Sunday, 20 July 2014

Gaultier's Genius

I didn't want to go at first. Prejudices of endless Breton-stripes and recycled quirkiness prevented me. But then a friend convinced me, and I went. O là là! To think that I almost missed the Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican!

The first surprise: the mannequins were alive. That's right. They had faces. It was very freaky and amazing and it felt like you were staring at alien-like beings, who would open their eyes and start speaking in French. I became slightly hysterical with exhilaration. 

Then there were the clothes. Of course there were lots of Breton stripes, but they was far from boring in their various materials and unlikely shapes (think back-less tops and silk for men and giant hat-cardigans for women). And the haute-couture dresses! This lace and ex-voto number made me want to step out of my Birkenstocks and kowtow to Jean-Paul. 

Lastly I fell in love with Gaultier's long history of highlighting unusual beauties. "The conventionally pretty need not apply", he wrote in a newspaper advert in the 90s when he was looking for models. He was the first to have a North-African muse, Farida Khelfa, whom he called 'la nouvelle Parisienne', and no-one took gender-bending as far as JPG, with his male muse Tanel 20 years ago and Andrej Pejic today habitually blowing up the boundaries between male and female. 

Although, of course, nothing can be more queer, more fabulous or more enviable than to have been friends with Madonna in the 90s. What's not to love? 

"The Fashionworld of Jean-Paul Gaultier" at the Barbican in London until 24 August 2014. 

Saturday, 12 July 2014

New-Wave Misogyny

Have you heard of 'Lola', Jacques Demy's film from 1961? I hadn't either until the other week. Lying half-ill in a rented flat in Paris, I stumbled across the cover with the stunning Anouk Aimée dressed as an exotic dancer. Of course I thought - 'must be all French and sophisticated?'

In fact, the whole experience was like falling for someone pretty who turns out to be incredibly dull. The story evolves around the life of Lola, a single mother and cabaret dancer, who waits for the father of her son to return (he'd disappeared seven years previously) while seducing American soldiers and flirting with her childhood friend Roland.

This is neither a tragedy nor a comedy - it is two hours of affectation. In the very lame end, Lola's long-lost beau returns as a rich man in a white Cadillac and a cowboy hat and takes her home. But why does it matter that this film is so bad? 

Maybe because of its peculiar misogyny. Like all female characters shown, Lola is confined to either vulnerability or hysteria, and is essentially lost without a husband. And yet she is not the object of intentional criticism: Demy thinks he is portraying loose Lola with sympathy (and he is, for those times), but that's exactly what makes his treatment of her so outdated. It is not irrelevant that Demy was closeted (although married to feminist filmmaker Agnes Varda) and went on to make some of the campest films in French history, including The Young Girls of Rochefort and the musical comedy The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).

Jacques Demy and Catherine Deneuve on the set of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

Love Theme from 'Les Parapluies de Cherbourg'

So really, the director was projecting his own fragile fate onto Lola at a time when being a woman (let alone a homosexual man) made you a second-class citizen. This now feels outdated and funny but it helps us not to judge Demy so harshly. It's also a reminder of how far both the gay and women's liberation has come in the last 50 years. 

Sunday, 15 June 2014


Last week artist Zbigniew Libera (b. 1959) came to speak at Warsaw's MoMA for the opening of his work's free online archive. The enfant terrible of the Polish art world is known primarily for the controversies around his Lego concentration camp, and while photos of his work appeared on a large screen Libera spoke evasively about his time in prison in the early 80s (he'd been set up) and how he'd never decided to be an artist (the art world made him into one).

Curiously, none of these photos made it onto the screen during his talk. I unearthed them only after digging deep into the archives (have you ever used 'sexual organ' as a search term on a museum website?). 

Libera-Furniture Piece, 1985

Mannequins, 1985

They are Libera par excellence, combining unabashed exposure with a schoolboyish sense of 'wasn't-me'. The sun glasses, the little crochet napkin and the mannequin seemingly grabbing him all point to the same conclusion: The artist won't take responsibility for anything, not even his penis. Clearly then, neither should we. 

Friday, 6 June 2014

Eastern Boys Do It Best

Imagine you're in your flat. You put on a clean polo shirt and tie up the laces of your sneakers and wait for your rent boy to arrive. Then the bell rings. But it's not your date who pushes his way in.

It's his posse. The gang of Eastern European Boys - Russian, Moldovian, the Ukrainian - who hang out by the Gare du Nord and are up to no good. Not when it comes to you, or your appartment.

This is the beginning of "Eastern Boys", a 2013 feature film by Robin Campillo. I had been intrigued to see why Warsaw's rather conservative Kino Kultura was showing a film with homosexual content. Ten minutes in it was clear this was not a romance or a happy exploration of sexuality, but a gritty piece about exploitation and belonging in French society. 

It was therefore not surprising to find out afterwards that Robin Campillo worked on the excellent "The Class", a film about a school teacher in a deprived Paris suburb, that won the Palme d'Or in 2008.

The Class (2008) trailer

What is surprising, is the direction that "Eastern Boys" takes: An unusual relationship ends up developing between middle-aged Frenchman Daniel and streetboy Marek a.k.a. Ruslan, while prejudice and desire for truth become the spirals of the plot. And it will test your endurance. "Eastern Boys" knows how to keep you on your sneakered toes.

"Eastern Boys", Robin Campillo, 2013

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Streets of Berlin

One doesn't quite associate Holocaust films with gays, orgies, and Mick Jagger in drag. "Bent", the 1997 feature film, has all of the above (and much much more).

An almost boyish Clive Owen plays Max, a handsome Berlin philanderer who sleeps with an even more handsome SA-man (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) before being carted off to Dachau. 

Streets of Berlin, Mick Jagger

But don't just watch the first third for the glamorous bits. If more serious and saddening, the storyline in the concentration camp is almost as surreal and imaginative as the Berlin gay nostalgia that precedes it. Such as this - probably the most unusual sex scene I have ever seen. How has this not gone down in film history? 

The ending is not what you expect either. Not pretty, but all the more moving. This is, after all, a film about the Holocaust. A really good one. 

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Importance of Being Yourself (and Loving It)

If I haven't posted anything in a while it's because I've spent every spare moment reading "Secret Historian", the phenomenal biography of a man I had never heard of: Samuel Steward (1909-1993)

Samuel Steward aged 16 

English professor, novelist, tattoo artist, sexual rebel, literary pornographer: Steward was all these things. He lead an extraordinarily varied and risqué life, befriending brilliant minds such as Getrude Stein, Alfred Kinsey or photographer George Platt Lynes, and seducing anyone from André Gide, Rudolph Valentino and Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar Wilde's lover) to Rock Hudson and hordes of sailors.

Getrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Steward's life-long friends

Photography by George Platt Lynes

Steward in a Polaroid with an unknown man

What is most striking about the biography, however, is the utter contrast between outside and inside. Through Steward's meticulous diary entries we gain an insight into a highly intelligent and creative yet ultimately lonely and depressed man. At first the reason for the unhappiness is  not quite clear. There is no doubt that society's repression of homosexuals in America - for pretty much all of Steward's life - was a factor. But then he did express himself sexually, and never seems to have felt guilty for his desires.

Mike Miksche, a sadist whom Steward paid for S/M sessions

The Stud File recorded every one of Steward's sexual encounters for over 60 years 

Instead, the issue was self-esteem. Steward never seems to have been at peace with himself, restlessly moving from one sexual adventure to the next, one vocation to another, courting danger and setting himself up for literary rejections, while not allowing himself to really value his talent for tattooing. How can you stop yourself from becoming bitter?

Steward in 1957, aged 48, with a tattoo he designed for himself

A tattoo made by Steward
One of Steward's pornographic novels, published under the pseudonym of Phil Andros. Cover: custom-designed by Tom of Finland
When he was in his twenties and depressed, Getrude Stein wrote him a letter, talking of 'the question of being important inside in one'. This seems to be the key. And something Steward never quite mastered. Sadly - or luckily - happiness is far removed from brilliance. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Picture of the Day

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), reclining, by Peter Hujar. 

The most beautiful photo of the late American artist (see him in earlier posts here and here). With the rarity that is a perfect tattoo.