FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week we feature a classic photograph by Pierre Dubreuil. If you missed Eléphantaisie when it was on view in Impressionist Paris: City of Light, you will no doubt enjoy this virtual viewing.
The French photographer Pierre Dubreuil (1872–1944) played a key role in Europe’s modernist movement. That he remains relatively unknown among the general public is due in large part to the rarity of his photographs–Dubreuil's main archive was destroyed in the Second World War. When in the late 1980s a cache of Dubreuil photographs was discovered by a San Diego collector, a subsequent retrospective at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou re-established the photographer’s historical importance.
Dubreuil's unconventional compositions represented a departure from those of mainstream artist-photographers practicing in the early twentieth-century. Diverging from the tenets of Pictorialism, a photographic movement that co-opted the prevailing values of painting, Dubreuil’s Eléphantaisie presents a dreamy, soft-focus view of Emmanuel Frémiet's heroic elephant bronze with the ghost of the Eiffel Tower looming in the background.
Commissioned for the Exposition Universelle of 1878 (and currently residing at the entrance of the Musée d'Orsay), Frémiet's elephant embodied the height of academic realism in the specialized genre of animal sculpture. Its accuracy exhibited the kind of exquisite detail that led Edgar Degas to dismiss the sculptor as pandering to bourgeois taste. Employing a telephoto lens to compress the intervening space, Dubreuil engaged Frémiet's and Eiffel's mismatched monuments in a stylistic clash of the titans. The bold juxtaposition shocked viewers when Eléphantaisie was exhibited in London in 1910, and its impact continues to resonate over a century after its creation.