The Bettina Rheims photography exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in the Marais is showing until the 27th of March 2016.
You see it at your own peril… depending on your sensibilities.
The exhibition, which is curated by Vanessa Mourot, with the participation of Jean-Luc Monterosso, is a co-production with the Stockholm Fotografisca.
It seems there has always been a strong relationship between Bettina Rheims and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. In 1990, when the MEP was still being built, she had exhibited her “Modern Lovers” series, and in 2000, it was her controversial “I.N.R.I.” exhibit that was on display. It is therefore obvious that the MEP would be a natural choice for her to showcase, for the first time in Paris, her journey through forty years of photography.
After a thoroughly delightful lunch at the next-door Au Petit Versailles du Marais, we struggled up the stairs to the first floor of the three-floor Maison Européenne de la Photographie, where the exhibition of Rheims’ works commences…
The first room is a visual introduction to her works, sweeping the visitor through the various somewhat unconventional characters that inhabit her photos. These first prints are at first intimidating, but on further inspection prove to be interesting, and at times strangely moving, even troubling. The spectator finds him or herself face-to-face with life-size representations that attempt to question the idea of femininity and identity, way before it had become fashionable to do so. Bettina Rheims certainly does have a talent for embracing transgressions, a vision that does away with conventions, and on occasion, an eye that reveals confused inner worlds.
Going further up the stairs to the second floor (the elevator was not functioning), we were met with a vast array of nude works…
“Bettina Rheims has mastered the codes of nude photography and diverted them to put femininity at its core. The beauty of her models is thus endangered and heightened at the same time. Faltering or triumphant, the stripped model intimidates the spectator.”
That is obviously open to the spectator’s interpretation… and taste. I myself could not help but compare, in my mind’s eye, Rheims’ numerous nude photographs to those of Helmut Newtons‘ and Robert Mapplethorpes‘, which could have at some point been a source of inspiration for her nudes.
It is true that Bettina Rheims’ work goes beyond femininity, delving unashamedly into questions of gender.. expanding the codes of representation with her “Modern Lovers” series (1990), presented here next to its most recent update, “Gender Studies” (2011), and the “Espionnes” series (1992). The subjects are still naked, both physically but also emotionally, with their inner feelings laid ambiguously bare.
“Opposites and ambivalence” are also the themes in the “Shanghai” series (2002), where Bettina Rheims photographs Chinese women in unexpected situations, torn between the culture they grew up in and a fantasized modern world.
What Bettina Rheims is most known for, to the wider public in France and abroad, is as an accomplished portraitist. On the third floor of the MEP, famous faces of the film, music, and modelling world fill the walls.. such as her suggestive “Breakfast with Monica Bellucci”, “Madonna lying on the floor of a red room”, and “Claire Stansfield crying in the Formosa”. An ongoing documentation of modern culture…
Together with the portraits of a selection of anonymous faces, they all seem to want to tell a story, such as the story of Christ in “I.N.R.I.” (2000), or, in 2005’s “Héroines” series, a mysterious allegory for melancholy. A large coffee-table book, published by TASCHEN, accompanies the exhibition.
“Above all, Bettina Rheims is an image creator, whose methods defend the idea of a secular pictorial tradition. Through composition and narration, her photos are a testament to that tradition.”
We left the Bettina Rheims exhibition and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie feeling, as always, elated to have attended an exhibition of art, culture, or history in Paris… however, for those of you with more conservative tastes, I repeat my words of warning: “see it at your own peril, depending on your sensibilities…”.
Maison Européenne de la Photographie MEP
5/7 rue de Fourcy, 75004 Paris