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The Magic of Madame Yevonde

2012 September 12

One should be a painter. As a writer, I feel the beauty, which is almost entirely colour, very subtle, very changeable, running over my pen, as if you poured a large jug of champagne over a hairpin.

Lady Bridgett Poulett as Arethusa by Madame Yevonde, wearing golden headdress

Lady Bridgett Poulett as Arethusa by Madame Yevonde (1935)

The above quote comes from a letter between two of my heroes – Virginia Woolf to her sister, painter Vanessa Bell – which always comes to mind when I look at the work of a third: photographer Madame Yevonde.

Madame Yevonde was a British photographer in the early twentieth century, and an early pioneer of colour photography using the complicated and costly Vivex process. It wasn’t just that she produced photos in colour – she broke new ground in special effects and filters, using coloured cellophanes to lend sensuality and symbolism to her work, in particular her most famous series, The Goddesses.

When she shot her famous pictures of aristocratic ladies dressed as classical goddesses in 1935, Yevonde was already a successful society photographer, having set up her own photography studio at the age of 21. Before that, she was involved in the suffragette movement. Her hero was Mary Wollstonecraft, and she remained an outspoken advocate of women’s rights her whole life, saying “if I had to choose between marriage and a career I would choose a career, but I would never give up being a woman.”

Mrs Edward Mayer as Medusa by Madame Yevonde

Mrs Edward Mayer as Medusa by Madame Yevonde (1935)

Yevonde introduced her 1940 autobiography In Camera as not “the story of a woman’s life but of a photographer who happened to be a woman”. Although in the early twentieth century photography as a profession was open to women, most roles were low-paid and semi-skilled, assistants in photographic laboratories, and Yevonde was the first woman to give a lecture to the Royal Photographic Society.

The first thing everyone says about Madame Yevonde’s photos  is how modern they look. Her influence is difficult to overstate, as new generations of photographers have discovered her work, images which look at home on the walls of an art gallery and the pages of Dazed and Confused. I see the Goddesses series as a hymn to Yevonde’s medium, to colour, and also to the strength and beauty of women, in myth and in the modern age.

Bust of Nefertiti with Flat Iron and Letter

Bust of Nefertiti with Flat Iron and Letter by Madame Yevonde (1938)

And it’s not just the Goddesses pictures that have been influential. Bust of Nefertiti with Flat Iron and Letter (1938) reads to me like a comment on women’s elevated position as the subjects of art contrasted with their unglamorous low status in real life, and makes use of the same symbolism as that classic punk work by feminist artist Linder (link prolly NSFW) which graced the cover of the Buzzcocks single Orgasm Addict.

Yevonde’s portraits are beguiling, but what I like best about her work, apart from that devastating, dazzling use of colour, are the tinges of Surrealism. She was clearly influenced by Man Ray and Lee Miller, but also brought in her own sense of humour and playfulness, particularly to what she referred to as her ‘still life fantasies’ such as Bust of Nefertiti.

With her symbolism – and all that colour – Yevonde sits on my ‘favourite feminist artists’ shelf alongside Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo.

Whenever I look at their work, I just want to drink the beauty in like Woolf’s jug of champagne.

Madame Yevonde Self Portrait with Image of Hecate (1940)

Self Portrait with Image of Hecate (1940)


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