Rheims’s color photographs of pretty young women, seen nude or provocatively dressed, are teasingly erotic in a style that recalls Helmut Newton, but more naughty than kinky, and very French. This survey of work dating back to 1991 is full of oversized prints that kill the work’s just-us-girls intimacy and playful wit. Rheims charms nonetheless. Although there are pictures of Marion Cotillard, Madonna, and Monica Bellucci (pouring ketchup on spaghetti), most of the women are models, anonymous bodies in shabby-chic hotel interiors. The setup is seductive, tantalizing, but men are pointedly absent, not invited to this particular party. Through Oct. 30. (Houk, 745 Fifth Ave., at 57th St. 212-750-7070.)
Bettina Rheims has been creating intensely erotic images of women, for more than three decades. My introduction to Rheims’ work was marked by the purchase of her hugely successful Chamber Closed – a copy of which has graced my tri-continental travelling library since, 1998. Two weeks ago, I spoke with Bettina over the phone, in Paris, about her work …and return to New York City, after many years of absence. Her first major gallery exhibition in the United States, in nearly 20 years, is held at the Edwynn Houk Gallery, until October 30, 2010.
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This photography gallery opened in Chicago three decades ago, representing André Kertesz and Brassai. A New York transplant, it moved to Fifth Avenue in 1997. Currently, the gallery is showing the somewhat lascivious work of Bettina Rheims. The French photographer made her name with a 1981 series of arresting photographs of acrobats and strippers that earned her a solo show at the Centre Pompidou before her 30th birthday. She went on to develop a specialty—photographing famous women, often nude or wearing clothing unbuttoned, whose bodies fill the frame. (She's done covers for Elle, Paris Match and Details.) Views of Madonna, Marion Cotillard and Heather Graham are interspersed here with those of lesser-known, and less-clad, models.
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After having already enjoyed careers as a model, journalist and gallerist, Bettina Rheims began to explore photography in her late twenties, and has since become one of France’s most internationally acclaimed contemporary practitioners. Her style has often been shaped by the glamour of fashion photography, yet she has also explored religious subjects, picturing scenes from the life of Christ in the controversial series INRI (Monacelli, 1999), and in 1995 she was commissioned to take the official portrait of Jacques Chirac. In 2002 she was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for her lifetime’s achievement.
Rheims established herself with a dramatic series of portraits of strip-tease artists and acrobats, which won her a solo exhibition at the Pompidou Centre as early as 1981. From there she moved on to Animal, a series of images of stuffed animals which seem eerily alive, but since then she has always put the human figure at the centre of her work. In the mid 1980s she produced many portraits of actors and other celebrities for magazines such as Elle and Paris Match.
While she has had considerable popular success with her work, she has never compromised her taste for the strange and shocking. In Modern Lovers (1989-91) she depicted a series of androgynous adolescents. In her famous series Chambre Close, her first in color, she found a group of ordinary women to pose nude in unconventional poses; and these images were coupled with a fictional text by Serge Bramly for their publication in 1994, marking the first of what have been several important collaborations. And in Morceaux choisis (2001) she produced a stylish twist on pornography.
Bettina Rheims lives and works in Paris. Over a decade of her portraits of women were collected in the volume Female Trouble (1989); More Trouble (Schirmer/ Mosel, 2004) supplies another retrospective survey. Among her recent books is Shanghai (powerHouse, 2004), the product of six months immersed in the Chinese city. Rheims was awarded the Grand Prix de la Photographie de la ville de Paris in 1994. Since her first solo exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, Rheims has exhibited at the Maison Européenne de la photographie, Paris; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Bijbelsmuseum, Amsterdam; and the Kunsthaus Wien. Retrospectives have been staged recently at the Kunsthal, Rotterdam, in 2006, and the Musée d’art contemporain, Lyon, in 2008.