Portraits - Legends in Life and Art: The Portrait Photography of Roloff Beny - Exhibitions - Library and Archives Canada
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Roloff Beny Introduction Biography Collection Portraits

The Roloff Beny Collection yielded many surprises during its organization at the National Archives of Canada: the extensive coverage of the Iranian imperial family, the thorough inventory of churches of Rome, the worldwide documentation of the monuments of the Ancient World, and the amazing portraits that Roloff Beny took between 1956 and 1983.

The Rome that Roloff Beny moved to in the 1950s was the artistic and cultural hub of post-war Europe. This was the centre of Gian Carlo Menotti's newly formed Spoleto Festival, the literature of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the neo-realism cinema of Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini. Beny's world was also that of the expatriate, a world he recorded at a moment in history when the look and feel of contemporary cultural life was being created. The informal portraits of Willem de Kooning, the Dutch-American abstract painter, Thomas Schippers, the American conductor and Menotti's protégé, and Peggy Guggenheim, the American art patron, in her Venetian palazzo, demonstrate Beny's comfortable access to this sophisticated group. This exhibition focuses on the portraits of the cultural and intellectual circle that dominated Roloff Beny's world.

Anton Dolin.  PA-182769
Roloff Beny's portrait oeuvre contains numerous direct connections to the birth of the avant-garde in the early decades of this century. Serge Diaghilev, one of the founders of modern ballet, knew Jean Cocteau and was a lover of Anton Dolin (both photographed by Beny). Dolin, the English ballet dancer, began his career in 1924 in Bronislava Nijinska's ballet, The Blue Train. This ballet, based on the libretto by Cocteau and with costumes by Coco Chanel, was choreographed for Serge Diaghilev's Ballet.

Coco Chanel.  PA-182781

In Beny's 1967 day journal, he wrote the address of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein's lifelong companion, who unfortunately died before a portrait sitting could be arranged. Beny did photograph numerous people who moved in the Stein orbit, including the American composer, Virgil Thompson, who, in 1928, used Stein's play, Four Saints in Three Acts, as the libretto for his opera of the same name. Caresse Crosby, whom Beny photographed numerous times, was another American who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Like Stein, Crosby was a small press publisher, and is remembered both for patenting the modern brassiere and as the publisher of Black Sun Press, which in 1932 published Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time.

As in all Beny's work, the portraits, totalling approximately 500 identified sitters and numerous unidentified sitters, represented possible projects for him: they could form a book or an exhibition; be presented seriously as a galaxy of famous persons; be exhibited as a gallery of known and unknown, dressed and undressed, young and old, rich and poor; or they could be the prize of his collection or a lost archive.

Tennessee Williams.  PA-182755 This exhibition was drawn almost entirely from two portrait selections that Beny made in 1978 and 1983-1984. In the process of distilling his collection of thousands of negatives down to single iconic images, Beny's judgement was unerring. An examination of the selected negative with the rest of the shoot indicates that Beny inevitably chose the strongest image, cropping out the superfluous background until the sitter dominated the photograph. Beny directed the printing by shading with his omnipresent red pencil the areas he wanted his printer, Franco Bugionovi, to lighten or darken. To work with these negatives is to enter the creative world of the artist.

Renata Tebaldi.  PA-182790

In an effort to recapture as closely as possible the artist's original intent, the photographs were printed by Beny's master printer of 20 years, Franco Bugionovi, in Rome. He masked the negatives according to Beny's cropping instructions and then highlighted or darkened the prints according to Beny's shading instructions on the contact. Most importantly, Bugionovi retains the feeling for what a Beny exhibition print should "look" like. The Roloff Beny Foundation generously supported this curatorial approach. The result is a collection of superb selenium-toned black-and-white exhibition prints which will travel internationally to cities associated with Roloff Beny, and then across Canada.

Edward Tompkins, Curator