PARISIAN PHOTOGRAPHER VENO PILON
Veno Pilon (1896-1970) is deemed a co-creator of Slovenian modernism and one of the main representatives of expressionist painting and graphic arts of the 1920s. Pilon Gallery in Ajdovshchina stores the artist’s inheritance, which includes a sizeable collection of photographs. These have long remained overlooked by art historians, even after they began examining possible links between Pilon’s painting and his photography. 150 let fotografije na Slovenskem [150 Years of Slovenian Photography] 1919-1945 (Part II, 1990) was the first more comprehensive exhibition of Pilon’s photography. In 1992, Pilon’s Gallery in Ajdovshchina put on an exhibition of the artist’s photographs and published the monograph Parishki fotograf Veno Pilon [Parisian Photographer Veno Pilon] (Written by Stane Bernik). At the international exhibition Evropa, Evropa (Das Jahrhundert der Avantgarde in Mittel- und Osteuropa, Kunst- und Ausstelunshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 1994) Czech photography aficionado Antonin Dufek described Pilon as a modernist photographer. At the occasion of Veno Pilon’s retrospective at Ljubljana’s Modern Gallery in 2001, which also included a selection of photographs, the artist’s son Dominique Pilon gifted the Gallery several photographic negatives. A few Pilon’s photographs were preserved by his relatives and acquaintances.
Pilon’s photography has always been somewhat unknown in his native land. Created in a different cultural milieu, it was untethered to the prevailing pictorialist and lyrical directions or examples of social engagement typical of the local “artistic” photography between the World Wars. This is why dr. Stane Bernik, the author of the exhibition and accompanying academic analysis in the Ajdovshchina’s exhibition catalogue, wished to ensure Pilon’s place in the frame of modern Slovenian photography as well as draw attention to his contribution in the context of contemporaneous photographic happening in Paris, where Pilon’s role models are to be sought.
Veno Pilon studied photography in Prague (1919) and Florence (1920-1921). He frequented the school of graphic arts in Vienna perfecting his skill in night nudes. In 1924, he was the first Slovenian artist to take part in the Venice Biennial. The core of his painting opus (portraits, vedute) was created in a short time span in the early 1920s. He started practicing photography at the same time. He probably purchased his first camera in the 1920s – it was aReflex by Zeiss; he previously attempted filming with the Pathé-Baby amateur narrow-film camera. Around 1926 he took photographs for a never-realized album of Littoral Settlements; these are of a documentary nature.
In 1926 and 1928 he took educational trips to Paris and then settled there at the start of the 1930s. Following initial failed commercial and business ventures he chose to make a living as a photographer and opened an atelier on Montparnasse. He took artistic photographs for publication, photographic portraits, and practiced practical and advertisement photographs. His camera of choice then was Rolleifleks. He supposedly only presented his photographs at two exhibitions in Paris, a city considered one of the world’s centres of photography between the World Wars. At least initially, he seems to have wanted to maintain a connection with photographic activities in his native land; in 1932, he collaborated at the 1st Yugoslav art exhibition in Ljubljana. At the time, a critic at the Jutro journal wrote “Our excellent painter Veno Pilon is presented at the exhibition as a first rate portrait photographer. His technique is not puree, but he is peerless in character and picturesqueness. His portrait photographs, particularly the portrait of actress Vika Podgorska and his renaissance ‘Montparnasse’ are works of a great painter that chose this time to use a camera in place of a brush. True art is valuable irrelevant of technique or material.”1 T he same year, Pilon’s photographs were also exhibited in Maribor. In 1931, the Ilustracija journal published Pilon’s portrait of Violinist Karl Rupel. (Ilustracija, 1931, no. 19, p. 301).
Pilon never achieves great public acclaim in Paris as an “art” photographer, which was probably due to his excessive modesty and lacking confidence; these were also the cause of the early end of his painting creativity. Still, there was no shortage of recognition on the part his friends from Parisian artistic circles. He was able to attain the trust of his clients, as is attested by a number portrait photographs he took of famous people (Olga de Bozanska, Girogio de Chirico, Leonor Fini, André Lhote, Filippo de Pisis, Ossip Zadkine). The painter and theoretician André Lothe gave Pilon a recommendation for Picasso and other artists, but Pilon “never dared knock on their doors”. The surrealist poet Paul Eluard appended his lengthy poem next to Pilon’s photograph in the Parisian Carrefour Gallery.2
Pilon gained at least one more photography-related credit in France, namely he presented one of the pioneers of French photography, his father in law, apothecary Louis Guichard in the Parisian Verve magazine.
The core of Pilon’s creative photography activities was also the fruit of a relatively short time period (1930-1935). Judging by the preserved photographs he was the kind of creator who lived with and from his photography. Most of Pilon’s custom ordered photographs are probably lost. A reference-album entitled Vzorci – Industrijske profesionalne fotografije [Exemplars – Professional Industrial Photographs], which contains a selection of photographic exemplars (reproductions of paintings, photographs of architecture, interiors, products, jewellery, portrait and news photography, photo-montages) is preserved. The creative portion of Pilon’s photography is dominated by photographs of a distinctly intimist nature: pictures of his wife Anna-Marie and son Dominique (a folder with 36 pictures of son Domi, 1937), excerpts from his everyday environment, pictures of friends and acquaintances that reveal Pilon’s attitude to the subjects of the portraits.
His painting compositions also only depict those close to him or those he knew well. Pilon succeeded in entering an extremely lively photography scene of the 1930s; this is evident from numerous experimental photographs and several unconventional photographs of the pulse of Parisian bohemian and artistic life. Some photographs contain evident influences of surrealism (still life from a flee market in Paris, still life with two glass objects, two masks). Many of his photographs can compare to photographs by Pilon’s much more famous contemporaries Brassaï, André (Andor) Kertész, Dora Maar, Man Ray, Maurice Tabard, Roger Parry, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others.
Stane Bernik stipulated that the “Hungarian friend G.” from Pilon’s memoirs Na robu [On the Edge] , to whom Pilon supposedly “gave in his early stages the first lesson in photography”3 was the Romanian Hungarian Gyula Halász (1899–1984), who appeared in public under the pseudonym Brassaï. In 1921, Brassaï studied sculpting in Berlin right at the time when Pilon visited Berlin; in 1926 Pilon was in Paris where Brassaï, probably influenced by Kertész, decided for photography.4
After World War II, Pilon occasionally practiced painting, graphic arts, and photography (studies of display windows in night illumination on colour leica diapositives, portraits of acquaintances during his visit to Paris).
Translated from Slovenian by Jaka Jarc
Untitled, circa 1930, photograph on gelatin silver bromide paper,
30 x 23,4 cm (Pilonova galerija v Ajdovshchini)