Review: Bettina Rheims at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris

Virna Gvero went along to MEP and was bowled over by a retrospective on French photographer Bettina Rheims’ work, including her oeuvres challenging binary gender norms.

From January to March 2016, three of the five floors of La Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) of Paris are dedicated to the retrospective Bettina Rheims, covering four decades of the French photographer’s work. From her first pictures – a series shot in the 70s showcasing the strippers of Pigalle, the red-light district of Paris – to her more recent portraits of female inmates across the prisons of France, Bettina Rheims has photographed femininity in all its forms, sparking controversy and attracting both international recognition and criticism.

Bettina Rheims

In France, Rheims is known as a “celebrity photographer”, an alias she has always refused to accept. In many ways, her work has always been widely misunderstood on her native soil. As Rheims herself explains, she “would have loved to get more recognition from [French] museums and institutions”:

“I never had big exhibitions in France. Here, I have not received the same recognition from the critics as I have abroad. French people think of me, not without despise, as a celebrity photographer, a category they look upon with little consideration.”

Admittedly, I have come across Rheims’ work following a fortunate case of serendipity: I went to the MEP in the first place to see Renaud Monfourny’s Sui Generis. Discovering Rheims’ work two floors up has opened up an eclectic universe of eroticism, sensuality and of an uncompromising visual honesty that never indulges in ostentation. Far from objectifying the subject, her portraits – of both stars and anonymous women – explore the notion of the double that is always at play within the work of art. In a way, Rheims manages to bridge the gap between the model and the person, exalting the physical presence of the body in its aesthetic and intellectual significance.

Consider these portraits of Kristin Scott Thomas and Valeria Golino;

Suggestive and discreet at the same time, these two images attest to the existence of women in charge of their bodies, perfectly conscious of the artificiality of certain notions of manufactured beauty, teasing the audience to see beyond the visual.

While it is true that Rheims has taken the portraits of, among others, stars such as Sharon Stone, Kate Moss, Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Juliette Binoche, the significance of her work lies precisely in her capacity to transcend the celebrity status of her models by capturing something beyond the ideas of manufactured beauty their images unwillingly carry. Her portraits are never crystallised, never raised to the level of the symbolic: the signified is no longer subordinated to the signifier. Instead, the two are brought back to the same level, carrying equal aesthetic and poetic significance, nourishing each other.

Sure enough, the viewer is able to recognise the faces behind the portraits, but this immediate realisation gives way to a more profound observation of the body, which interrogates the audience, questioning their assumptions about the relationship between the artist and the subject, as well as that between the work of art and the viewer. In this sense, Rheims’ work is worth seeing because it reflects on the process of photography itself, an art that has, like many others, been dominated by the language of patriarchy. How does our perception change when we realise we are faced with the work of a woman photographing other women? How do we define the relationship that establishes itself between the artist and her models? And lastly, what does the work of art ultimately come to represent in light of these atypical circumstances?

More than anything, Rheims is a straight woman who has wanted to represent the body (that of celebrities of course, but also that of Serbian prisoners and trans youth) in honest terms, implicating the viewer in an act of profound questioning of the ‘gaze’ itself. Interestingly, Jed Root, who represents Rheims, comments:

“Bettina Rheims is not a lesbian. Over the years, I was shocked to hear how many people, acquainted with her work but not with the person, were making this assumption. Returning to her portraits, I finally understood that Rheims’ unique mastery of the visual language can evoke women’s desires by making them reconsider the image they have of themselves. Rheims’ visual imagination and her uncompromising confidence are devoid of the masculine.”

Click to enlarge

Or are they? Whilst I agree with Root’s argument to a certain extent, I would like to push it a little further. Rheims’ series go well beyond the patriarchal, based on a clear binary distinction between female and male. Through her portraits, the erotic frees itself from pre-conceived notions, flirting with new definitions of the intimate relationship between the artist and the model, but also between the viewer and the viewed. Do I think that through her work Rheims is channeling a closeted homosexuality? No, but I do believe that her work displays an alternative concept of homoeroticism, which does not culminate in the sexual act, of course, but in magnificent works of art, implicating the viewer – whatever their gender – in this new type of relationship.

Of particular interest are her Modern Lovers and Gender Studies series. Whilst the latter suggests more explicitly an investigation into the “question” of gender, I have been struck by these photographs in terms of their exploration of the double, a theme I mentioned above. In both series, Rheims manages to represent and transcend duality at the same time. Hints as to the models’ biological identities are clearly dismissed as unimportant, as the photographer explains, she tried to “keep a little mystery without dressing them [the models] up”. These photographs, in their visual force, refuse to provide ‘answers’, leaving the viewer wondering about the terms of this original and unmissable aesthetic experience. Rheims chooses instead to celebrate fluidity, the choice of ‘not choosing’ or choosing against the grain so to speak. By disrupting the idea of a ‘classic fashion silhouette’ and by refusing to fall into binary polarities between female and male, both Rheims and her models redefine sexuality, gender and eroticism.

The retrospective Bettina Rheims is at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris until 27th  March 2016.

Follow Virna on Twitter (@firnagg)

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