French Portraitist Reflects on Life With Literati
GisEle Freund photographed Sartre, de Beauvoir, and man of the moment, Andre Malraux
Where are the pictures? This is the question many newcomers ask upon entering the apartment of Gisele Freund - a founding member of the Magnum Photo Agency and one of the most renowned portraitists of this century.Skip to next paragraph
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But the truth is that, despite occupying the top floor of her modest apartment in the 14th arrondisement of Paris for over 40 years, there is not one photograph hanging on the wall, and for that matter few traces that Freund has spent her life with pictures. Books line most walls and many corners; Freund readily admits that it is books that interest her most these days.
But then books have been a persistent passion. Literature gave Freund her start in photography, and it is her portraits of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett that have brought her most lasting fame.
"It was the money I got from the Simone de Beauvoir [photos] that gave me the down payment for this place," Freund recalls. The German immigrant did benefit greatly from the portraits of her French friend taken when de Beauvoir won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1952. While the shy de Beauvoir hid from the paparazzi, she allowed Freund to photograph her. "That day there was a line of newspaper people going down my steps," says Freund with a laugh. "I couldn't print the pictures fast enough."
Freund's pictures are again getting much attention, but these pictures are of another friend, Andre Malraux. Paris is in the midst of Malraux mania as the remains of the writer-turned-cultural minister entered the sacred Pantheon on Nov. 23. Such a move reflects the magnitude of the Malraux legend in this country, a crucial part of which is due to Freund's memorable photographs that have stamped the image we hold of this passionate figure.
There have been few studies on Malraux that do not include at least one Freund portrait. Currently two of her portraits of Malraux - one of him pounding his fist at the 1935 International Conference of Writers for the Defense of Culture, and another of him on her roof, are pasted to the walls of subways and kiosks around town. A more comprehensive exhibit of her Malraux portraits is on view at the newly renovated Jeu de Paume Museum on the edge of the Tuileries garden.
"Oh Malraux, I first knew him when I was very young," Freund says. "He was working as an editor in one of the big publishing houses in France, and we remained very good friends. In the beginning, I was asked to photograph him, and he came over to my apartment. I'll never forget it because I had just divided my apartment in two, and I painted one side blue and one side white. I thought it would be a good background for my portraits, but it was nothing short of ludicrous."
Barely able to contain her girlish laughter she continues, "I thought it might make for an interesting picture so I placed Malraux in between the two segments, but I never sold one of those pictures. They looked ridiculous! No, I had to go back, and that time I took him outside on the terrace."
From that second session came the legendary photos of Malraux standing in the wind with his patented far-away expression. Recently this same image has been immortalized by the French Postal Service, although on the stamp version, the defiant cigarette in Freund's photograph has been removed from his lips to better conform to Malraux's image as cultural minister rather than young writer.