André de Dienes
Untitled (Nude), c.1950
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André De Dienes: Nudes & Surrealism

Essay by
Christina Cacouris

Little did André de Dienes know, when photographing a 19-year-old Norma Jeane Baker before her metamorphosis into Marilyn Monroe, that the pictures he took over the few weeks they spent together would come to define his legacy. Though the two became extraordinarily close, and their friendship (following a brief romantic interlude) lasted until the end of Monroe’s tragically too-short life, de Dienes’ photos of Marilyn represented just a small fraction of his larger artistic oevre. While he was proud of his images of Monroe, his passion laid in nude portraiture. Through experimentations, brushes with Surrealism, and immersion in 1940s American culture, de Dienes developed a singular style in his nudes.
Born in 1913 in the Kingdom of Hungary (present-day Romania), after spending his teenage years traveling around Europe, de Dienes settled in Paris in 1933 to study art, and purchased a Rolleiflex camera. Soon after, he began work for the Associated Press and the communist newspaper L’Humanité before catching the eye of famed couturier Edward Molyneux, who convinced him to begin photographing fashion. While embarking on these assignments, he privately continued to photograph the streets of Paris. Of the few photos that remain from this time, like a nighttime scene in Paris capturing fog and light (fig. 1), the ethereal quality found throughout his later work is already present.
Fog, Paris at Night, 1936
Figure 1. André de Dienes, Fog, Paris at Night, 1936
De Dienes became immersed in Americana, and namely, the pin-up. From his photoshoots with a young Marilyn Monroe to the nude portraits he took from the 1950s onward, it’s clear he was influenced by the form and function of the classic pin-up, the images of women torn and tacked on the wall of every G.I. From Ava Gardner’s sultry gaze to Rita Hayworth’s charming innocence, the American Venus was enchanting and glamorous, smiling and posed. Many of his images recall those famed pin-ups; in one, a woman sits in a water fountain with her arms up by her head, showing off her form (fig. 2).
In an essay for Otto Croy’s anthology The Photographic Portrait, de Dienes called American women “the most beautiful in the world,” adding that they represent “everything young, happy, amusing, bright, and lovely.” The de Dienes woman is often triumphant; beyond the influence of the pin-up, some of his nude photographs resemble ancient Greek and Roman sculptures of athletes. One woman standing on a rocky plain is washed in glitter, luminescent and strong (fig. 3). Another image shows a woman underneath a rock pushing upwards, as if lifting it straight into the air, revealing the contours of her muscles (fig. 4).
Figure 2. André de Dienes, Untitled (Nude), c.1950
Figure 3. André de Dienes,  Untitled (Nude), c.1950
Figure 4. André de Dienes, Untitled (Nude), c.1950
Nude, ca. 1950
Nude, ca. 1950
Nude, ca. 1950
Figure 2. André de Dienes, Nude, ca. 1950
Figure 3. André de Dienes, Nude, ca. 1950
Figure 4. André de Dienes, Nude, ca. 1950
Nude, ca. 1950
Nude, ca. 1950
Nude, ca. 1950
And that was at the heart of de Dienes’ work: a celebration of the female figure. In a 1940 spread for Esquire titled “The Types of American Beauty,” de Dienes photographed a sculpture of a nude woman by Frank Nagy (fig. 5). Set in front of a black background, she embodies the carefree spirit de Dienes admired; mid-stride, with her hair streaming behind her, she faces away from the camera, vivacious and robust. In marble or in flesh, “I always aim at capturing the girl’s charm as I see it in reality,” de Dienes wrote in The Photographic Portrait. “At the same time, I allow myself to be influenced by poetic feeling.”
Figure 5. Andre de Dienes, "The Types of American Beauty", Esquire, 1940.
Figure 5. André de Dienes, "The Types of American Beauty," Esquire, 1940.
By turns sensual and otherworldly, de Dienes’ nude photographs could be separated into two categories: one, a nod to the classic nude; the other, an avant-garde experimentation. That poetic feeling he described, which predominantly permeates his more experimental work, was influenced by his Surrealist precedents, and particularly the photographer André Kertész.
A fellow Hungarian, Kertész began photographing nudes in an experimental series called Distortions in 1933, the same year that de Dienes arrived in Paris. First shot for the Parisian gentleman’s magazine Le Sourire, Kertész photographed models through the reflections of funhouse mirrors, their bodies liquefying into unrecognizable forms (fig. 6). While Kertész never officially joined the Surrealists, the series was undoubtedly inspired by the cultural milieu pervading Paris through the 1920s and 30s thanks to André Breton, nicknamed the “Pope” of Surrealism.
Rejecting the nineteenth century precedent that all art should aspire to the condition of music, Breton instead declared that “visual images attain what music never can.” Photography, he said, should be an aversion to the “real” forms of “real” objects; an unusual stance to take, considering the still-young medium was regarded as a true capture of reality, a parallel glimpse of the natural order of things. By using mirrors to bend the world around him, Kertész upended that natural order, turning women into chimerical forms.
André Kertész, Distortion #34, 1933
Figure 6. André Kertész, Distortion #34, 1933
In his more experimental work, some of de Dienes’ nude photographs resemble Kertész’s 1933 series. Several images employ the trick mirror effect; in one, a blonde woman reclines on a couch in a classic pin-up pose (an arm behind her head, a leg cocked), her body swollen to elephantine proportions while her face becomes comically small through the mirror’s bends and flexes (fig. 7).
Figure 7. André de Dienes, Untitled (Nude), c.1950
Another image—a woman standing in the ocean with her arms extended above her head—is so distorted that she begins to resemble the mutated form in Picasso’s 1929 Surrealist painting The Swimmer, a tangerine and blue composition with the only discernible elements of the body being the arms and fingers (fig. 8, 9). In de Dienes’ photo, even the horizon line is bent, the striations of the water thick around the woman.
Figure 8. André de Dienes, Untitled (Nude), c.1950
Pablo Picasso, The Swimmer
Figure 9. Pablo Picasso, The Swimmer, 1929.
Beyond the warping he could achieve with a mirror, de Dienes became interested in manipulation in the darkroom, too. By layering negatives, he could pollinate one image with another: stalagmites dripping over a woman, or the sea washing over a woman lost in reverie (fig. 10, 11). And while photo montage and layering had been executed before, there’s a softness and a dream-like quality that make these images feel uniquely his. By creating phantasmagorical scenes, de Dienes again tapped into the Surrealist ethos, which took a great interest in Freudian dream theory.
Figure 10.  Andre de Dienes, Untitled (Nude), c.1950
Figure 11.  Andre de Dienes, Untitled, c.1950
De Dienes also experimented with mirroring images themselves, creating a prismatic effect and fragmenting bodies. Bill Brandt, an English photographer and contemporary of de Dienes who spent time in Paris under Man Ray’s tutelage (himself a great Surrealist), used a wide-angle pinhole camera for a similarly isolated effect. Rather than the reflective nature of Kertész’s Distortions, Brandt’s nudes are without the shimmering, warped filter of the Coney Island mirrors; instead, these images offer an unfamiliar view, laying the camera so close to the body and from such unusual angles that limbs and torsos become unrecognizable.
Like de Dienes, Brandt favored the outdoors. A 1953 image shot on the East Sussex coastline shows a woman lying on her side on a rocky beach, her body a pure, unblemished white against the dark rocks, her curves delimited by the sharp contrast of her environment (fig. 12). From this angle, with her head not visible save for a swath of black hair sweeping across her back, her torso is exaggerated.
What separates Brandt from de Dienes is the sense of voyeurism. Brandt’s photos, while not erotic in nature, are so close that it almost feels a trespass to look at them. In de Dienes’ nude portraits, the women are not only aware of their viewer, they embrace him. They do not shy away from the camera. Instead, they stand proud. And of his experimental work, the emphasis is on his continued insistence on portraying the female figure as strong, not vulnerable.
Bill Brandt, Nude, East Sussex Coast, April 1953
Figure 12. Bill Brandt, Nude, East Sussex Coast, April 1953
Surrealism took many forms since its introduction in the 1920s, rippling out to influence artists across many mediums for decades to come. While de Dienes was not expressly a Surrealist, many of his nudes evoke its tenets—the dream-like qualities, the experimental forms—all while imbuing his own viewpoint. His time in Paris helped him to develop this lens, and in particular, find a light that was his, creating a softness in the gray tones of his images. And Hollywood offered him financial and artistic opportunities, from the profitable work freelancing for film studios, to the landscapes where he could shoot the images that fulfilled him.
De Dienes’ photography, at its core, is a paean to the female figure. He championed natural beauty, but he also wanted to take the classic nude to new dimensions through innovative techniques and darkroom experimentations. And his contemporaries recognized his achievements: his techniques were documented across many photographic magazines, such as U.S. Camera, Figure Quarterly, and Classical Art Photography, cementing his status as more than just a man who took beautiful nude portraits. He was, rather, a pioneer.