INTERVIEW: PIERRE ET GILLES
SAINTS, SINNERS & SAILORS
Once upon a beautiful day in 1976, Pierre Commoy met Gilles Blanchard. And the rest, as they say, is history. Pierre was an aspiring photographer, Gilles an upcoming painter. Together they became known as “Pierre et Gilles.” Inseparable both as lovers and artists, they have since created a modern day iconography of Saints, Stars, Sailors and Sinners. A fusion of painting and photography, their work is inspired by everything from French pop, Bollywood and Lourdes to Communism, Gay eroticism and Buddhist monks.
in one famous series they portrayed their models as reincarnations of Catholic saints, while in another they revamped Greek mythology. Madonna was portrayed as a Japanese geisha in kimino on a swing, while Arielle Bombasle became a mermaid arising from the sea. While their models are not always famous, they are always (made) beautiful. in Pierre et Gilles’ world only shiny happy people live.
”it’s hard to think of contemporary culture without the influence of Pierre et Gilles, from advertising to fashion photography, music video, and film,” American artist Jeff Koons once said. “this is truly global art.”
one could say Pierre et Gilles is all about the art of good kitsch. they injected our materialistic money-minded world with a jubilant dose of divinity and idealism. a Pierre et Gilles portrait is always like an altar, an ode, dedicated to beauty and the mystery of life. Although the word “unique” is today easily overused by pr-gurus and spin-doctors, it seems more than appropriate for the work of Pierre et Gilles, which allows for few comparisons with fellow artists, even though the influence of American photographer James Bidgood cannot be denied
pierre et Gilles once compared themselves to “reporters who travel into another world” to bring back images and stories of people they meet. “it’s an imaginary world, yet parallel to our existing wold,” they added. the word
“travel” was of course used as a metaphor here, yet Pierre et Gilles actually travel quite a bit in search of new ideas. it was for instance a trip through South India that inspired them to produce their famous “Saints” series.
Seeing the frequent use of Catholic, Hindu and buddhist-inspired images, it should not come as a surprise that Pierre et Gilles have, what they call, “a taste for mysticism” and believe that “it is very difficult to separate art and religion.”
Funny enough, it all started as a joke. back in the roaring days of the 1970s, Pierre started by taking black and white photos of friends making weird facial expressions, which were then painted on by Gilles. the joke was an instant hit and would become Pierre et Gilles’ trademark style, as they went on to immortalize singers and stars, models and mannequins.
they always start by drawing a scene and creating a decor. this may take up to two weeks, as some of the objects are especially created for the occasion. once the model, famous or not, is chosen, they also take care of costumes and makeup. once everything is set, Pierre takes the photo, which Gilles then retouches with paint, either by hand or airbrush. it is this intimate marriage of styles that make the Pierre et Gilles brand, which in 1993 was honored with Paris’ prestigious Grand prix de photography.
at first, they mainly portrayed French pop idols and crooners such as Claude François, Sheila, dave, Sylvie et Johnny, Bambou, Lio and Marie France. For Façade, a French pop magazine, they also photographed international rockers and celebrities, including Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger and Iggy pop.
photographing the rich and famous is not always easy, as proved Iggy, the former lead singer of the Stooges, with an old-fashioned story of sex, drugs and rock & roll. Pierre et Gilles were asked to photograph him in a Paris hotel, yet when they arrived at the agreed time, they were asked to wait. Iggy was in the company of a female fan. Several hours later the duo finally asked to enter. the room was a mess, and so was Iggy. he was stark naked, while the floor was littered with empty champagne bottles. Iggy put on a white shirt and Pierre’s red tie, and the photo was taken. So, if you ever wondered if (and why) Iggy ever wore a tie, now you know.
Pierre et Gilles have always remained close to the music world, yet are no longer dependent on magazines to send them places. these days, they ask people to pose. or people ask them. only recently, they photographed Kylie Minogue as a 21st century Maria surrounded by five healthy sailor boys portrayed as angels. For obvious reasons, the sailor archetype is a frequent and favorite theme in pierre et Gilles’ work, featuring most famously in their ad- campaign for Gaultier’s “Male” flagrance, which showed two arm-wrestling sailors forming two almost perfect hearts.
yet, Pierre et Gilles cannot be reduced to their “sailor” portraits. their past work has proven as much and their latest series, “Wonderful town” proves that once again. they portrayed their models against the backdrop of a gloomy urban landscape. according to the accompanying text, “it’s a city like so many anywhere in the world, a modern city without a past, an industrial city. to escape from the harsh reality, the urbanized populations? have a proven necessity to invent dreams, fantasies, and craziness” hence, the painted photograph of a wonderfully colorful clown against the backdrop of an industrial town.
Pierre et Gilles have often been dubbed the French equivalent to Britain’s Gilbert and George. that is a fair comparison in the sense that their British counterparts too are a couple and an artist duo. yet, although always dressed in suit, Gilbert and George are much more ironic, hard-hitting and at times just plain filthy, while Pierre et Gilles have create a magic world of flowers and fairies.