WORKS FROM THE NATIONAL COLLECTION OF CONTEMPORARY ART (FNAC)
It is an odd singularity of the French language that it conflates and confuses in a single term – the modèle – the master garment and the person who exhibits it for all to see.
The modèle primarily refers to an object or person who, because they are perfect and exemplary, must be imitated; and which/whom the artist magically reproduces in a picture ‘after nature’.
But because it is hand-crafted, the modèle conveys the ideas of uniqueness, originality and excellence that characterise the masterpiece – the very thing that compagnons (apprentice craftsmen) must make to gain entry to their artistic corporation.
And like any masterpiece made by Man’s hand, le modèle contributes to human greatness, giving Man a divine streak and assuring the historical continuity of his civilisation.
Both divine and human in essence, the modèle – whether object or person – therefore symbolises the mirror into which the society of a given time dives; where it is damaged and then drowns in self-contemplation. One can thus readily comprehend the demi-god role given to fashion photographers.
And so it was that in the aftermath of the First World War, photography shed the complicated curvilinear forms of pictorialism and embraced modernity. The culture of the time favoured geometry, clean forms, the straight line of skyscrapers and a new type of woman – active, liberated and tremendously bold.
The Second World War was a parenthesis in the evolving representation of the model. Pierre Jahan’s contact sheets of wartime fashion show an economy of means – images akin to reportage, produced in natural light – but also a desire to record the painful context of the Occupation. Then, immediately after the war, came the imposing figure of Alexei Brodovitch, who, for Harper’s Bazaar, hired Cecil Beaton, Georges Hoyningen-Huene and Evgeni Rubin to reread art history; their models were a succession of antique tragediennes, marchionesses and shepherdesses à la Watteau, Russian ballet heroines and partners of surrealist inventiveness. In the 1950s, like a renaissance, the photographer placed his models in front of Paris’s historic landmarks. Pierre Boulat devised short visual sketches influenced by cinema, and invented characters like Marie-Chantal, who became the heroines of fashion campaigns which emphasised charm and poise.
These years marked the end of a golden age, because they contained the seed of the divorce between haute couture and prêt-à-porter: fashion photography then became more committed and personal.
William Klein’s vision appeared disillusioned and even cynical; Jeanloup Sieff’s photographs oozed strangeness. Guy Bourdin, meanwhile, remained the undisputed master: inventive and provocative, he wilfully discarded the rulebook of refinement and haute couture and manhandled the concept of good taste with audacious, often erotic images that were no longer crafted to showcase the clothes but to conjure a singular atmosphere.
Later, Sarah Moon’s highly personal photographic world became indelibly linked with Cacharel’s campaigns; she created its image before breaking away to offer the greatest of the great – Chanel, Yamamoto, et al. blurred outlines and delicate movements that hover between dreams and nostalgia.
More recently, photographers have carried on Jean-Paul Goude’s explorations and subjected the model to traps and computer-aided genetic transformations, and even to cloning. We have seen a mixing of photographic practices that have introduced the vocabulary of reportage and the language of art into fashion. Wolfgang Tillmans or Elaine Constantine, for instance, do not seek to give an account of fashion, not even of streetwear; rather, in the tradition of a Nan Goldin, they admit to pirating fashion photography in a style dear to the hyper-realists, and to developing what, at the end of the last century, was called the ‘aesthetics of ordinariness and banality’.
Lastly, in a radical move, Nancy Wilson-Pajic and Valérie Belin are observing that the model is dying off: only the form of the body is surviving this disappearance, for which there is no comeback.
Agnès de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, exhibition curator.
Christian Lacroix, artistic director.
In partnership with the National Centre for the Visual Arts (CNAP), which runs the FNAC for the state.
Exhibition presented at the Abbaye de Montmajour.