Herb Ritts: Sign ​O’​the Times

Is Herb Ritts to photography what William-Adolphe Bouguereau is to painting? A staged, dated and petit bourgeois idea of titillation? Or is he simply a reflection of a particularly artificial period in our recent history that gave us the “Supermodel”?

A period that revered spotless celebrity idols and fashion icons alike. Fabrications of glamour that were part of a political agenda: a non-threatening representation of stability and satisfaction. A construct of Beauty meant to instill a civilising influence.

“All photographs of the body are potentially political, inasmuch as they are used to sway our opinions or influence our actions. In this regard, and advertising image is as political as the most blatant propaganda. So is the supposedly autonomous art object, in so far as it represents fundamental attitudes and values”. William A. Ewing “The Body” Chronicle Books, 1994

Ronald Reagan and later Bush Père glorified the fifties. Herb, the Brentwood preppy, was clearly inspired by fashion photography giants like George Hoyningen-HueneHorst or John Rawlings. Unlike them, who shot mostly in the studio, he took his subjects outside in the blazing California sun. Thus gracing us with effective images that convey prowess and a glimmer of magic.

But the eighties were not a time we should be sentimental about. Ronald Reagan and his “kitchen cabinet” fostered the mendacity that allows the abject brutality of Donald Trump to exist today.

With nudes, Ritts followed suit. Inspired by California’s supreme sensualist Edward Weston, he also took his beauties outside and mixed them with the “elements”. But, unlike his contemporaries Jock Sturges or Sally Mann, no untoward demonstrations of flesh are to be found. Wrinkles, pouches, objectionable hair, and other imperfections do not disturb us: his beauties are sculptural, chimerical, to be venerated at a distance. “All forms are perfect in the poets mind, but these are not obstructed or compounded from nature, but are from the imagination”. William Blake

“The academic nudes … are lifeless because they no longer embody real human needs and experiences. They are among the hundreds of devalued symbols that encumber the art and architecture of the utilitarian century.” Kenneth Clark “The Nude” Princeton University Press, 1956

But, as beauty is a shield, exalted beauty becomes an armour; Herb Ritts wanted us to be Superheroes. Pain, suffering and death could not touch us. Beyond being a reflection of duplicitous times, Herb Ritts was expressing a sincere, if maladroit, human desire for immortality.

 

Herb Ritts “En pleine lumière” at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris until November 30, 2016

All Images ©Herb Ritts Foundation

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In Praise of: “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972

Today I am starting a series that will show up regularly on ArtWise: “In Praise of” is a short tribute to a particular work of an artist, contemporary or historical, that constitute the wide pantheon of sustained enthusiasms of my ever curious mind. Basically, they “Rock my World” and make it ever so enchanting!

Hockney peter by pool

 “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972

David Hockney takes time to work on his canvases, so indeed this particularly beautiful California view, which shows Peter Schlesinger at the edge of the pool and John St Clair swimming, was painted in his London studio. His technique of using various photographs, taken indifferently of time or place and then re-organising them, is a form of masterful manipulation of the eye.

Playing with our perception and distorting perspectives has always been a key element of Hockney’s work. We can see that in his very early work, his photography compositions of the ’80’s or his magnificent late large canvases of English landscapes.

Having been in love with the California sun and the boys glowing under it since his childhood, in 1964 as soon as success came about, David left his native dreary England for Los Angeles where he would live, love and work, off and on, for a large part of his life.

“Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972, is a dreamy composition imagined by Hockney. Peter Schlesinger, young Art student at UCLA, then David’s lover, stands above the pool, considering, looking, without looking at another human being gently swimming silently underwater. A sense of foreboding in this idyllic surrounding impregnates the painting: Peter was becoming more distant and moved out while David was painting it. This magnificent canvas filled with yearning reminds me of a short poem by Constantine P. Cavafy, (poems from which David would make a series of illustrations):

“I was always struck by beauty, moved by it’s perfection, it was always there, other, and I, here, flawed.”