An image from Guy Bourdin's Charles Jourdan footwear campaign from 1979
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Death becomes her: the sinister glamour of Guy Bourdin

Did Bourdin really cause a 20-year-old model to pass out when he covered her entire body with glue and pearls?

Guy Bourdin: Image Maker
Somerset House, London WC2

“Four people are sitting around a table, talking about baseball,” intoned Alfred Hitchcock at an American Film Institute seminar in 1970, describing an imaginary movie. “Suddenly a bomb goes off, blows the people to smithereens. What do the audience have? Ten seconds of shock.” But that would be “wasted footage”: far better, he said, to torment the viewer. “Take the same scene and tell the audience there’s a bomb under the table and it will go off in five minutes . . . Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital.”

A Hitchcockian sensibility pervades the Guy Bourdin retrospective at Somerset House. Though the French fashion photographer’s domain was the pages of monthly magazines rather than the cinema screen, filmic suggestions of intrigue saturate his images of sex, death and danger. A boy stands in the shadows of a hotel room while to his left is a glowing TV set. Light falls on a pair of pink shoes at the foot of a bed; in those shoes is a woman, almost naked, her head cropped out entirely. It’s a deathly scene. It’s also a shoe advert for Charles Jourdan, shot in the spring of 1975.

Bourdin was the product of a Europe in upheaval. Born in Paris in 1928, he met the surrealist photographer Man Ray at the age of 22 and quickly became his protégé. After two years working as an artist, he struck up a relationship with Vogue Paris, which regularly published his photographs until 1987. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Bourdin shaped our conception of glamour, introducing overt sexuality and suspense into what had previously been a decorative, flatly commercial discipline. He did so without ever truly abandoning his surrealist commitment to the conflicting impulses that our conscious minds clothe in the couture of civilisation. His work, like Man Ray’s, is emotive – yet exactly what it is that we feel remains ambiguous.

Bourdin revelled in such ambiguities in both his life and his art. He rarely gave interviews, seemingly happy to let rumour and speculation flourish. Did he really scavenge a dead bird from his garden and place it at a model’s feet, taking photographs of her as she cried? And did he cause a 20-year-old model to pass out when he covered her entire body with glue and pearls? Stories of a perfectionism that often bordered on cruelty adorn accounts of his working practices like baubles of fashion excess – but the work itself couldn’t be further from Zoolander-ish silliness. A seriousness of intent is apparent in each of his images, reinforced by this exhibition’s displays of his test Polaroids, meticulously cropped with black tape to reveal the most effective compositions within already fascinating scenes.

In a photograph from the 1970s, a female form is glimpsed through a doorway, her face obscured and her body contorted. Our eyes fall on her bra, then notice a man’s hand outside the room, pressing a light switch. The door is only partly ajar and the camera is positioned above head height; we peer at the tableau voyeuristically. But there is no resolution to the narrative. There’s no sex here, only the suggestion of it, and if the model’s outstretched position connotes some act of violence, it is merely implied. Yet we’re given enough information to feel compelled: the hand, the sordid-looking room, the faces hidden from view.

Part of what makes Bourdin’s work feel so glamorous despite the horror of many of his images is his fetishistic attention to detail. Our modern use of the word “glamour” carries with it an echo of its earlier connotations of magic and “delusive charm”, as the social historian Carol Dyhouse once put it. The world of glamour is one of fantasy and plays of light; it offers us a fiction of endless possibility that owes little subservience to rationality or natural laws. Fantasy, however, is more potent when grounded in relatable terms and Bourdin’s use of cinematic shorthand was just one strategy he employed: he also fixated on real-world clothes and accessories, amplifying their power to near-totemic heights. One Charles Jourdan commission enacts this sense of enlargement literally, showing a giant yellow shoe among ordinary-sized pairs.

At times, Bourdin’s camera seems to pursue textures for their sensual potency as an end in itself: in a 1970 Vogue shoot, the shiny beads that cover the face of a model compete for attention with the necklace she wears. It’s arguable that this celebration of materiality is an inadequate excuse for, say, his 1980 Pentax calendar image in which blood streams from a naked woman’s mouth – but the same dazzling control is present there and its affective quality is undeniable.

Bourdin’s seeming delight in female subjection may prove too unpalatable for some. Yet to dismiss his work for that alone is to misunderstand fashion – and art – as a sphere of didacticism. Bourdin was a manipulator of dreams. Condemning him for appealing to the extremities of our senses would be as puritanical as feeling ashamed of the darker contents of our own nightmares. Pasolini once said, “To scandalise is a right; to be scandalised, a pleasure.” At Somerset House, the pleasure was all mine.

Until 15 March 2015

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Vanessa Lubach
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Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel digs deep into the psycho-geology of Yorkshire. 

In the autumn of 616 or 617 AD, one of the last remaining Celtic kingdoms of ancient Britain to withstand Anglo-Saxon settlement was conquered by its Northumbrian neighbours. Elmet, which covered what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire, was referred to by Bede as “silva Elmete” (“forest of Elmet”), with its devastation verified by the Historia Brittonum, which claimed that Edwin, the king of Northumbria, “occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country”. In 1979, several years before becoming poet laureate, the Celtic obsessive Ted Hughes collaborated with the photographer Fay Godwin on Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence, a book that evoked the “spectacular desolation” of the Calder Valley where he grew up, a landscape saturated with myth and memory.

There is more than a hint of Hughes’s shamanistic unleashing of the power of language in Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, a work of troubling beauty that has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. At once spare and ornate, Mozley’s writing digs deep into what could be termed the psycho-geology of Yorkshire, much as Alan Garner’s work does with Cheshire: the intermittent glimpses of vanished lives from centuries earlier alongside those of the present day, the trauma of past upheaval and resettlement echoing along the dark valleys.

Elmet, for all its formality and ritual style, has a modern setting but appears to inhabit a space that is outside time. Opening with a ragged account from a survivor of a savage act of destruction, the narrative moves back to the events leading up to the routing of a smallholding held by the 14-year-old Daniel and his conspicuously small family: his sister, Cathy, and their father, John, always referred to as “Daddy” or “my Daddy”.

Daddy is a giant of a man, worshipped by both children, “more vicious and more kind than any leviathan of the ocean… His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.” Far from being carried away on a crescendo of poetic whimsy, however, the book is firmly rooted in stark realities. Daddy is a violent man, who makes his living from bare-knuckle fighting.

Having removed his children from school, he sets about building a house in a remote copse on land that he does not own. Lawless, but then so is Price, the most powerful and ruthless of the unscrupulous local landlords who dominate this ex-mining area of subsistence-level existence. The battle between Price and John is decades old, with links to the children’s vanished mother, and is as much a battle for the soul of an individual as for a plot of land. It is this agonising constriction, like one of the hunter’s bows John stretches to tautness, that Mozley emphasises.

If John is the “Robyn Hode” of legend, Cathy and Daniel are his “scrawny vagrants”, running wild in the ancient forest that surrounds their home. It is a hard life but, in Mozley’s telling, an enchanted one: rich and gamey with dark cuts of animals hunted for food, cider and roll-ups, singing till dawn and “skylarks on toast, almost whole, with mugs of hot, milky tea”. Daddy has built a fortress and a flawed paradise, in which Cathy – a mixture of Brontë-esque wilfulness (the name is surely no coincidence) and fearless warrior princess, with hair as “black as Whitby jet” and eyes “blue like the North Sea” – strives to protect her younger brother.

However, even as their precarious shelter is under siege, Daniel and Cathy are changing. Cathy is most resistant to adaptation. Like Daddy, she had “an outside sort of head”; like him, she is a loner. Daniel, though, is drawn to the world of learning and culture, as demonstrated by Vivien, an unlikely acquaintance of Daddy who gives the children informal lessons. Vivien influences Daniel in other ways, too, for this is a novel about not conforming to stereotypes, be they gendered or otherwise. Daniel’s long hair and sense of curiosity and delight in his body contrast with Cathy’s awkwardness in hers, her fatalistic awareness that as a woman she is vulnerable, a target: “We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine,” she tells him, just before the book’s violent culmination.

Brutal, bleak, ethereal, Mozley’s novel combines parable with urgent contemporary truths about dispossession and exploitation. Reading Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth: centuries old, yet as fresh as today. 

Elmet
Fiona Mozley
JM Originals, 320pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear