Henry de Montherlant, who was born in Paris, became acquainted with both ancient and Christian ideas during his youth that would shape his later writing career. First of all, there was the culture of the ancient world, with which he became familiar via Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis. The 'heathen' preoccupation with (physical) beauty, its undisguised sensuality, the adoration for sports and heroism, the ancient 'éthique de guerrier' and spiritual freedom; each of these elements appealed to him greatly. From Christianity (he considered himself a non-practicing Catholic) he took themes such as unselfish sacrifice, the necessity of uplifting the human soul, and charity.
The power of women
De Montherlant began writing at an early age. His pre-war career is marked by five important novels: Les célibataires (Grand prix de l'Académie française in 1934), and the still highly readable four-volume cycle Les jeunes filles (1936-1939). This work shows Montherlant as a sharp and cynical analyst of relationships between men and women in pre-World War II France. He was sometimes considered a misogynist, but that reputation wasn't wholly deserved. In Les jeunes filles he indirectly indicted French social morality that forced women into a weak, needy attitude. It was after all practically impossible for women to develop into partners who could be the equals of men. For an autonomous, easy-going philanderer like Pierre Costals, the main character in Les jeunes filles, the idea of acting as a kind of male nurse for his fiancée, the rather insignificant Solange Dandillot, for the rest of his life was unbearable. This cycle of novels was enormously successful.
According to De Montherlant one of the causes for the behaviour of many women- sick, weak and nauseous- was due to the fact that they didn't have enough sports activities. In 1946 La déesse Cypris was published in Paris, intended as an 'éloge de la volupté' (a eulogy to sensuality). Its symbol is Cypris, the goddess of beauty and sensuality, better known as Aphrodite or Venus. The book was also a homage to the beauty of the well-trained, sporting and powerful female body. In La déesse Cypris, the author explains that it was of essential importance for women to develop their muscles, thereby losing their sense of inferiority. It was finally all about 'preparing for a different way of loving, in which they play a healthier role'.
The book is made up of loose gatherings and features twelve nude photographs by Laure Albin-Guillot, the 'grande dame' of French photography of the 1920s and 1930s. Laure Meffredi, born in Paris in 1879, married Dr. Albin Guillot, specialist in micro-organisms, in 1901. Together with him, she collected and photographed the cell structures of plants, crystals, and animal micro-organisms. But Laure Albin-Guillot also developed into a portrait photographer. Her portraits of writers such as André Gide, Paul Valéry, Jean Cocteau and Henry de Montherlant are especially well known. She published her work regularly in La Revue française de photographie, in Arts et métiers graphiques and in Vu, and also submitted it to exhibitions. She also developed many initiatives to promote French art photography. In 1935, as head of the 'Archives photographiques des Beaux-arts', she established the museum of photography in the Palais de Chaillot, which had just been newly constructed. In that same year she was also appointed president of the national Société des artistes photographes. Besides that, she continued to illustrate books, like Narcisse by Paul Valéry (1936), Chansons de Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs (1937), and the sheet music of Préludes by Débussy (1948).
Emancipation and sensuality
In her nude photographs, another genre in which she became famous, Albin-Guillot revealed the female body discreetly, in soft focus and with precise lighting. She used special lenses in order to achieve a foggy effect around the body. In La déesse Cypris, the women are photographed against a uniform background, filling the entire frame. Nothing distracts from their figures. Nude photography was popular amongst female photographers in the 1930s, both inside and outside of France. This allowed them to show their modernity and their own perception of the beauty of the female body. They also proved that photographing the female body was not the exclusive domain of men. Emancipation, beauty and sensuality come together in La déesse Cypris. The book was printed in an edition of 250 copies, of which this is one of the 190 copies with its twelve photographs in photogravure.
De Montherlant maintained his ideals of beauty and dignity without compromise. He strove for actual grandeur, felt an intense abhorrence for mediocrity and passionately professed the 'esthétique de qualité'. But his work also displayed a deep nihilism and black pessimism. He advocated suicide in cases in which the quality of life had deteriorated to the extent that it would be in extremely bad taste to continue living. That is why Montherlant shot himself through the head on 21 September 1972, by which time he was half-blind. His last written words were: 'I kill myself, therefore I am'.
|Description:||La déesse Cypris / Henry de Montherlant ; [orné de 12 études de nus de Laure Albin-Guillot]. - Paris : Colas ; Bordeaux : Rousseau, 1946. - 41 p., 12 pl. : ill. ; 38 cm|
|Printer:||Ducros et Colas (Paris) (text)
Georges Leblanc (Paris) (photogravure)
|This copie:||Number 85 of 190 with 12 photogravures, on Lana|
|Bibliography:||In liefde verzameld-219 ; Monod 8358|
|Shelf-mark:||Koopm A 412|
- Lucille Becker, Henry de Montherlant:A critical biography. Carbondale, Southern Illinois Univesity Press, 1970
- Paul van Capelleveen, Sophie Ham, Jordy Joubij, Voices and visions. The Koopman Collection and the Art of the French Book. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands; Zwolle, Waanders, 2009
- Naomi Rosenblum, A history of women photographers. Paris, Abbeville Press, 1994
- Pierre Sipriot, Montherlant sans masque, T. II: Écris avec ton sang, 1932-1972. Paris, Laffont, 1990