Pierre et Gilles Celebrate 40 Years of Painted Photos with New Retrospective
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If you’re not familiar with the names Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard, you at least know their work.
It spans four decades, after all.
December saw the release of Pierre et Gilles: 40 (400 pp., $60, Flammarion), a retrospective of unmistakable portraits created by the French photographer and painter, whose artistic collaboration is renowned as a match made in gay heaven. The work itself is an otherworldly synthesis of the real and the surreal, the sexy and the sublime, overt queer tones mixed with mythic and religious fantasy.
The tome itself tackles the duo’s extensive oeuvre year by year—along with an insightful essay by art critic and curator Éric Troncy—from their first painted portraits of scantily clad models in the late ’70s (in addition to well-known faces like Mick Jagger, Salvador Dalí and Iggy Pop) to their later work with international pop culture superstars as wide-reaching as Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Karl Lagerfeld and Kylie Minogue.
The work of Pierre et Gilles has been exhibited in museums and galleries spanning the globe, in addition to magazines and album covers, and the men themselves have been recipients of international art awards, Paris’s Grand Prix de Photographie in 1993 and Chevalier des Arts et Lettres in 2012 among them. No previously released book has brilliantly curated the art couple’s awe-inspiring, isntantly recognizable work quite like this, making Pierre et Gilles: 40 a must-have item for any serious ‘queer art’ collector.
Those lucky enough to secure one of 200 limited-edition copies of the book will also be treated to a specially created print, the entire thing enclosed in a deluxe clamshell case.
We recently sat down with Pierre and Gilles to discuss their recent career retrospective, as well as their process and how the inherent homosexuality of their work had a profound effect on queer people through the years.
We also tried to coerce a scandalous celebrity story out of these gents, to no avail. Nevertheless, our discussion is well worth a read.
First things first, I understand that Pierre, you’re the photographer, and Gilles, you’re the painter. Can you say something about how your process works?
Pierre: The meeting with the model is what initially guides us. Then we build around their personality. We imagine the set and the character they will play. We craft a made-to-measure role for them.
Gilles: The photo shoot takes place in one afternoon; the model poses with or without clothes on the set. We choose the best image, we create a large-scale print, and we paint it, to perfect every detail. We custom-make the frame for each work.
Your work is particularly unique in the way that it melds tropes from gay culture with religion and mythology. What draws you both to such a unique aesthetic?
Gilles: For us, it’s natural. These are our tastes. They come from our roots, our childhood. We have always done what comes from the heart.
Pierre and I, even if we have each brought a lot to the other, we have always, from the start, been very close in our sensibilities. We like popular, vernacular images, those produced by photographers, taken while traveling, images we find anywhere around the world, those that are often out of sync with “great art.”
But everything inspires us; we like to mix cultures. We like cinema, art, childhood, sailors—we were both born by the sea—et cetera. All of these things sustain our work.
Throughout the years, you two have worked with some of gay culture’s favorite idols—people like Madonna, Boy George and Kylie Minogue. What is the most outrageous thing to ever happen on-set with a celebrity model?
Gilles: Nothing scandalous. Each model is different. Often we discover people.
We just photographed the punk singer Nina Hagen dressed as Kali, the Indian goddess, and she left for a party still wearing the full-body blue makeup.
Jeff Stryker was like a very gentle child, very loving, and what he preferred of our images were those of the Virgin, religious images.
As artists, you two never shied away from showcasing the inherent homosexuality of your work. How did that effect the reception of your work through the years?
Pierre: For us, it was simply natural. We’ve never hidden anything.
There are lots of young gay people who have written to us and who we’ve sometimes met, who have said that it had helped them, that it had given them a beautiful image of homosexuality.
Our friends around us are gay, straight, lesbian, trans, black, white, Arab. So naturally we touch on all kind of sexuality in our work. We provide a window onto the world and all its differences.
You two have been together for an inspiring four decades, and have worked together throughout that time. What is the secret to maintaining your relationship all those years?
Pierre: Lots of respect for each other, and freedom. We have a very child-like side in that we say things to each other very naturally, even brutally sometimes. We’re very direct. At the same time, there’s a very magical side. We met each other, we were destined to meet. It’s the magical side of life that can’t be explained. We need each other, we’re complementary.