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Greif Alumni: Q&A with Céline Bodin


We periodically invite our alumni, artists we have featured in the past, to share their new work and projects with us. We’re catching up with Céline Bodin on the occasion of her show “Divine Narratives: Céline Bodin and Alice Maher” at Purdy Hicks Gallery, London, running from the 26th of October until the 2nd of December 2023. Bodin is a French photographer now based in London, where she has her first solo show in 2019 at Purdy Hicks Gallery. Her work was featured in our past Guest Room curated by Alessia Glaviano & Chiara Bardelli Nonino. Through photography, Bodin investigates the notions of gender and identity in Western culture, weighing the legacy of our art history.

Der Greif: Where does your interest in mythological figures come from? Specifically Venus, the protagonist of your series currently exhibited at Purdy Hicks Gallery.

My interest in myths lies in the way they have been used to teach morals, power relationships, and social structures. Myths have, in some way, created art, as their first visual vehicle, and art recreates myths, throughout every century, from Hellenistic sculpture to Renaissance paintings, or contemporary photographic narratives, and even branding.

The mythological character of Venus, or Aphrodite, fascinates me because she is part mythology and part carnality, but also sort of a first myth of femininity in its most romanticised sense: sensual (yet out of reach), fertile, sexually liberated, vengeful, fearless.

I started the series “Venus Variations” in 2020 during lockdown, first working with still life photography. My research included captivating readings of Venus and Aphrodite by Bettany Hughes, “Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo” by Gregory Curtis, “The Aphrodite of Knidos and her Successors” by Christine Mitchell Havelock, “Aphrodite” by Pierre Louÿs, “Classical Art from Greece to Rome” by Mary Beard, “The Nud”e by Kenneth Clark… I lost myself in the grandeur of Aphrodite’s stories, the mysterious voluptuousness of her many depictions, the myths surrounding the statues’ archeological discoveries, the paintings that carried on her legacy as an icon. I wanted to see her again, picking up on the fragments of statues and of my imagination, I pictured a revisit to Aphrodite, to the many bodies she had inhabited and the Beauty she had informed. I wanted to see her in others, in objects. I invited her to travel through my vision and possess my images, through still lives of shells with hair, mirrors, anonymous nudes, and portraits that constitute a sort of fantasised search for her character.

Based on the myths and their artistic translations, “Venus Variations” is a dreamed rewriting, a celebration.

Der Greif: Complexities of gender and identity are investigated through the character that became an iconic genre saturating all cultures. How does photography add an additional layer of iconicity to the subject?

The 70’s feminist movement and the photographic works associated with it truly impacted the way women artists work with the female body now. Venus raises the question of appropriate nudity. So, I ask myself: is the female experience a legitimate reason to revisit renditions of the female body? Could this be a reassertion of its value, by means of emancipation?

Through this project I wanted to explore the most iconic source of variations on the female nude, with a female perspective, and the ‘realness’ of photography, recreating bodies that were represented yet never seen. Their realness was within their mental and artistic image, not their flesh. The photographs in the series focus our attention on the subtleties of the classical pose and its rhythm, which are constantly echoed in contemporary iconography, most notably through the contrapposto and modest gesture. I wished to return life to the statutes with live models impersonating a deity of power, re-enacting the scenes, thus infusing an existing female body with that same power. Obviously this is a visual exercise, and the bodies I represent are more designs than organisms.

The black and white negative aesthetic of the images reflects upon the way we see Hellenistic and classical sculpture: the white marble without its original pigments, gives a hypnotizing and misleading impression of purity. The tracing of the light accentuates their ambiguous modest gesture, the hand-covering only revealing more of their intimacy. The notion of vanity is also explored as it encompasses the way female identity has been inferred for centuries, especially through the subject of awareness of being observed while naked and the object of the mirror. The black and white negative images consist of the sculpture and painting inspired section of the series, while the colour images constitute the surrealist take on the mythological stories.

Der Greif: What is your particular positioning in regards to Venus' body and its representation?

My focus is on the way that her sexualised body is what constitutes her sanctity. The “Aphrodite of Knidos” (the first life-size female nude, sculpted by Praxiteles in the 4th Century BC) redefined figurative art, before Christian art made the body a sinful entity. In terms of representation, it should be noted that the female nude is the one that has prevailed in art history, due to loss of interest for anatomical studies and ‘harder’ male nudes often associated with those studies.

“Venus Variations” marks the culmination of my fascination for the sculpted body of allegories. The stillness and isolation of these bodies is extremely inspiring to me in the way they make us feel and make us think about our own bodies and the process of the pose. With Venus’ sculpted bodies, as with the photographs in the series, the nude is presented as an end in itself. They are bodies of pure power and harmony. This work also refers to our fundamental response to passion for the transcendental presence of the human body and its beauty. Yet, here the body is understood as an intellectual abstraction. This also relates to the notion of ideal, as a Greek legacy that persists.

Der Greif: In the exhibition your series dialogues with Irish artist Alice Maher's watercolour paintings. What is your interpretation of this proximity of two means of representation?

I think that the idea that connects Alice Maher’s paintings and my photographs is the co-existence of spirituality and sexuality. I have long been an admirer of her work and her personal explorations of myths and the female form. The works in the exhibition display isolated, fragmented bodies/heads that form a re-interpretation of sacred female figures. My images are of cropped or anonymous bodies due to their importance as sculptural precursors, only the “Aphrodite of Knidos” and “Crouching Venus” have heads in the ‘statue section’ of my images, and these are not part of the show. This visual decision stemmed from our incapacity to dehumanize a face – I did not wish to create intimacy, nor impact our response to the body by interpreting a subject’s facial expression. And this worked beautifully with Alice’s Women in Ecstasy because with hers, on the contrary, the facial expression is the dominant. Each head floats, separated from their body, and the face creates a human connection of sheer emotion, a sense of tragedy.

Der Greif: How does the series dialog with your wider practice?

Hellenistic and classical representations of the nude had certainly fueled most of my existing work on representations of the body. My photography investigates notions of gender and identity within Western culture. The work encapsulates the elements constituting the cult of femininity. It interrogates the representation of women across time and explores the construction of womanhood, in response to the pressure of customs, social expectations, beauty dictates, religious righteousness, the legacy of art history and historical representations of women, as well as the mystification of the fragmented body. Working on this series felt like going back to the source of everything I had reflected on throughout my studies of poses, the first sculpture of a nude Aphrodite being its very origin.