Holding a copy of Germaine Krull’s Etudes de nu in your hands is a special event. The book (Librairie des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 1930) is a rare find, with few copies available in public collections and even fewer coming up for auction. Those that do appear on the block can go for princely sums, some in the neighborhood of $10,000. Given the scarcity of the book, I was quite excited to find a copy just a couple hours away in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago.
It came as something of a disappointment, then, that as an object, Etudes de nu turned out to be merely curious rather than exceptional.
Yes, the portfolio of 24 loose-leaf sheets is gorgeously printed, and the small size and portfolio format contribute to an overall effect of delicacy and preciousness. However, the images themselves are rather bland, and they fit only very loosely together as a group. Some images feature the elegant curve of the female form from vaguely original angles, all framed very conventionally with a soft and caressing light.
In other photographs, we see Krull’s signature use of strong shadow, in this case appearing behind an awkwardly posed model. In between are a couple of double exposure experiments that only succeed in doubling the awkward. With so little going on, but in so many different directions, Etudes de nu projects a lack of cohesion that is more confusing than intriguing.
Parr and Badger (Volume 1, p. 78) echo Kim Sichel’s assessment (Germaine Krull: Photographer of Modernity, p. 86) that this series of nudes is a “step backward” from the innovative modernism displayed in Krull’s 1928 masterwork Métal, and even a step back in relation to her earlier work in nudes. Certainly the more Sapphic, and visually interesting, nudes that Krull experimented with in Berlin in the early 1920s show that she was capable of pushing the genre into more original and provoking directions. (You can see these earlier nudes in Sichel’s book.) I’m holding out hopes that Krull’s signature accomplishment, Métal, will be more impressive. —Mary Goodwin
I looked at a first edition of Etudes de nu at the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago. Click here to find a copy of Etudes de nu near you.