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Bordeaux, France, 1968. Pierre Molinier puts on make-up, a mask for black eyes covers half of his face, fishnet stockings curl around his elegant legs and a metal chain attaches them to the stool on which he sits. He begins to photograph himself, once standing naked in front of the camera, a second time wearing a wig and his buttocks facing the camera. It was a typical moment for the French photographer.
After capturing himself on film, Molinier generally used silver scissors to cut out the contours of the body in the photos he had just taken and collect them in a single photomontage of his own body; a mise en abyme – or, the same image reproduced to give the impression of infinity – that he would immortalize with his foldable camera.
Born in 1900, the life and work of Pierre Molinier as a painter and photographer were filled with dark fantasies and sensational anecdotes. He is infamous for his fetish representations of women’s legs, his disturbing obsession with his sister, his taste for firearms, his wanderings in silk stockings in the streets of Bordeaux and his tragic end in 1976 on his bed, a pistol in the mouth.
“Pierre Molinier firing a pistol” (Pierre Molinier draws a pistol), around 1955 Credit: Pierre Molinier / Courtesy Galerie Chrsitophe Gaillard, Paris
His enigmatic photographs continue to fascinate the public, artists and photographers, and his multifaceted work, with his fantasized and fetishized bodies, is still difficult to this day.
Originally trained as a painter, Pierre Molinier began his artistic career in the late 1920s, producing landscapes and portraits inspired by Impressionism. But he changed course and, in 1951, he presented a controversial erotic painting in a respectable art salon in Bordeaux. Entitled “Le Grand Combat”, it represented a swirling multitude of legs (perhaps women) in fishnet stockings, and, shortly after, he began to send images of his works to the poet and writer André Breton, godfather of French surrealism.
His meetings with Breton led to a personal exhibition at the famous Parisian surreal gallery L’Etoile Scellée in 1956, exposing Molinier’s work to a wider audience. During the opening evening, Breton wrote to Molinier: “Today, you have become the master of vertigo. Your photographs leave no doubt about your aspirations and it seems to me difficult to be more disturbing. They are also beautiful that outrageous. ”
“Introit”, 1967 Credit: Pierre Molinier / Courtesy Galerie Chrsitophe Gaillard, Paris
Moving away from painting, Pierre Molinier began in the early 1960s to dedicate his practice to photographic work, mainly self-portraits, sublimated by a photomontage process. His technique often consisted of photographing himself dressed, body hair waxed and made up, his face covered with a mask and dressed in black fetish accessories – corsets, gloves, stockings and high heels, veils, fishing nets, and sometimes a top hat. He then cut out the contours of the body parts in the photos and reassembled them in a final collage photograph; an ideal image of himself. Sometimes he replaced his own head with the face of a doll. The process was similar to the durable surreal group drawing game, “Exquisite Corpse”. And although he was greatly influenced by the surrealists, Molinier never officially joined this movement, remaining a solitary practitioner throughout his life.
I suffer from a very serious disease called eroticism.
The costume was at the heart of his experimental work. Whether it was to disguise himself as a self-portrait or to use one of his male and female models – some of whom were his lovers – all subjects were disguised with outfits and wigs, posing against the backdrops of dark fabric in strips. This theatricality was also a key element in his practice, as he generally filmed his erotic scenes in the bourgeois interior of his studio in Bordeaux, using baroque screens, velvet curtains and floral wallpapers as backgrounds. This provocative contrast between eroticism and the acceptable caused an electrical tension in his images.
Throughout his artistic practice, Molinier deconstructed sexual identities, dismembering representations and stereotypes of the male and female ego, arousing gender disorders and transgressing the presupposed sacredness of the indivisible body.
The Child Man, 1969 Credit: Pierre Molinier / Private collection
His representations of transgender, androgynous and transvestite bodies, which were cut out, reassembled and played with, invented a surreal and pornographic theater of uninhibited desires and fantasies, completely shocking the French bourgeois public of the 1960s. His work was considered by many as perverse, even depraved, and despite the efforts of Breton, Molinier was never accepted by the French cultural elite.
His influence can be seen in the work of the extremely influential Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, and the controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe – in his eroticism, fetishism and sexual advantage. And in the work of Cindy Sherman, whose self-portraits have pushed the boundaries of gender and identity in photography.
Feminine plural is sad, plate n ° 32 of the Shaman, vintage silver print Credit: Pierre Molinier / Private collection
French filmmaker Gaspard Noé expressed his deep fascination for the colorful character of Molinier as much as for his decadent images, while fashion designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier and shoe designer f carried Molinier’s heritage in their collections; its aesthetic mythology and its ode to provocation, mystery and desire.
Not only complex in their technique and their subject, Molinier’s kaleidoscopic images confronted traditional ideas of power, domination and fluidity of genre. They can be seen as icons for a post-genre era, and the photographer himself as a forerunner of today’s queer and questioning culture. His photomontages of fused body parts have transcended the limits of the human form, creating space to imagine new visual possibilities – and political possibilities too.