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London: Guy Bourdin, Image Maker at Somerset House


This is an exhibition full of surprises. ‘Time will tell’ is a phrase one might apply to so much editorial photography when asking what one means by true merit. As evidenced in the multi-chapter exhibition at Somerset House, time is unquestionably consecrating the exceptional talent of Guy Bourdin. This great show reveals him in all his inventive, obsessive, playful, perverse, intense, mischievous, and Surrealist glory.

The first, lower gallery, unexpectedly, but persuasively, is devoted to one single extended advertising shoot for Charles Jourdan, executed on a road trip around Britain in August 1979 in a vintage black Cadillac – that incidentally makes a sinister appearance in the shoot – and with a pair of display mannequin legs rather than a live model to show off the sophisticated shoes. Bourdin makes commonplace seaside scenes, architectural no-man’s-lands and tasteless interiors into the melodramatic and disconcerting dreamscape settings for these disturbing, disembodied legs. So many ideas, such inventive picture-making – on one trip alone. The curators make a very strong point before sending us to the upper galleries to discover other facets of Bourdin’s creativity.

Two extensive sections present a superb compendium of colour fashion and beauty shots, reminding us of the enormous impact Bourdin made in the pages of French Vogue in the 70s and early 80s. One of these spaces shows large-format prints, the other smaller formats, closer to magazine spread proportions and with the common thread of a specific model, Nicolle Meyer. And, as if this were not in itself a rich, provocative, and stimulating enough feast, satellite spaces reveal further delights – unique original mounted black and white prints that served as the plate-maker’s ‘masters’ for the pages of Vogue; exploratory Polaroids, preliminary sketches, and notebooks in which Bourdin jotted ideas; an oppressively erotic series of black and white images of two languid girls modelling sublimely decadent shoes; clips of Bourdin’s disconcertingly voyeuristic super-8 films, running on loops on multiple screens; and an introduction to his paintings, fascinatingly cross-referenced with photographs that match their imagery.

The exhibition, cleverly orchestrated by co-curators Alistair O’Neill and Shelly Verthime, is also a testament to the labour of love invested over many years by Verthime, who, in partnership with the artist’s son, Samuel, has brought order to Bourdin’s extensive but previously scattered and uncatalogued archive and has ensured, through a programme of superb publications and exhibitions, that his vision be immortalised. If you have the opportunity, or can make the opportunity, go see this exhibition – and enter Bourdin’s world.

Philippe Garner


Guy Bourdin: Image Maker
27 November 2014 – 15 March 2015
Somerset House Trust

South Building
Somerset House
London WC2R 1LA
United Kingdom

Curator’s Talk: Guy Bourdin
Thursday, 11 December 2014,
19.00-20.00 Screening Room
£12.00 (£10.00 concessions)


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