The theatrical, neo-surrealist world of Irina Ionesco. Painting and photography must always be understood within the context of their creation and the prevailing spirit of the times. Only then can we judge whether a nude is particularly revealing, provocative, or even obscene–and not only appearing to be so. Our art museums are filled with nude paintings that date back to the Renaissance and Baroque, during which not only the mythological figures of Venus, Eva, Maria, or Lucretia served as models, but also young women from the environment of the painters at the time. Through oil paint on canvas they were transformed into captivating saints or personifications of virtue, according to the visual canon and traditional reception at the time.
Much later in the 1960s and '70s, the changes unleashed by the sexual revolution were dramatically felt in the social fabric as well as the arts. And artistic photography, with its visualisation of the naked human body, played a significant role, for instance through the enigmatic and melancholic images of Irina Ionesco. Ionesco grew up in Constana, Romania and settled in Paris in 1951, where she explored painting and then took up photography. She had her first solo exhibition in 1974 at the Nikon Gallery in Paris, the first major forum for many notable photographers, such as Helmut Newton one year later.
Even today, photography like no other medium can enchant or disturb us, excite or amuse us. A single photographic image can exert immense appeal and influence. The human body, particularly the nude female, is one of the most photographed, and thus one of the most important motifs in the history of the photographic medium. Most of us are fascinated by nude photographs, whether consciously or unconsciously; and through them Eros can transform into an obsession. The photographic gaze onto unclothed people, from the early daguerreotypists to the likes of Edward Weston and Man Ray, from Nan Goldin to Joel-Peter Witkin, has captured all varieties of love and passion, harboring both beauty and fear. And when the work of a photographer like Irina Ionesco is so hotly debated, it deserves to be re-examined after a few decades of distance.
Ionesco's erotic productions evade simple categorisation as only portraits, fashion, or nudes. Instead they are a composite, in which the photographer explores the dualism of revealing and concealing, and plays subtly with the lewd and the louche. Ionesco outfitted her female models in lingerie and fur stoles, veiled them in tulle and netting, adorned them with opulent jewels and flowers, and posed their semi-nude bodies in nocturnal, neo-surrealist settings, often in front of mirrors. The models donned costume after costume before Ionesco's camera, against the ever-changing backdrop of her small stage. Unconventional props, half-object, half-decoration, and theatrical makeup underpinned her subject's personality, indeed, role. Pictured mostly alone, they play the role of femme fatale among others, staged by the photographer, their director.
Ionesco's complex, often dark arrangements function like a theater play in several acts, or a movie, captured frame by frame. Yet the decisive element in her refined black-and-white images remains the partial nudity and immediate sensuality of the female models. Sometimes their breasts are exposed, or their pubic area, or with their eyes half-closed they can seem almost corpse-like in the windowless interiors. Morbid associations come almost immediately to mind, with the late 19th century symbolism with its images of melancholic, world-weary women and maidens at the height of beauty in the throes of some deadly disease.
Ionesco's productions abound with poetic and natural eroticism; never do they seem distasteful or pornographic. She makes occasional references to the stories of French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet and possibly films by Luis Buñuel. Her models appear simultaneously fragile and self-confident; this apparent ambivalence owes much to the shifts in the perception of women in Western society. The complementary duality of voyeurism and exhibitionism present in Ionesco's work, like that of showing and hiding, is clearly inscribed in the field of fashion photography, for example. Fashion aims to seduce, as it should–visually, cognitively, and factually–to encourage consumption of the dresses and stockings, jewellery, and footwear it depicts. It is no wonder that such things have become popular objects of fetish.
In the 1970s and '80s, Irina Ionesco developed a keen and intense eye for women and their seductive allure. The impact of her nude photographs, with their enigmatic and timeless aura, reached well beyond the gaze of male viewers. Indeed, artists like Irina Ionesco helped to establish a new type of woman: a sensual and ambivalent embodiment of the unconventionality and permissiveness of the times.
When artists in their representation of people tread the fine line of the morally permissible, as was the case with Ionesco's contemporaries and successors such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Cindy Sherman, discussion about the work and the bourgeois outrage it sparks is inevitable. And this may very well be the only way to expand the photographic canon: when such images beyond the norm take hold in our individual and collective visual memory.
Press release courtesy Reflex Amsterdam.