related to “pantothen,” meaning from every side? Doesn’t Pierrot here force us to re-think Maggs’s early work, from every angle: his systematic portrait series, for instance, Maggs’s own 1983 Self-Portrait? Clearly, there is a dialogue in this “dumb show,” as Pierrot the Archivist hinted by Maggs looking back judgmentally at his old self.

I’m sure Maggs did not intend to undermine a lifetime of work through a pantomimic performance. Yet could it be that the factualist was a fictionalist all along?

This adaptable adventurer was not afraid of change: to move to design jobs in Toronto, New York, and Milan; to give up his skill set to switch professions to fashion photographer; or, indeed, midlife to become an artist. Nor was he afraid to set off in blind pursuit of Joseph Beuys with no necessary expectation of success. He caught Beuys’s scent in New York through the German artist’s Guggenheim 1979 retrospective, tracked him to Düsseldorf, and stalked his quarry until that stoic stone-faced artist relented to be photographed in two hundred profile and frontal views. While patiently waiting for this performance, Maggs netted the charismatic artist’s students in a serial presentation unlike any other class photo (Kunstakademie).

Nor was Maggs afraid to make it up as he went along. The iconic Beuys photograph was not a preordained image. One presumes that its strict armature derives from Beuys’s fellow Düsseldorf photographers, the objectivist Bechers, but Maggs’s systematic profiling actually was based, before knowledge of them, on the schemas of nineteenth-century French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. Beuys’s portrait was an intuitive amalgam of Bertillon and poached Carl Andre, whose 100 steel plate sculpture Maggs had seen in Düsseldorf while waiting to photograph Beuys.

The Beuys portrait was made the same year as Maggs’s monumental study of influential photographer André Kertész, then 86. Maggs was after Beuys, but not in the way he was after Kertész. One he pursued; the other was an inheritance. Yet a preceding legacy pursues a following practitioner. Three decades later, coincidentally at 86, Maggs came after himself to self-curate an epitaphic exhibition he did not live to see. Perhaps his selection of four works for this artistic summation was the lens through which he wanted us to experience his legacy: an equal balance of the systematic and the idiosyncratic. For Pierrot was not the only joker in the pack. At Ryerson, Pierrot Turning was counterpoint both to Kunstakademie and André Kertész, 144 Views. But Pierrot teamed up there with another troupe of tricksters, that other oddity in the Maggs’s portfolio: his Dada Portraits. A whirligig duo, together these works turned our point of view of Maggs around.

The 2010 Dada Portraits were the result of one of Maggs’s happy flea market finds but treated unlike any other of his paper ephemera trouvailles. Instead of typically documenting the pages of these nineteenth-century French carpenter handbooks, he reads these “found objects” differently—but not for traces of their stories. Now he makes one up instead. (Is this why Maggs is grinning in Pierrot the Storyteller?) Through merely naming them he configures a series of portraits from the abstractions of the drawings’ exploded lines. Profiles render dada men such as Duchamp, Ernst, and Man Ray; frontal views depict dada women such as Täuber, Höch, or Wigman. Turning from the dervish dance of this dada colloquy, suddenly one sees their graphic structure haunting the surrounding “conventional” portraits at Ryerson, whose gird-like solidity dissolves into ghostly demarcations. All that is solid melts into air to be recomposed in a new understanding of the ephemerality of Maggs’s enterprise. In a grand liberating gesture at the end of his career, Maggs went from taking photographs, to naming them, to miming them. In the process, he evolved into that mime artist Mallarmé wrote about, who “sets up a medium, a pure medium, of fiction.” Only here, the medium remained photography.