Through a keyhole, a stolen glance at the painter’s desire. The much-coveted odalisque, surprised in her satins. She barely turns, in a somewhat awkward twist. But that one-eyed look of hers, is it a final regard before disdain and oblivion? Or rather is it the first… an invitation to shared desire? The five painters in this exhibition play with the charms of interpretation, reappropriating the pictorial stakes of the Orientalist theme. A theme, for that matter, that has undergone manifold transformations, from Ingres (1814) up to Manet’s Olympia (1863), and which the artists here fragment – all the better to keep clues out of plain sight.
Jérôme Zonder draws inspiration from Chuck Close’s Big Nude (1967), a colossal hyperrealistic nude, over six meters long. He splits up a torso, in pencil, to better understand the precision of the skin’s texture and the warmth of the flesh, from the tip of the breast to the belly button. He touches (literally and figuratively) on what is the very essence of desire – a young girl on the brink of maturity, whose sweet childlike face echoes a body more desirous than desired… the call of a caress still to come.
In a quite different way, Youcef Korichi opts to paint the still-warm sheets after the body’s departure. His piece – in subtle reference to Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) – has the goddess already having abandoned the scene of disordered red drapery. And one asks oneself if this desired body will return from the labyrinthine abyss of the checkerboard, or if it will remain elusive, anticipating a better reawakening. The female face with frank gaze, in a final epiphany, holds close her secrets, like those jealously contained in coffers of gold and ebony.
Katia Bourdarel also explores drapery and its convolutions, but her odalisque is more directly virginal: she embodies the fragility of the young girl sleeping in ivory sheets that overflow and mingle in silvered grasses. The paleness is that of skin touched by reflected sunlight, and the flowers woven in her hair makes us remember that though beauty is indeed a gracious thing, desire’s fire lies smoldering in dreamland.
With Axel Pahlavi, the situation is explicit: a woman waiting on a couch, made-up clownish with lowered gaze, a sequined-legged creature now offstage, nudity disillusioned. The intensity of the garish colors and fluorescence gives the icon the air of an already-lost modernity, like a girl who has danced herself out or, perhaps, might arise again – in an upward movement of her whole body or simply by raising her gaze to the stars. The artist, with a fine irreverence, also represents himself as an odalisque sporting the nose of a clown, thus sealing this strange tale of which he is author.
Finally, Léopold Rabus seizes the theme to better detach its erotic potential, or at least to (and rather humorously) maintain some distance – with the aid of a well-placed candle. The scene is tenebrous, a virtuoso play of light in the shimmering darkness, and what happens there stays there, not to exit from this confined and wooded universe…
These five artists explore the question of the representation of the naked body and the origin of the way we perceive it. Nevertheless, something resists: the blind spot in every painting, that space of our own projection, perhaps best expressed by George Bataille in an odd, anti-philosophical formulation: “I think like a girl takes off her dress.” But in the works presented here, painter or model – who is thinking and who is painting? And above all, who is it that is really laid bare?
Léa Bismuth is an art critic (she has written for artpress since 2006) and independent exhibition curator. She lives and works in Paris.