Handsome as a girl
(excerpt, p. 5-10)
When Pierre Molinier died, in 1976, it would not have taken long to draw up the list
of publications about his work. In all, seven titles were worthy of attention. It was the preface
written by André Breton for the slim catalogue to the exhibition at L'Étoile Scellée (1957) that
established his reputation. After the film by Raymond Borde, this text was twice reprinted, first
in a cinema magazine, Positif
, then in a fascicle brought out by Losfeld at Le Terrain Vague,
featuring six reproductions in colour (1965). A small book about Molinier's painting—a brave if
unsatisfactory effort—was eventually published by Éditions Jean-Jacques Pauvert in 1969.
As for the photography, just the one lavish but fragile volume had made it into print,
in Munich, with an introductory essay by Peter Gorsen (Rogner & Bernhard, 1972). To this
handsome volume, which from the outset was almost impossible to get hold of in France, can be
added an issue of the journal Mizue
(Tokyo, 1971) and the catalogue of a group show in Lucerne,
Transformer, Aspekte der Travestie
(1974). And that was it.
It should also be noted that during his lifetime Molinier had very few exhibitions. Apart
from salons in Bordeaux and Paris and one or two group shows, in a career of fifty years he was
granted only one proper solo show, which was organised by Breton in a tiny gallery.
When, weary of the world and of himself, he took a revolver and made his exit, Molinier
was known only to a small circle of connoisseurs of erotic art. Yet, while difficult, of limited
appeal, and seemingly fated to disappear, his work had nevertheless won itself a place in the
networks of international fetishism.
Now began the posthumous life of Molinier's art, a life striking in its resilience. 1979: a
retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou and publication of two books, Cent Photographies
(Images Obliques), and Molinier
(Bernard Letu Éditeur, Geneva), featuring the
paintings. In 1992 Pierre Petit published a landmark biography, Molinier, une vie d'enfer
read like a page-turner and offered huge
quantities of information, plus previously
unpublished documents, reviving curiosity
in both the man and the work. But the real
event, in 1995 (only twenty years late), was
the publication in Bordeaux of Molinier's
masterpiece, Le Chaman et ses créatures
(William Blake & Co).
From then on, the most important
part of the oeuvre was available in
bookshops. Roughly speaking, this boiled
down to some fifty paintings and drawings
(Pauvert, Letu), about a hundred portraits
and self-portraits (Gorsen, Images
Obliques), and finally, most importantly,
the fifty photomontages of Le Chaman et
. The great merit of this corpus
is that to some it offers discovery and to
others reassessment. For many years to
come, all the critics—and I myself was no
exception to the rule—would take and repeat the information given in the biographical note of
the 1957 catalogue, appended to Breton's preface. Now, this note was written by Molinier, not by
Breton, who simply touched up the style a bit. This subtle self-penned auto-hagiography was not
much more reliable than the Master's words as uncritically swallowed and endlessly peddled by
the disciples, cohorts, partners and blissful believers of his final years, who eventually established
their vulgate as the gospel truth.
Some of these companions did at least have the good idea of getting Molinier to talk into a
microphone. He had a field day: he was endlessly provocative, inventing events and offering false
confessions. The Entretiens
with Jean Bernard and Pierre Chaveau, recorded in 1971 and 1972
and published in 2000, consecrated the shaman's official discourse and established the scandalous
image that he was so careful to leave. These desultory conversations, these tirades—digressive and
droll, interlarded with laughter, spoken in a high-pitched voice with a South-Western accent as
thick as cassoulet—fascinate, surprise and inform, at least as regards the shaman's method, manner
and intentions. They freeze the myth and that is what makes them interesting. Sometimes they
even dazzle rather than enlighten. Since Molinier, as we now know, had a rather loose relation to
the truth, these colourful interviews need to be handled with great care.
But then, starting in 2001, the archives, accessible at last, began to yield up their secrets.
The reverse of the official version.
The personal writings and private notebooks, brought together in a single volume titled
Je suis né homme-putain
, were published by Kamel Mennour
and Biro Éditeur in 2005. For the
first time, we glimpse the wounded man behind the legend, as he doffs his mask and shows his
true face. One chapter had ended, another was beginning. The myth began to recede before the
reality of history.
The archives are also a store
of unknown images: working prints
annotated on the back, successive states,
variants, prints retouched in matt pencil,
negatives reworked in graphite, mattes,
cut-outs, and botched and abandoned
photos that remain richly informative.
But this is not the OEUVRE
; it is what
went on behind the scenes. It is time to
revise the numbers.
In the category of “graphic
works”—in which he includes pictures,
drawings, prints, sculptures and
masks—Pierre Petit has inventoried
460 pieces. If we add unlocated canvases
and drawings, we can with only a narrow
margin of error round that up to 500
works. As for photographs, including
portraits, self-portraits, photomontages and slides, Petit arrives at 397 numbered items.
No doubt he counted only finished prints, without
worrying about revised proofs that exist in only one or
two copies, or the various and very numerous poses that
constitute series of portraits and self-portraits. Thus, for
this book, we digitized nearly 2,000 different prints,
which naturally are of very mixed interest and quality.
We did so for one simple reason: the process of making
the images interested me as much as the museumquality
prints themselves. I have selected 730 of these.
We shall see why in the pages that follow.