February 26, 2009



Simon Doonan on Madame Yevonde's Lady Balcon As Minerva, 1935

SIMON DOONAN ON Madame Yevonde's Lady Balcon as Minerva, 1935

I've always had a soft spot for anyone who dubs him- or herself "madame" or "monsieur." Many examples spring to mind: there's Madame Blavatsky, the famous theosophist. And of course there's Monsieur Antoine, the not-so-famous hairdresser who coiffed many heads in Reading, my U.K. hometown, back in the 1950s. I find these prefixes endearing: a transparent attempt to add panache and a sense of importance, it always strikes me as more life-enhancing than pretentious.

Ditto for Madame Yevonde.

Yevonde Philone Cumbers was born in London in 1893, and partly educated at boarding schools on the continent (where, one presumes, she encountered mesdames by the truckload). She joined the women's suffrage movement in 1910 and, after clocking an advertisement in The Suffragette, decided to become a photographer's apprentice. Using the name Madame Yevonde and championing something called the Vivex process for color images, she went on to take some of the most groundbreaking and fabulously demented portraits and still lifes in photography history.

Full disclosure: I'm a sick and crazed fan of her Ĺ“uvre. As a window dresser of longstanding, I appreciate the gutsy verve of her lighting and propping, her commitment to the dreamy tableau and the Technicolor diorama. Unapologetically contrived and gorgeously colorful, her work drips with lurid, surrealistic fantasy. Most noteworthy are her mid-1930s portraits of famous English aristos, known as the Goddesses series and including Lady Bridgett Poulett as Arethusa, Goddess of Fountains and Lady Milbanke as Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, etc. etc.

It's a simple formula: take one society lady with loads of time on her hands. Allocate a mythological deity to her, then spend hours shoving bulrushes, feathers, stuffed animals and anything else you can get your hands on into her hair or down the font of her frock, thereby expressing the essence of said divinity. Delivers every time.

Just as Warhol had every New York fancy-pants dame lining up to get Warholized, I imagine that every English toff was banging on Madame's door, begging to be Yevondized. In 1930s English society, if you had not been "done" by Madame Yevonde, then who were you--I mean, really?

Which brings us to Lady Balcon as Minerva. When her ladyship rapped on the door of the Yevonde's fantasy factory, I like to imagine the following scenario unfolding:

There's Yevonde, finishing up a portrait, exhausted from satisfying the whims of the beautiful people and gasping for a cuppa.

"Oh Gawd! 'Ere comes another one!" says Mildred, her cockney receptionist.

"Stick her in the waiting room. Grab the gun and the stuffed owl," says the irrepressibly creative Yevonde. "We'll do her as Minerva--you know, the old war-and-wisdom bit--and still be out of here by six. Now, go and dust off your dad's World War I army helmet."

I make no claims about the accuracy of my fantasy, but of this much I am certain: Lady Balcon as Minerva is one of Madame Yevonde's best shots. The recklessness, the lack of romanticism and contrivance, make it the Duchamp Fountain of the Yevonde archive. The clunky symbolism, the hastily assembled props, the fabulous lighting and signature color saturation conspire to create something that transcends the overwrought high-camp of the other Goddess portraits. Lady Balcon as Minerva is punk rock. It's sinister, it's strong, and it works, effortlessly.

My fantasy concludes with Madame Yevonde in her dark-room, doing her Vivex thing. "Mildred, though I say it myself, this one's good, really bloody good," she says, smiling broadly over the emerging image of Lady Balcon. "Now, where on Earth is Madame's tea?"