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Ionarts in Paris: Photography at the Jeu de Paume (Part 1 of 2)

Cultural reorganization happens constantly in France. When I was living here, there were big plans to incorporate the marvelous collections of the little Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal into the Bibliothèque nationale, so that the building could become a library for diplomatic resources. There was serious opposition, but it looked like the government was hell-bent on its plan. Well, years later, the B.n. does officially control the Arsenal library, but nothing else has happened to it, which is a relief, since it is one of the most beautiful and historic places to do research, and I would never go there again if its collections were interesting only to political scientists. Other organizations are not as fortunate. Waiting in line for the Bibliothèque publique d'information at the Centre Pompidou to open, some people were handing out petitions to sign, to express disapproval of the latest plans the government has for changes to the management of the Archives nationales de France, which is already a legendarily difficult place to conduct research. Who knows what will happen with that.

One thing that has definitely happened is the changes the government forced on the Centre national de la photographie, in effect, merging it with the Musée du Jeu de Paume (see some pictures here). The museum will be divided between two sites at 1, place de la Concorde, in the 8th, and the Hôtel de Sully, at 62, rue Saint-Antoine, in the 4th. Jeu de Paume is the name for the old French form of tennis, played with the open palm (paume) instead of a racquet. For that reason, the Jeu de Paume building is not particularly large, a narrow rectangular building at the end of the Tuileries gardens (see my post on February 16). It opened in its new function, as a museum of photography, on June 24, and I went to see it on the afternoon of July 8. As an exhibit space, it is not spectacular in any sense: it has two floors of exhibit space and two auditoria in the sous-sol for showing video and film.

The exhibit on the rez-de-chaussée is a retrospective of the American fashion photographer Guy Bourdin (1928–1991), reworked slightly from its first appearance, in 2003, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, with lots of works lent by the photographer's foundation. (You can see some of the images in the exhibit in this gallery, at their Web site. There are lots more images by Bourdin here.) Bourdin got interested in serious photography at age 22, through a meeting with Man Ray in Paris. The show has a few large frames of his earlier work, tucked away in the back room: a series of black and white landscape photographs from the 1950s, and some abstract polaroids shot in the 1970s. However, where he really had an impact is the major thrust of the show, the photographs he made of models for publicity campaigns, mostly for Vogue, for the next 40 years. The photograph used for the program (made for Vogue's May 1977 issue) is typical of his style for this kind of work: tall, thin models treated roughly, in high heels and not much else and a superabundance of make-up. The sadistic quality of these photographs, which sexualize their subjects in humorous and sometimes brutal ways, have at this moment an eerie rapport with the photographs of prisoner abuse in Iraqi prisons. The most shocking, I found, shows three photographs inside a toilet, all showing parts of a woman's face with liquid spewing from her mouth. Would the connotation of watersports really help sell women's fashion magazines?

Underwear and other garments that accentuate the long, bare legs of his models appealed to him. Sometimes, this is the only female part needed in a photo, as in one example from 1978, showing only a model's buttocks and long legs, in heels naturally, on the back of a couch. The pose suggests unconsciousness or even death. Other disturbing connotations from these photographs include pedophilia (a shot of five little girls, grotesquely made up, sharing a bed, under a sign that reads "Occupancy by more than 2 persons is dangerous and unlawful. Commissioner, Department of Buildings, City of New York," made for Vogue France in 1977) and fellatio (a black model's face leaned back juxtaposed with a soaring, phallic, bright red lipstick, for Vogue in 1972, and two models feeding each other curved hot dogs from a plate of sauerkraut, for Vogue France in 1981). The only photograph really featuring male models, made for Vogue Hommes, in 1977, is equally sexualized, showing a nude man in the distance, facing a sink, and another in the foreground, fully dressed, immobile in front of a television (on the screen, a clock frozen at 3 o'clock) and surrounded by Schlitz beer cans.

There is a series of photographs that feature models juxtaposed with photographs of themselves, including one made for Charles Jourdan in 1978, in which a female hand holds up a photograph of a woman walking down a street, which obscures the full view of a woman walking down a street. The sense that the models are crushed or dehumanized by their work and the photographer's art is the conceit of some of the best photographs. A photograph from 1979 shows a model's body crushed by a fallen painting, and a photograph made for the Calendrier Vogue in 1985 features a cluster of posed mannequins in a store window, with two models, their skin made to look as plastic as possible, striding by outside. I don't generally read magazines like Vogue anyway, and after seeing these photographs, I am reminded of why I don't.

Go to Part 2.

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