Sadie Murdoch's self-portrait as Charlotte Perriand has been on show in Leeds at the Henry Moore Institute. It was the subject of an interview on BBC Radio 4's Womans' Hour (I contributed to that discussion): you can listen to this here.
In an interview for this weblog Sadie explains why she took a colour photograph of herself in in black and white clothes wearing black and white make-up reclining on a famous modernist chaise longue...
click on this image to enlarge it...
Could you describe how you came to make this self-portrait as Charlotte Perriand?
It began with a conversation with Penelope Curtis, curator at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. Penelope was in the process of thinking about the exhibition "Figuring Space" (18 Feb - 1 April 2007) at the Institute, which explores the role of sculpture in the work of architect Mies van der Rohe. In an overlapping project in Gallery 4, Penelope planned to address the way in which Modernism frames and presents the gendered body. Together we discussed the possibility of an exhibition of photographic prints in which I would re-stage a photograph of Charlotte Perriand and her iconic piece of modernist design, the Chaise Longue.
I was attracted to the image of Perriand on the Chaise Longue in that it seemed to break with a number of conventions of the promotional photograph.
Firstly, given Perriand's presence in the photograph, as model and as co-author (she collaborated on the design of the Chaise, along with the architect and designer Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jenneret), she is also curiously absent. Her head turns away from the viewer to face the wall, and her physical presence seems to merely demonstrate use. It is one of a series of similar photographs, and in each case, Perriand is anonymous. In two of the images, her signature chromed ball bearing necklace hints at her identity. Perriand also staged and lit the photograph, so whilst it could be read as a self portrait, it is also just an 'ad'.
Then, there is a sense in which the image creates an unstable representation of gender; Perriand's hair is cut à la garçon, and yet she reclines in a highly feminine manner, legs crossed on the chaise, her skirt draped langorously across the chrome bars. Even the pose itself becomes a type of prop. The Chaise itself and the chromed ball bearing necklace are also both 'male' and 'female'.
Lastly, the shadow cast by Perriand's form and the reclining position of the Chaise Longue seem to point to a kind of 'inbetweenness', a psychological and visual ambiguity. Most photographic documentation of furniture from the 1920s and 1930s is evenly illuminated, neutral, almost graphic. In this image, the shadow looms spectrally, larger than Perriand herself, and hints at an empty space, an index of Perriand's presence as well as her absence. The shadow also creates a figure/ground ambiguity, penumbral zones within the image which blur the borders between positive and negative space, somehow attaching the figure of Perriand to the wall.
This unfixed status is integral to the design of the chair itself. The sliding system of the Chaise permits a range of seating positions, from casually upright to reclining. It generally permits the sitter to be both alert, yet relaxed. It is actually a really great chair to read in, precisely for this reason; the mind can wander, but ultimately remain focussed. It struck me, looking at this picture, that Modernism occupies a point between positivist utilitarianism and a set of ideas and practices that may not be strictly rational - idealism, utopianism, megalomania etc. So the Chaise itself is a nice visual analogy.
And just as the occupant of the chaise is suspended, between dreaming and waking, my remake of the image in 'Modelling Charlotte Perriand' is not 'fixed'. The image itself shuttles back and forth between black and white and colour, the original and its interpretation, Perriand's body and my own. The spatial ambiguity of the figure /ground relationship is also formally elaborated in my photograph.
How did you create the image? Isnt it a bit perverse to use black and white make-up? Why not just manipulate the image digitally?
The two images in the exhibition, "Mirrored Photomontage" Part One and Part Two (2007), were taken using an SLR camera and colour negative film. I attempted to render everything within the frame black, white or grey, in order to create the illusion of a black and white photograph. But if you look at the images closely, certain things are not quite right. Colour 'leaks' into the image, from beneath the make-up, and from reflected sources outside the frame of the photograph. I applied make-up and dyed the clothing in order to match the overall grey hue of the backdrop, but inevitably there is error.
I view this re-staging as a type of translation or interpretation, which by its nature is never exact. The flaws are an important part of the work.
As part of this process of 'faking it', there is a performative element, which manifests itself materially in the way in which the make-up smudges, wipes off and soils the clothing and props. A trace of the process of making the work, it points not just to the process of physically constructing the image but also to the way in which we leave traces behind us when we use things.
I could have used black and white film or manipulated the image digitally, but with both these approaches the flaws or faults would be invisible. I also wanted to go against the grain of the medium, to try and make a colour photograph do something that it wasnâ€™t designed to do, that it sort of struggles to resist. Photography is quite a physical medium, liquid, like paint. Digital photography is too 'crunchy' and 'brittle' somehow.
Why did you chose to focus on Perriand?
Perriand interested me because of her oft-perceived status as a footnote to the history of Le Corbusier. I also found her interesting in that her work was part of a larger social program intended to promote the pleasures of modernity. Though clearly not averse to the luxurious and to a high standard of living, Perriand also challenged bourgeois conventions and supported collective goals. In the years prior to WW II, she was closely affiliated with the Communist Party of France and worked on a number of projects for the Socialist Popular Front. She was committed to design as a means to facilitate the collective transformation of daily existence, and I find this deeply inspiring.
It is hard to appreciate how radical this chaise-longue was at the time it was designed (1928)...
I think that it is hard to appreciate the radical break with 19th Century furniture design. With their chromed steel frames and lack of ornamentation, the Chaise, like Breuer's Wassily chair would have seemed the antithesis of comfortable domesticity. Now these artefacts have achieved the status of icons of 'retro-chic' and are often appreciated more for their sculptural beauty than their functional brilliance.
Modernist design design also broke with the tradition of gendered furniture. Yet the Chaise Longue, rather than being neutral in this respect, seems both masculine and feminine; the curves of the metal tube frame are sinuous and elegant, yet it's smart, functional simplicity suggests a masculine sitter. The various coverings, from black leather to pony-skin further complicate this message.
What about that ball-bearing necklace?
The chrome necklace as a decorative adornment made with objects used for engineering was both feminine accoutrement and a signifier of the masculine world of technology and machinery. It is an assertive embrace of pleasure and modernity; like Perriand's 'Bar in the Attic' (1927), it is a gesture of self affirmation.
Do you feel Charlotte Perriand was eclipsed by Le Corbusier? Or was it just that she was much younger, somewhat in awe of him, and ultimately proud and delighted to be working as an effective associate of one of the most innovative architects of the century?
Perriand has always stated that Le Corbusier did not treat her differently because she was a woman, though history has not always been so kind. Many of the pieces she co-designed with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jenneret were often attributed simply to Le Corbusier. Penny Sparke's book "Furniture", for instance, credits Le Corbusier solely for the design of the Grand Confort and the Chaise Longue. (1) [ NW adds: This is probably a recent phenomenon - Perriand and Jeanneret are credited alongside Le Corbusier in Ginsburger's 1930 book Young French Architects]
Mary McLeod has described Perriand's anger at Beatriz Colomina's description of the photograph of the designer on the Chaise Longue. Colomina implies that the image was used by Le Corbusier to suggest Perriand's lack of authorship, and to deny her 'vision'; Perriand is "almost an attachment to the wall, she sees nothing" (2). Perriand has always insisted that she arranged the pose in order to emphasise the chair rather than herself, hoping to convey the idea that the Chaise Longue might be used by anyone. It is quite plausible that Perriand intended her body to be a means to demonstrate the use of the chaise, so it is in retrospect that we read this as a form of self-effacement.
An interesting parallel can be found in Erich Consemuller's 1926 photograph of the Wassily Chair. It is said to feature either Lise Beyer or Ise Gropius, wearing a stage mask by Oscar Schlemmer. The woman is anonymous. It is difficult to imagine a similarly arranged photograph of a male designer sitting on his own or someone else's chair. In another image of the Wassily chair, on the catalogue cover for Breuer's 'Metal Furniture' of 1927, designed by Herbert Bayer, the sitter (the same woman?) appears in photographic negative. The reversal of tone renders her facial features indistinguishable. It is as if, like Perriand, the sitter is somehow not 'in possession' of her own body. The use of the unidentified female figure has been a common feature in the promotion of design, from Breuer to Verner Panton, through to much advertising today. It reminds me of John Berger's assertion that the social presence of a woman is different to that of a man, as well as his pithy comment that "a photograph of an object is just an object, but with the addition of a female figure, that object is for sale".
In the last two decades Perriand's reputation has been thoroughly re-instated. Most recently, a major retrospective at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 2006, the exhibition "Useful Forms: Furniture by Charlotte Perriand" at Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton NJ , 2004, and McLeod's monograph "Charlotte Perriand. An Art of Living" (2003) provide evidence of the growing recognition of Perriand's important place in the history of modernist design. (3)
Is this part of an on-going series?
"Modelling Charlotte Perriand" is consistent with a body of work that I have been working on since 2004, in which I am asking people to re-consider black and white photography as artifice rather than document. I am interested in how history becomes a representation; black and white photography, in documenting early Modernism in particular, has retrospectively been used to construct iconic moments and represent buildings and artefacts quite formally, as planes of light and shade, generally unused and uninhabited. The black and white photograph transforms a building into a monument, a chair or a tea strainer into a piece of sculpture.
Modernist design itself often 'resists' the body or the feminine, or becomes simply a way of containing and controlling it. Photographic documentation of interiors and exteriors of early modernist design and architecture rarely depict the figure or even provide evidence of habitation. The house/domestic environment thus troubles modernism; it is a place of dirt and disorder. It is also a place traditionally associated with women, and women become part of this subtext of containment.
Through a re-staging of real and imagined events, involving figures such as Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier Philip Johnson and Lilly Reich, my work interprets this history, building a visual vocabulary around the fault lines and counter-narratives that run through this movement.
History itself must be viewed as a form of translation, a consistently subjective and arbitrary interpretation of the past. I am interested in the personal relationships, political agendas, ideas of otherness, vernacular traditions etc. that run against the grain of orthodox histories of this area of art, architecture and design. I am proposing that Modernism was constructed precisely as a result of these counter-narratives, in order to contain and conceal them in some way. The materiality of Modernism is somehow evidence of this; much of my work recreates the steely reflective surfaces and empty white spaces characteristic of its buildings and designs. But these empty spaces and gleaming chrome surfaces 'invite' dirt and also become a surface on which to project, to hallucinate; steely reflections create penumbral spaces of deep ambiguity.
Rather than a nostalgia for modernism, for its confidence and certainty, the work concerns itself with the contradictory nature of this movement, and how these contradictions are built into the fabric of the present. Like a lot of artists, I'm interested in Modernism because of what I suppose we perceive as its lack of cynicism and irony. It seems like an impossible position from the perspective of today's political relativism and complacency.
There is a lively strain of role-playing female self-portraiture, particularly in photography. Why do you think this is? Do you particularly identify with other artists working in this way?
Women artists have consistently used photographic means to explore identity and role playing as a part of a critical appraisal of the construction of femininity. From the 1920s to the present, artists such as Claude Cahun, Hannah Hoch, Lynda Benglis and of course Cindy Sherman have used photography or photomontage precisely because it invites a particular type of speculation about the self. Photography inaugurates what Celia Lury calls "the advent of myself as 'other'", where this form of image-making becomes disassociated from consciousness and memory, with embodiment creating other possible narratives for the physical self (4).
There is a theme of bodily extension and displacement running through Modernism - designers such as Gray and Perriand often used design as a form of prosthesis. An idea of an extension of the subject, beyond the self, can also be seen in the experimental photography of the 1920s and 1930s. The desire to present reformulated images of the self was part of a project to 'see the world anew' and released a type of visual and performative pleasure. The work of Marianne Brandt and Gertrude Arndt is interesting in this respect; two female members of the Bauhaus, they created ambiguous, enigmatic images of themselves and of a mutable femininity, which was interesting at a time when photography was used as a demonstrative assertion of presence and vocation.
I am also very interested in the tradition of the 'mirror' within self-portraiture in Bauhaus photography. The use of mirrors offers another 'reality', framed, duplicated but separate from the tangible world. I recently showed some photographs in a show at the Agency Gallery in London - 'Frauhaus'(4th April - 12th May 2007) - which took as a starting point the use of reflective surfaces to create distortion, repetition and spatial dislocation.
Do I identify with other artists working this way? Unlike artists such as Sherman, I'm not interested in revealing femininity as artifice, or engaging with the appearance of masquerade. This is well covered ground; I am interested in the interdependent relationship between photography and the disappearance of certain figures, key issues, awkward questions. I am interested in taking a photographic image and trying to follow, and undermine, its internal logic.
Thank you very much.
1. Sparke, Penny, Furniture (Bell and Hyman, 1986)
2. Colomina, Beatriz ed. 'The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism' in Sexuality and Space (N.Y. Princeton Architectural Press, 1992).
3. Prior to this Perriand had a retrospective at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris 1985, and at the Design Museum in London 1998.
4. Lury, Celia, Prosthetic Culture. Photography, Memory and Identity (Routledge, 1998).