Philippe Halsman was one of great photographers of the twentieth century, a portrait photographer, he was famous for photographing many famous people such as Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein and Salvador Dali. However, as a young man he was wrongly accused of patricide (murdering his father), while on a walking holiday with his father in Austrian Alps, and incarcerated in an Austrian Jail for two years. His case was a major cause célèbre at the time and gained a lot of media attention as well as famous supporters (such as Albert Einstein) who petitioned for his release. After two trials in which he was found guilty, he was pardoned and he moved to France where he began his photography career.
The story is told from his point of view and the effect it has on his psyche. Starting in 1928 through to 1940 and beyond The Jump Artist is a fictional account of the the murder trial, his time in jail and Philippe’s eventual rise from the depths of despair and guilt back to the light. The author uses contemporary accounts and letters to tell the story from Philippe’s point of view. But as he says in his Authors Note this is “not a biography .. an artistic tribute …. a portrait or a sculpture”.
Of course much of this was during the rise of Fascism in Europe and as a Jew, one gets the impression that much of his misfortune was anti-semitic in origin. The book is beautifully researched there are historical facts I was totally unfamiliar such as the fact that Nazi’s promoted an alternative theory to that of the the Jewish Einstein’s. The Weltteislehre theory, devised by Hans Horbiger, was complete bunkum of course, but it suited the Nazi propaganda of the time.
The scale of of the anti-semitism that Philippe experiences is shocking, and this is before Hitler and the Nazi’s have even come to power. He moves to France where drifts into photography, mainly through his desire to photograph beautiful women naked. He drops out of university and eventually becomes successful photographing models for fashion magazines such as vogue. When the war does come, his family is able to escape to America however he can’t as he doesn’t have French citizenship. He eventually moves to Marseilles and eventually to Portugal where with the help of Einstein is able to get a visa to America. What isn’t said and the impression I had throughout the book is that without the murder accusation he would almost certainly have stayed in Germany (following his studies to be an engineer) or returned to Latvia after becoming an engineer and would not have survived the holocaust.
This is an imaginative novel that spans a shameful period of European history, and by focusing on one person it really brings home to you the scale of the anti-Semitism in Europe at the time. What of the title “The Jump Artist” – reading up about Philippe I think it comes from his fame for taking photographs where he would have his subjects jump as he photographed them.
I enjoyed this book enormously, and it is certainly up there on my all time list of favourite novels , probably some where in the top fifty, and I would certainly recommend as a good read to anyone.