Hyewon Yoon

Since completing her doctorate at Harvard University in 2016, Hyewon Yoon has been a James Loeb Postdoctoral Fellow at the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich. She specializes in the European avant-garde, modern art and photography, and twentieth-century German and French cultural politics and intellectual life. Her work focuses on the intersection of art and political struggles in the twentieth century, and particularly art in relation to migration, war trauma, national identity, and feminism. 

Exile at Work: The Portrait Photography of Gisèle Freund, Lisette Model, and Lotte Jacobi, 1930-1955


Self portrait with camera, Mexico City, 1950. Photo by Gisèle Freund. B&W photo, Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print.

My dissertation project examines the emergence of photographic portraiture as a vehicle for illuminating the experience of European exiles and their cultural migrations under the threat of fascism. I argue that exile by fascist regimes prompted certain European photographers to resort to human figuration in order to reconsider the possibilities of historical subjectivity at its moment of crisis. My argument is anchored in the work of three Jewish European women photographers who produced portrait archives while in exile. The German-born Gisèle Freund, the color portraitist of the interwar French cultural luminaries, made a volte-face from the portrayal of the collective subject in the political demonstrations in pre-exile Frankfurt into the individual faces of the French intellectuals after her exile in Paris. The Austrian-born Lisette Model adapted the caricature style that she had developed in Popular Front France to critique the deteriorating conditions and follies of the French leisure Bourgeoisie, and used it to articulate the conditions of the American Lumpenproletariat. And the German- born Lotte Jacobi, a master portraitist of Weimar cultural society, continued to apply her distinctive aesthetic stylization of the human figure, characteristic of Weimar, to her American subjects. Despite different working trajectories and methods, each case centers on an idiom of traditional portraiture that was subject to testing, revision, preservation, and critique. In particular, I contend that their status as strangers granted these exiled artists a double vision that led them to instrumentalize the photographic medium not only to address the aftermath of the European avant-garde—especially the end of its utopian quest to envision political collectives through human figuration—but also to measure and critique the new American mass culture and subjectivity.

With the help of the Peter Palmquist Fund, I was able to travel to two archives critical to my research. The University of New Hampshire contains the largest holdings of Jacobi’s negatives, exhibition prints, portfolios, as well as letters, catalogues, and documents. The National Gallery of Canada in Ottowa, Canada holds the Lisette Model Archive, where I studied her pre-war series and her commercial work.  

I completed my dissertation “Exile at Work: The Portrait Photography of Gisèle Frend, Lisette Model, and Lotte Jacobi, 19301955” in 2016 at Harvard University. I presented partial results at conferences held at the Stefan Zweig Centre in Salzburg, the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. I am currently revising a book manuscript entitled Strangers in a Strange World: Exile in the Work of Technological Reproduction