THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Michel Ségard
Hervé Guibert was a French photographer and writer who became well-known in France in the 1980s and early 90s, mostly for his writing. He was very influential in bringing awareness to the AIDS epidemic in France until his own death from the disease in 1991 at the age of 35.
He is virtually unknown in the United States outside of the LGBTQ community. This show at Iceberg Project in Chicago is only the third exhibition of his photography in the U.S. The two prior American exhibitions of his work were at the Slough Foundation in Philadelphia in 2007 and at Callicoon Fine Arts in New York City in 2014.
Guibert is better known for his writing. A number of his books have been translated into English, including “Mausoleum of Lovers,” “Ghost Image,” “Crazy for Vincent,” and, probably his best-known work, “To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life.” This last book centers on his relationship with literary critic and philosopher, Michel Foucault, until Foucault’s death from AIDS in 1986, and Guibert’s coming to terms with his own HIV-positive diagnosis in 1988. His writing style falls under the general category of autofiction, a form of fictionalized autobiography. And this literary style is the portal to understanding his photography.
Guibert proclaims his position about photography with the statement: “The image is the essence of desire and if you desexualize the image, you reduce it to theory.” His photographs are replete with various forms of desire, sometimes overtly sexual. But the key to understanding Guibert’s aesthetics is to realize that it is closely related to his autofiction literary style.
This can be seen in the way he very carefully sets up his photos, “fictionalizing” the subject and setting to elicit specific emotions. His staging technique is sometimes similar to Cindy Sherman, but with a European sophistication and economy of detail. A good example of this approach is Auto-portrait, rue du Moulin-vert from 1986. In this image, he portrays himself as a corpse covered by a shroud in a typically French bourgeois drawing room.
Hervé Guibert, Autoportrait, rue du Moulin-vert, 1986
Another example of this very deliberate technique is Emménagement [Moving in] rue du Moulin-vert of 1981. This portrait of his mother as a young woman is set free from its frame in a barren and worn-down space (by American standards), and set next to the door. Is she about to escape this Hopperesque space for freedom from a confining marriage? The photo also illustrates another theme that suffuses this selection of photographs. All the spaces are time-worn, garret-like. They are the kinds of spaces I remember when, as a youngster, I lived in France during and shortly after WW II, but these photos were made in the 1980s. The yoke of European history and age permeates Guibert’s architectural spaces, adding a subtle subtext to his work.
Hervé Guibert, Emménagement rue du Moulin-vert, 1981
Guibert is not afraid of depicting explicit sexual desire. But again, this is with a European finesse rarely seen in American works of art dealing with the same subject matter. (For example, the lasciviousness of Paul Cadmus’ painting The Fleet’s In! from 1934 is more what one sees in American paintings about sexual desire.) In an homage to Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres, done in 1924, Guibert’s Sans titre [Untitled] from 1979 shows a nude male abdomen, the bottom of the rib cage and the pelvis combining to suggest the form of a violin. The male body becomes an instrument to be played as a source of pleasure.
Hervé Guibert, Sans titre, 1979
But for Guibert, desire can be separate from the context of a personal relationship. In Vincent (date unknown), we see the nude body of one of his lovers, about whom he wrote an entire book, “Crazy for Vincent.” The light comes in from a window to highlight Vincent’s torso, while his head stays in shadow; we only see the carnal part of their relationship. But it is not depicted in a prurient way; there is a certain sense of belle epoque romanticism, almost nostalgia, in the way that the bed sheets are arranged and their folds accentuated by the light. This picture could have been taken in 1890. The softness of his approach is in sharp contrast to Mapplethorpe’s male nudes which are often politically and provocatively homoerotic.
Hervé Guibert, Vincent (date unknown)
Two other pieces underscore this “classical” approach. In écriture [writing], a nude Guibert is sitting at a table with his back turned to the viewer, supposedly writing. Light streams in from a window above, illuminating the time-worn room and unmade bed. There is a faint hint of Vermeer in the way the light falls on the figure and one can almost hear the echo of arias from “La Boehme.” This highly romantic perspective also permeates Santa Caterina, where Guibert lies in bed reading by the light streaming in from an open door. European cultural history infuses these two photographs with a palpable sense of melancholy.
Hervé Guibert, écriture, 1983
But he also can be brutally truthful. Suzanne et Louise shows his two aunts in their bathroom mirror, uncoiffured, minus makeup, totally unadorned. The truth of their age and weariness dominates the picture. Yet his self-portrait from 1989, Autoportrait, (see beginning of page) is less truthful and more romantically, almost seductively self-pitying, with justification—it was taken a year after he was declared HIV-positive.
Hervé Guibert, Suzanne et Louise, (date unknown)
Another suite of pictures is disturbingly dominated by toys. Autoportrait rue du Moulin-vert from 1981 shows the reflection of Guibert taking a picture of a doll dressed in 18th century garb that is hung by its neck from a ceiling medallion. Néfertito shows a puppet dressed in vaguely priestly garb. The title suggests that this Pinocchio is cross-dressing as the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Lastly, Le petit soldat [The little soldier], taken in 1989, shows a toy soldier charging into battle, an open book and writing paper in the foreground. It has been suggested that the soldier stands for his battle against AIDS, which by this time had already started to take its toll.
Hervé Guibert, Autoportrait, rue du Moulin-vert, 1981
Hervé Guibert, Le petit soldat, 1989
In the homemade film of Guibert’s last year of life, La Pudeur ou l’impudeur [Prudence or Imprudence] Pinocchio shows up as a prop in a sequence where Guibert prepares a suicide dose of digitalis and places it next to the puppet. These images of toys become another type of self-portrait, revealing more deviant and darker facets of his persona.
Finally, the film confronts the truth about dying. It shows the artist struggling to survive, doing exercises to keep mobile, preparing and taking medication, sorting mail, taking a dip in the ocean, talking with his aunt, ultimately shadow-boxing with death as his energy drains and his body wastes away.
Still from the film Pudeur our l’impudeur
Why has this artist’s work not been better received in the U.S.? Imagine Guibert’s photographs next to the overtly aggressive work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Banchon or Roger Brown. Guibert’s poetic, autobiographical musings would be drowned out by the political polemic of those artists and their peers. Nor would he fare any better against Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat. The shrillness of American art during the 1980 and 1990 period was not an environment conducive to works of quiet introspection. Yet sometimes, the most enduring message is rendered in a whisper.
Except for the Man Ray, all photos are courtesy of the Hervé Guibert Estate and Callicoon Fine Arts.
Michel Ségard is the Editor-in-Chief of the New Art Examiner.
Below are the remaining photos included in this exhibition.
Herve Guibert, Nèfertito (date unknown)
Hervé Guibert, Prague, 1981
Hervé Guibert, Santa Caterina, 1982
Hervé Guiber, Thierry, Amsterdam, 1982
Hervé Guibert, Le rêve du cinéma, 1982
Hervé Guibert, Les Pivoines, 1988
Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924