Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Philippe Bonan: Portraits Of The Artists

Prior to the invention of photography we barely knew what artists looked like beyond their enhanced self-portraits, if indeed they painted them. Nowadays, everyone is an artist, and everyone has a camera, so there's no lack of documentaries on the artist at play, the artist at work, the artist drunk, the artist being kissed by the celebrity. In the 21st century, there is little doubt the artist is a celebrity, too, and portraits are much in demand (just ask Timothy Greenfield-Sanders).  The straight up portrait, the official gaze of the artist without props, attempts to read the mind of the creative, focusing on the eyes, the skin texture, this fantastic being of our time.

Philippe Bonan, a French photographer with a voracious appetite for capturing artists on film, has a quest: Produce a massive catalog of living artists wherever they are. But he wants to keep it all very simple, but elegant, and above all real.

During the opening of Anthony Caro's exhibition at Danielle Templon in Paris, Philippe Bonan was visibly angling in the crowd around the sculptor to get off a shot. The French photographer has made a profession out of portraying artists in black and white or color, in their studios or, sometimes in front of their installations. Bonan's catalog of artists is impressive – Keith Haring, Ben Vautier, Daniel Buren, Christian Boltanski, George Baselitz, Arman, Fernando Botero, Valerio Adami – numbering in the hundreds.

Bonan's portraits generally lack props (Arman poses with a parrot in one, however) and steer clear of guise. These portraits are simple and real: only the artist in his or her environment, standing, sitting, aware of the lens but not disturbed by it. Some do, however, act out a mini-fantasy – Ben Vautier (above) scowling with his text work: Je veux rester le seul. (I want to be the only one). Or Icelandic artist Katrin Fridriks in paint-splattered art uniform curled up in her studio. Wearing. Bunny. Ears.

There is virtue in Bonan's great project: Like Vasari, the 16th century Italian painter generally credited with launching art historical writing with his literary sketches of the lives of his contemporaries, seeing artists as they live and work – "as they are" – not only dispels myths but permits those interested in understanding our time to fully grasp the fleeting presence artists have, even while their work carries on. Bonan's passion is real, and his project is, as artist after artist is added to his extensive black and white catalog, valuable both historically and visually.

A 1988 portrait of painter Hans Hartung, shows the artist tired, perhaps even beleaguered, full on in a close up; Hartung's thick black glasses obscure his face; he is revealed, if only for a moment.  Jim Dine is portrayed looking into a mirror; Donald Baechler in his studio in front of an unfinished, giant collage; Fabrice Hybert in sporty shorts and scarf leaning on the door jam to his kitchen. There is little heroicism about any of these images – thankfully – and that fact leads to their great interest.

Fascinating indeed is the ordinary photograph of the young Jasper Johns in his downtown New York loft in the early 1950s, fresh-faced and eager to take on the art world. Or a pale Andy Warhol walking along Madison Avenue on his way to work.  Pollack, bearded, pasty and fat, circa 1955 staring off into an uncertain future, headed for disaster is prescient because the photograph is simply him, the artist cast in the net of his own life.  A young Keith Haring (above), thoughtful, quiet having enjoyed a wild success, but whose days are numbered. Bonan camps around the same fire, and you can see in the eyes his artist subjects return to him, that they too, know they are but just a flicker in the landscape. But the warmth generated from Bonan's activity is genuine.  Take a look: Philippe Bonan.

Photograph of Philippe Bonan by © Didier Gicquel. All other images © Philippe Bonan.


Anonymous said...

thanks for the info ... just been checking out Bonan's incredible work ....

Wil Fried said...

Philippe Bonan is a friend, I advise you to watch his beautiful work.