Overlooked No More: Ady Fidelin, black model “hiding in plain sight”
This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries of notable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
In a series of photographs from the summer of 1937, a group of close friends are captured enjoying a laid-back vacation in the south of France, swimming, relaxing and having fun. Most holidaymakers were artists, among them Man Ray, Picasso and Dora Maar (who was also Picasso’s lover at the time).
Part of this circle was a vivacious woman whose name is not well known, but who was nonetheless a key participant: Ady Fidelin, who also went by Adrienne. In the photos, she stands out for her beauty and also because, unlike her fellow vacationers, she was black.
Fidelin, a dancer, model and occasional actress, was Man Ray’s girlfriend and also posed frequently for him. In hundreds of her photographs, she dances or sits, sometimes holding props, like hula hoops and hats. Often she is naked or topless. In each image, his exuberance shines through.
Fidelin also posed for Man Ray’s circle of artists, including photographer Lee Miller, a former girlfriend of Man Ray; Roland Penrose, who would later marry Miller; British surrealist artist Eileen Agar; and artist Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, who passed through Wols.
“She was a muse not just for Man Ray,” Andrew Strauss, consultant at Sotheby’s and chairman of the Man Ray Expert Committee, said over the phone, “but a muse for artists in general.”
In a striking image from that 1937 trip, Man Ray photographed Fidelin standing outside against a wall, naked except for flat shoes, bold earrings and a chunky chain-link necklace, with a long washboard spread over her legs like a metal maxiskirt. Her image in the photo bore a striking resemblance to a Picasso painting made shortly afterwards, “Woman Seated on a Yellow and Pink Background, II”.
“Ady is so present in the hundreds of photographs from this summer — photographs by Man Ray and Roland Penrose and Lee Miller and Eileen Agar,” said Wendy A. Grossman, senior fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who has lectured and wrote on Fidelin and who discovered the link between painting and photography. “It was inevitable that she would also be represented by Picasso.”
And yet, “manifest in both photography and painting,” Grossman wrote in 2020 in the journal Modernism/modernity, “is the contradictory way in which the black female body has been folded into the modernist project as paradoxically ultramodern. and ultra-“primitive”. ‘ and objectified by a male gaze.
Moreover, Grossman pointed out, Fidelin was “hidden in plain sight”, having never been identified as the subject of Picasso’s painting. But thanks in part to Grossman’s efforts, Fidelin is beginning to gain recognition, including in a 2019 exhibition on black models at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
For Fidelin, nothing was as groundbreaking as a photo of her that appeared in Harper’s Bazaar on September 15, 1937. It is believed to be the first time a black model has appeared in a major American fashion magazine. Today, however, the article would undoubtedly raise eyebrows. Under the title “The Bushongo of Africa sends his hats to Paris” are three photographs of white women wearing African hats. Fidelin, who was also wearing an African hat, appears on the opposite page, separated from the others, it seems, but in a much larger picture.
This editorial positioning and “Fidelin’s assimilation of identity into a homogenizing notion of blackness literally and figuratively sets her apart from similarly crowned white European role models,” Grossman wrote.
Casimir Joseph Adrienne Fidelin was born on March 4, 1915 in Pointe-à-Pitre, on the island of Grande-Terre in Guadeloupe, the French-dominated archipelago in the Caribbean. She was one of six children of Maxime Louis Fidelin, who worked in a bank, and Mathilde Fidelin, a housewife. Ady’s mother died in 1928 in a hurricane; his father died a few years later. Fidelin then emigrated to France, where a brother already lived.
The Paris of the 1930s was, for its time, racially inclusive, especially in Man Ray’s bohemian scene. Black artists like Aïcha Goblet and Ruby Richards were popular, and Man Ray also photographed them. It’s unclear exactly how he met Fidelin, who was 25 years younger than him, but for him their relationship was stabilizing and optimistic, especially as World War II ensued.
Fidelin, writes Man Ray in a letter to Penrose, “prevents me from being pessimistic.”
“She does everything,” he says, “from polishing my shoes and bringing my breakfast to painting in the background in my large canvases! All to the tune of biguine or rumba.
According to the story, when Fidelin first met Picasso, who was a friend of Man Ray, she “came up to him, threw her arms around his neck and said, ‘I heard that you were a very good painter,’ Eileen Agar wrote. in his autobiography.
She was, Grossman said, “not intimidated by anyone.”
Fidelin was more than a pretty face. In 1940, during the war, Man Ray, Jewish and American (born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia), left for the United States. Fidelin stayed behind, helping to protect many of his belongings, including negatives and prints.
“She kept everything, the whole studio,” Francis M. Naumann, an art historian and author of several books on Man Ray and his close friend Marcel Duchamp, said in an interview.
She wasn’t responsible for all the artwork – some was taken out of France, some was given to another friend – but, without her preservation, Strauss said, “we’d be missing a whole piece paintings, dada and surrealist drawings and objects.
And she was “quite smart”, said Ami Bouhassane, director of Farleys House & Gallery, which oversees the Lee Miller Archive, particularly in how she “navigated the strangeness of the Surrealist group and its politics”.
Fidelin also had a more pensive side – she used to stop at cemeteries from time to time. “It wasn’t that she was particularly pessimistic,” Agar wrote, “but rather that the cemeteries gave her a great sense of peace and calm.”
After Man Ray left, the couple wrote letters to each other – he called her ‘my darling love’ and she told him: ‘You still miss a certain little black girl very much’ – but most of the notes weren’t. not received, partly because of the chaos of war. By the time Man Ray returned to Paris for a visit in 1947, the two had other partners. Fidelin was dating André Art, a businessman, and had begun to drift away from his circle of artist friends, many of whom had dispersed during the war.
She married Art in 1958 and they moved to Albi, about 450 miles south of Paris, where they lived in council housing. At one point, she had health issues that required major surgery. Throughout her later years, she kept a low profile. In 1998, when a former assistant to Man Ray was asked about her, the assistant thought she was dead.
Fidelin died on February 5, 2004, in an assisted care facility not far from her home. She was 88 years old. No major newspaper reported his death.
“She was basically adrift of the creative community that she was such an integral part of,” Grossman said. “The end of her life was very distinct and far from the spotlight she had been involved with.”