A Belgian femme at FOMU

Tacky title, for sure.

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Suzy Embo ca. 1956 (about 20); copyright FOMU

A crowd favorite among European photo fans is the Antwerp FOMU (foto museum) at Waalsekaai 47, 2000 Antwerp. One of its summer exhibits spotlights an archive happily acquired in 1996. Suzi Embo (b. 1936), along with her younger sister Lou, threw herself into photography in her late teens. She had lots of encouragement, both from her parents and from various mentors in photography and art – not a run of the mill beginning for a woman artist, of course. Her energy, experimental zeal, and interest in the art of others shaped the arc of her career. But what may be most important about her beginnings as a professional was her willingness to take on any assignment. She and her sister had their first joint exhibit when she was just twenty. In addition to pursuing photography as a fine art, she photographed events, places (the Antwerp Zoo), fashion, and other artists.

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Artifacts from the archive and the exhibit. Reinhoud is in the upper left hand corner. Copyright FOMU.

At 27 Embo married the sculptor Reinhoud d’Haese, part of the Cobra (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam) artists movement that flourished for a few years in the late 1940s.  She met d’Haese through Pierre Alechinsky, the painter, whom she had encountered  spontaneously at an exhibit. Alechinsky invited her to his studio in La Brosse, outside Paris, and his colleague Reinhoud met her at the station. They fell in love.

Continuing her photography, she brought her own income and independence to the marriage. In fact the year before she met Alechinsky, she had traveled extensively, served as set photographer for a film, done archival work, and photographed the opening of the Brussels Film Museum. It is not surprising that she began shooting not only her husband’s artistic process, but also those of their friends and fellow artists. (It is VERY cool that FOMU displays the sculpture featured in one of Embo’s major series of Reinhoud photos., along with Alechinsky’s Les yeux ouverts, the creation of which she recorded frame by frame.) She had a chameleon’s ability to adapt her skills to any setting, and a clear sense of balance that allowed her to meld with but not disappear into the strong philosophical and aesthetic dicta of Reinhoud, Alechinsky, and their Cobra and post-Cobra friends and colleagues.

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Embo photographs Alechinsky’s creation of Les yeux ouverts,  1965

While her early style was abstract and conceptual, she turned increasingly to less formal shooting, and to shooting in series – recording, for example, Reinhoud’s work on a sculpture, or Pierre Alechinsky’s painting. She also made spontaneous or “snapshot” photos of the artists’ lives together.

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Suzy Embo, Pol Bury, Fontenay-aux-Roses,1960 © FOMU / Suzy Embo. Note the cat in the foreground.

One of the strengths of FOMU’s exhibit is the display of Embo’s proof sheets from these photo sessions. It’s always fun, and a bit intellectually titillating, to enter an artist’s decision-making process. In this case, we can see the series of raw shots, with her X’s that mark the frames chosen for editing and printing.

Embo continued with her work recording events, institutions, meetings, and friendships. She also did street photography, like many of her peers – though women in street photography have been somewhat rarer than men. There is a warmth in her portraits and her spontaneous work that is hard to find in the other recent exhibit I viewed (at the Jeu de Paume), of the very talented, prolific, and somewhat dark-souled Ed van der Elsken (more later).

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One of an extensive and wonderful series of shots of these ubiquitous curtains in Venice, where she attended the Biennale with Reinhoud in 1966. Embo’s creative process began with following her impulses. The result was generally more speculative than humorous or critical. Copyright FOMU.

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Creepy and wonderful portrait photo of Brassai. Ironically, one of the things COBRA stood against was surrealism. Copyright FOMU.

After her divorce from Reinhoud in 1968, she settled in Brussels. Her work continued to be dominated by portraits of artists working, including members of the former Cobra group. In 1975 a detached retina ended her active photographic career, though she had several important exhibitions afterward. Also in the mid-1970s she partnered with Alechinsky in founding an art journal, Sionna.

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Embo today with one of her dogs. There are several interviews and reflections on Embo, and on the Cobra movement, available on YouTube. Try https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=MbOwfvKRjC0.

The FOMU takes as a large part of its mission preserving and promoting Belgian photographers of the past and present. A concurrent exhibit is drawn from FOMU’s magazine, .tiff, now five years old. Each year .tiff has showcased ten young Belgian photographers. On the stairs leading up to the galleries, the curators have pinned postcards from all fifty of the photographers featured so far in .tiff, with a lovely invitation to museum visitors to choose and take away their favorite image. It is similarly lovely to discover, thanks to FOMU, this wonderful photographer who channeled and put her own spin (to mix metaphors) on some of the major fine art and documentary trends of the mid-twentieth century.

Next up for FOMU, beginning October 27: Ai Weiwei and Andrea Stultiens; and in the spring, Harry Gruyeart. Good reasons to hop a train to Antwerp this year. The apple crumble in the well-stocked café/bar is a similarly good reason.

 

 

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