A photograph is a surgical slice of both space and of time; an often grotesque vivisection.
Julia Peirone‘s Girls, Girls, Girls (see picture at head of this post) concludes on August 25 at Arbetets museum, Laxholmen 602 21 Norrköping, Sweden and here provides a foil to work by male advertising photographer Lucien Lorelle (1894 – 1968) who was a mid-century surrealist.
I’ve been busy updating Lorelle’s Wikipedia bio from a few lines to something more comprehensive in preparation for this post. That the encyclopaedia article had barely been touched since 2012 is evidence that a celebrated career in advertising is not going to make you well remembered; he is missed by his friend Daniel Masclet as a “very good man”, but just as was Thornton Wilder‘s Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, by others since he must have been “liked, but not well liked…,” he’s now barely known.
But Lorelle is deserving of a little attention, first for opening the first professional colour laboratory in France, but more for his invention of a sunscreen icon. Though early products had contained the effective sunblock benzyl salicylate as the active ingredient since 1928, it was cosmetics giant L’Oréal, represented by ‘Miss Ambre Solaire’ who popularised its use, first on the French Riviera, then worldwide. Ambre Solaire (‘solar amber’) tapped the notion that tanning was healthy, and its associations with affluent beach holidays on the French Riviera and glamorous women presented the product as essential to a luxury lifestyle. Suzy Bastide was Lorelle’s model.
Possibly only a surrealist might have come up with this life-size image of a lightly-clad female figure in an era in which it would still have been found confronting, possibly offensive, but also rather fun (repeatedly Bastide’s simulacra were kidnapped by male admirers…they had to be tied down!). It is the bikini-clad figure that made the L’Oreal campaign remarkable when actually the device of the cut-out had an earlier history as is evident in a photograph made 12 years previous by Walker Evans in which merchandising figurines (‘standees’ as they are known in the USA), including a Coca-Cola Santa Claus, reinforce the hessian-and-paper walls of a poor miner’s cabin.
Through an accident of lighting (and the addition of a real bikini-top wittily slung over her shoulders) Miss Amber Solaire belies her flimsy two-dimensional cardboard composition as she stands among beach toys in this 1959 postcard of sunny Vieux-Boucau-les-Bains on the Bay of Biscay near the Spanish border.
His earlier top-down on-location view of his model for this 1947 advertisement (below) would not look out of place in a contemporary magazine, despite being made 72 years ago, though its production values are not quite as slick.
The dominating angle of view and beach setting is repeated in this Surrealist work; the preparatory, straight image made in 1953 is titled Nude with butterflies…
…while a photomontage version of the same year consists of elements cut and torn from the original print, the sand on which the model lies is formed into a sort of parentheses or mandorla, then framing thin black strips of photographic paper are overlaid, one with the title scratched into it; The artist has free choice in his work.
Six years earlier Lorelle had completed a series of illustrations for Isidore Ducasse‘s Les Chants de Maldoror de Lautréamont (1868-9) that, discovered by the Surrealists, exercised considerable influence over them with its apparently ‘automatic’ writing, its nightmarish, misanthropic passages and episodes in which the narrator is transformed into various animals;
I dreamt I had entered the body of a hog, that I could not easily get out again, and that I was wallowing in the filthiest slime. Was it a kind of reward? My dearest wish had been granted; I no longer belonged to mankind.
The Surrealists, as Ghislaine Wood points out “endlessly manipulated and fetishised” the body, specifically the female body. Lorelle’s violent process of montage, in which he tears off identifying facial features and displaces into his model’s hand her sex in the form of a scarab beetle, would seem to support this impression of the reification of the female. More brutally still, he dashes his feminine ideal from her pedestal, shattering her image. This quite cleverly constructed (pre-digital) photomontage, furthermore, was used for an ‘Odorono’ deodorant advertisement with the caption “Un souffle suffit à renverser l’idole” (“One sniff is enough to topple the idol”).
Germaine Greer, in a rather misunderstood 2007 Guardian newspaper opinion piece on the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design, proposes that while men in our “polarised society” are not represented as “mere body”, women are “primarily body” and thus any body, regardless of its sex, is portrayed as feminised.
In Surrealism, she says, the men disappear, having no image at all, while Femininity was all image. Crucially and controversially, she claims that while this exhibitionism may have been encouraged or indeed orchestrated by men, there is a corresponding narcissism on the part of the women to which the (predominantly but not exclusively male) art may have been responding, rather than the converse that is usually the argument.
She regards Leonora Carrington‘s narcissism as not imposed on her by Max Ernst, but as an aspect of female self-fashioning rather than as an accession to demands made by a male partner, while in the extreme case Léonor Fini represents her self in the form of a Barbie doll avant la lettre, supporting Greer’s contention that that such self-fetishisation is an eternal recourse of femininity. She leaves the question of power politics open; “We can’t blame men for this, can we?”
Greer’s is a perspective that makes it slightly less discomfiting to look at Lorelle’s more extreme excursion into this arena; his Boucher Amoreuese.
An image apparently created for Lorelle’s own amusement, it depicts a woman marked and labelled in red to resemble the chart on the butcher-shop wall that shows choice meat cuts from a cow or pig (shades of Lautremont!). The butcher, his tightly curled hair like that of a Hereford steer, in his freshly laundered apron, stands back, brush and paint pot in hand, to admire his handiwork, the red smudge on his cheek signifying his single-minded preoccupation with the task…and the blush of lust. The object of his ardent attention stands compliantly, her raised and bent arms simulating the truncated forelimbs of a butchered carcase. As he finishes his last touches she expectantly gazes doe-eyed over her shoulder to gauge his satisfaction with the effect of her body.
The title—the Amorous Butcher—prompts us to consider whether the true nature of male desire is an urge to devour the female body, not whole, but piecemeal, by dissection, obsessing lasciviously over each separate, delectable part. The blood-red markings are so like the incisions of the boning knife that the overall effect verges on horror. As influential French art historian, curator and collector Christian Bouqueret (1950-2013) remarks of Lorelle;
His vision of woman is ultimately painful, and photographs in which the model is destroyed are a graphic game to him, playful and slight, though enthusiasm and humour ultimately conveys a sensitivity and modesty.
Bouqueret was instrumental in rediscovering the work of many photographers of the interwar period, including Lorelle; Aurel Bauh, Pierre Boucher, Roger Catherineau, Yvonne Chevalier, Laure Albin Guillot, Pierre Jahan, Francois Kollar, Eli Lotar, Daniel Masclet, Jean Moral, Roger Parry, Andre Steiner and Maurice Tabard, feeling…
“…that people were always being shown the same images and there was a whole range of photographers who deserved attention […] I don’t look for obviously attractive images; I believe that beauty unveils itself and that mystery is a part of it.”
Salvador Dali in a 1929 essay entitled “Photographic Fact,” elaborates on the role of photography in revealing this uncanny, ambiguous beauty:
“Photographic data…is still and essentially the safest poetic medium and the most agile process for catching the most delicate osmoses which exist between reality and super-reality. The mere fact of photographic transposition means a total invention; the capture of a secret reality. Nothing proves the truth of super-realism so much as photography.”
The objectivity of photography, he goes on to say, mitigates against a “stereotyped vision and aesthetic that hamper the human eye.”
The course of the studio session and its preparations, attended by a crew of assistants and a graphic artist hired especially, was recorded step-by-step by Lorelle and it is in their detail that one might detect in the reactions of the model the narcissism noted by Greer, which itself feeds the surreal quality of an image in which the figures of butcher and his lover are once again, but by different means, ‘cut out’ against the limbo of the studio backdrop.
In a 1933 homage to Picasso’s venture into surrealism in his 1918 Bathers, Lorelle uses the cutout to achieve similar discomfit. These are effected by views of the model being made with a wide angle lens from radical angles to be then placed against a collaged sea and an abstract ink spatter rendition of a beach scene with airbrushed clouds, in a flattened perspective. That puts the cutout figures out of reference so that their shapes and gestures are made peculiar and unsettling.
It was around this time, just before Lorelle was to set up his own studio, that when Jean-Placide Mauclair opened his cinema Studio 28, Lorelle created a poster, and a lantern show of about fifty surrealist images for the intermission of the riotous screening of Luis Buñuel‘s 1929 Un Chien Andalou. Lorelle’s dreamlike imagery, in which the floating female figure continues to play a role, continued into the post-war period.
Greer alerts us the the danger of seeing the feminine as entirely passive in Surrealist representations and such a perspective is instructive in evaluating what is going on in Julia Perone’s portraits of adolescent girls. In this she takes up where Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene has left off.
The latter, working at the turn of the millennium, preconceived her portraits of slightly younger subjects, posing them in often awkward or stressful situations, hair caught up in bare twigs, or resting a cheek on cold railings for example, in order to address the state of being between child and adult.
Each of Perone’s subjects is negotiating the socially unequal situation of being photographed by an older woman, one in which she represents herself just at a stage when her public and private personae are at odds.
Often this gives rise to an internal conflict, on top meeting the expectations and attention of peers and adult men and women, the young woman is still forming her self-image.
Freezing the mid-sentence utterance, halting a self-conscious twirling of hair and the eyes rolling back as words fail, revealing with its penetrating light the bubble-gum clenched between molars; Perone’s flash unit may freeze expressions unflatteringly, but they tunnel through the glossy idealistic self-representation of social media, the prime medium of exchange for adolescent women of this generation:
“The girls I photograph may be the victims of a glance or a stare, but they are also strong and exert a power over your gaze”
Does that power reside somewhere between the embarrassment and empathy we may feel in looking at these faces at their most vulnerable, and the engagement of our own remembered feelings of self-mortification and sexuality? The evident and reflexive pain of this postmodern vivisection also illuminates the conditions and limitations of male modernist surrealism.