Pierre et Gilles: Pop Portraiture with a French Touch

Photo of Mélissa Leclézio
29 November 2016

Pierre and Gilles, the unique duo of portraitists, met at the opening night of the swanky Kenzo shop at Place des Victoires, Paris, in 1976. As they like to say, they left on the same scooter that night and never separated. This marked the beginning of a passionate relationship as well as a prolific artistic collaboration.

Pierre Commoy, born in 1950 in La Roche-sur-Yon, was the son of an optician. He studied photography in Geneva and in the 1970s was working as a photographer for various fashion and music journals. Gilles Blanchard, born 3 years later in Le Havre, completed a degree at the Ecole des Beaux Arts where he focused on painting and collage. Their respective disciplines would later marry perfectly, giving birth to a very unique duo of ‘plastic’ artists, Pierre et Gilles.

Sharing their vision and emotions, the two men have been working together for more than 30 years. Their work is an intimate reflection of their effervescent universe – reminiscent of a photo album mixing photography and painting. Friends and family, famous and anonymous people share the limelight as they are represented in Pierre et Gilles’ personal pantheon. The creative process is precise and meticulously rehearsed: together the duo draft a project – first as a drawing, and then as an actual mise en scène where the use of a myriad of objects and accessories brought from their travels results in a rich theatrical spectacle, highlighted by their use of dramatic stage and lighting effects. Pierre and Gilles create their stunning costumes themselves, and they choose the make-up and hairstyle with the help of experts. Once the set is ready, Pierre photographs it and Gilles retouches the unique print with layers of paint.

Pierre et Gilles’ first pieces employed simple backgrounds and clean colours. At the time, they were less concerned about ornaments and the theatrical staging. Portraits of Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop, published in the French magazine Façade, propelled them to fame. Since then, they have produced commercials, works for magazines, disc covers (for French singer Etienne Daho notably), videos and artworks. Their hybrid art and tangy colours are deeply rooted in pop culture, but they also interweave references to religious iconography, eroticism, burlesque, mythology and children’s tales.

Obsessed with a dreamlike world, Pierre et Gilles ignore realism and artistic conventions and thus skilfully abolish some of the frontiers between high art and low art. Their universe favours grace, sensuality and esotericism; it stages mysterious icons, glorified, eroticised, divinised to the point that they integrate popular imagery. Constantly revamping the art of portrait, the two men explore the limits of contemporary aesthetic. Recurring characters fill their frames: sailors, princes, fishermen, saints – but the story of these figures is told with both tenderness and cruelty, in a fairytale fashion. The explicit references to gay culture, present notably in major works such as Le Cowboy Victor (1978) and Neptune Karim (1988), carry a message of openness and tolerance.

In Dans le Port du Havre – In the Havre Harbour (1998) – a blond sailor wearing a traditional blue and white striped shirt is photographed waist-high in a bubbling opaque sea. The scene is set against the backdrop of a polluting factory, and a dramatic starry night reinforces the theatrical effect. Red fumes in the dark sky and woodchips in the sea, encircling the sailor, suggest a sinister event has occurred. This strongly contrasts with the childish, delicate features of the sailor whose sad blue eyes look vaguely at the horizon.

Major international institutions have displayed the works of Pierre et Gilles, including the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, the Ginza Art Space in Tokyo, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow.

In early 2012, the duo published an autobiographical book entitled Autobiographie en photomatons 1968-1988. The ‘photo booth autobiography’ immerses us into the world of Pierre et Gilles whilst paying tribute to the ‘Palace Years’, the 1980s in Paris – a decade during which the gay community stepped out of the closet and into the dashing Palace, a nightclub inaugurated by Grace Jones where the Parisian glitterati met during those heady years.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the fruitful collaboration between Pierre et Gilles, they are releasing Pierre et Gilles: 40 this November. A chronicle of the duo’s four decade career perfectly captures the genesis of the masters of pop portraiture.

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