When we approach the middle of our life, (what Dante calls, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”), when carefree days dissipate in the clouds, a desire suddenly crystallizes: to retain something of the flow and the foam of the passing days. And, in stillness or tumult, we need to go back looking for elusive moments which, perhaps, demand to be saved, as would a drowning person. Thus memoirs and autobiographies are flourishing throughout the world. And who would complain about that? Who would ever tire of the memoirs of Churchill, of Chateaubriand, or of Kafka's journal?
It's to a certain extent her autobiography that Bettina Rheims offers us. She spent months traveling through her photographic past, examining her thousands of photos, classifying them, retaining certain ones, putting aside others, each one a particle or star or a black hole in her multiplicity of universes. The day-to-day universe, the whimsical and fantastic universe, the universe of phantasms, which is perhaps the most interesting and most revealing of all. I asked myself what sort of portrait a psychoanalyst who knows nothing about this photographer (as hard to imagine as that may be) would be able to discern by examining and tuning in to the retrospective of Bettina Rheims which ran in Paris from January 28-March 27 of this year, adorning the walls of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. But in exhibiting the 190 large-format photographs that this artist has retained, it's her life and her dreams and her results and her desires and her battles and her disillusions that she is allowing to be exposed, to unwind in front of our eyes.
There was, first, the Black and White period--the one where talent forges, demands make themselves heard, influences show themselves, including those of film and painting--before distancing, without leaving any traces.
And then the gloomier the times become, the more the colors rush in and dapple her palette. In the last photos, the reds and golds explode.
From that time onward, there is a style immediately recognizable from the very first glance: that of this woman born of the excellent and the stirring, and gifted, and a touch of the great Jewish bourgeois libertine, of this woman dizzyingly married four times, of this artist so offhand when she speaks of her work, but who is so rigorous, implacable, and infinitely intransigent while executing it. Nothing ends up captured on film that she hasn't chosen with extreme care, modified, illuminated, suppressed. A film director where even particles of dust become the subject of essays and reflections.
Women--it is as manifest as the manifesto of a political party--are her subject of choice. Young, fleshy, slender, granddaughters of May '68, they are thrust on stage, an elaborate stage that tells much about the intentions of the author. Yes, her photos speak! They reveal the splendid and the lugubrious, which blend together intimately, like the reverse side, or the destiny of all things.
Every match a dream
Every dream a flight!
One flight after another
On the filthy and shear snow
That scratches the child with asphalt
Death makes its way
And turns her body to marble.
Swallow her silent and alert mouth
Grab her round bare little hands
Snatch her lifetime interrupted
By a macramè frill
Grab her knees dirtied on all fours
Grasp her fury without aims
Seize! Her vices as impulsive butterflies
Grasp! Her oxymoron that prolongs time
Seize! The freezing cold of her motionless tender feet
Grasp! Her waiting at the pulsing of the body
Seize! Her implacable disposition to die
Grasp! The scream of her dreaming heart
Seize! Her frozen match on the ground
Grasp! Her last fleeting moan!
Light the burn out match
Brighten the enchantment of her dream
Clean the filthy snow
Melt that marble body
Soothe the asphalt scratches
Release her breath
Raise her body from the floor
Allow her the last flight.
From all appearances, this photographer is in love with the sight and perhaps, but I don’t know, the touch of the female body. She glorifies it but in its truth, without artifice, without the lure of clothes, of jewels, of finery. The gorgeous scantily-clad blonde who adorns the invitation extends her arms to you, her hands with their outstretched fingers, her eyes already half-closed.
She is inviting you to joy.
Even though she most certainly has not read John Keats, in listening to her, I heard her murmur: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Beauty is truth, truth beauty."
Translated from French by Diane Joy Charney.