Dismembered body parts, hyper sexualised children, disturbing yet desirable females, and the uncanny recording of laughter in the background. Entering the world of Guy Bourdin is like walking into an avant-garde dystopian film. It is a place where glamour and perfection are given sinister undertones, fantasies are subverted, and many of us onlookers are simultaneously repulsed and seduced by what we see.
The protagonists of his surreal narratives are always beautiful, but it is a fetishized beauty. They are like inanimate dolls that have had sex appeal forced upon them, and at times this emerges with connotations of the pornographic. It would seem that Bourdin’s photographs explore beauty, sex, death and the surreal through dark symbolism and ambiguity.
Or perhaps not?
Walking around the current ‘Image Maker’ exhibition in Somerset House, it is made clear that Bourdin is celebrated first and foremost as a fashion photographer. In the exhibition we are repeatedly reminded of the images being used as advertisements in Vogue. The fragmented body parts model high heels, the children are made up in the latest styles and the women are used to flaunt designer outfits. In fact, in the exhibition the potential the photographs have for latent (even Freudian) interpretations is largely neglected.
With this in mind, perhaps it is not a deep reflection on contemporary anxieties, but actually just a controversial way to sell products. The taboo is consistent in arousing an interest in the viewer and, as the saying goes, no publicity is bad publicity…etc etc. If we place the photographs solely in the realm of advertising, does Bourdin’s work become constrained, even superficial? Moreover, and more profoundly, does the desire to find a sinister meaning in his work reflect on us as viewers more than it does about the photographs themselves?
Bourdin’s ‘Walking Legs’ series show a mannequin’s cut-off feet wearing heels, walking around disembodied in various settings. The backgrounds are diverse; some use urban wastelands, some lavish bedrooms, but all are similar in their highly constructed compositions. Bourdin’s settings become a stage, yet the shoes that are supposedly being advertised can hardly be considered the main actor in this performance. It is the amputated aspect of the legs, not the shoes being worn, that we are undeniably drawn to.
The surrealist influence Man Ray had on Bourdin’s work is unmistakeable, and with this in mind the incongruous body parts and scenery are rendered dreamlike. However, caught in mid-motion the automatism of the legs may create less of a dream scene, and more of a nightmare. We can perceive an underlying dystopia in the disturbing amputations that have come to life – one which has been hidden behind alluring aesthetics.
A frustratingly essential ingredient to so much fashion photography in the media is the long legged, sultry and semi-clothed model, one who appeals to our base desires: buy this and you will look like her! We are bombarded by a utopian ideal of the body image, but in the eyes of Guy Bourdin this image is distorted. He too uses glamorous and seductive women – one model in particular, Nicolle Meyer – but Bourdin’s women are clinically and deliberately fragmented. The body is rarely shown as one complete entity; if it is not disrupted by furnishings and accessories, it is Bourdin’s dramatic use of cropping that changes the way we see the female figure. When the focus of the image is a (surely) uncomfortable even contorted positioning of flawless limbs, such as in the iconic Charles Jourdin advertisment, the objectification is particularly sinister.
Throughout Bourdin’s career from the mid-50s onwards his photographs inspired much controversy. Crucially though, what disturbed audiences was not the sexualisation of the women in advertising but a dark perversion of this, which in some of Bourdin’s work boarders on the pornographic.
Leaving the Somerset House exhibition I was consumed by arty thoughts of dangerous eroticism, commercialisation, and superficiality…only to have it all turned upside-down (with an ironic grin) in the gift shop. Alongside the standard art books and postcards stands is a NARS make-up booth, selling a variety of overpriced lipsticks and make-up. Apparently, Bourdin was behind the founder François Nars’ ‘love of make-up’ and now we can buy the tools to look just like our favourite Bourdin model.
It could be said this commercial addition mocks the depth and ambiguity of his work. Yet the concept of superficiality extending beyond Bourdin’s photographs is poignant. It reflects a human longing for perfection – and, no matter how conscious we are that this desire might culminate in a Bourdinesque dystopia, it’s hard to resist a try of the latest lip liner: ‘Never Say Never’ (Velvet Matte Lip Pencil £19).
Anisha is the Deputy Editor of ART & FASHION at PTL. When she was younger she wanted nothing more than to be a window cleaner, but nowadays she’s content with passing the time with reggae aerobics, making art whilst listening to feminist audiobooks and wishing she could eat peanut butter (bloody allergies). She also quite enjoys this whole writing articles thing.
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