Restaging Art History: Portraits sous influence and Les Filles de Ripa by Dany Leriche | EVI PAPADOPOULOU



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Dany Leriche began her career as a painter in the mid-sixties, at the School of Fine Arts (École des Beaux Arts) of the city of Cambrai, in France. She continued her studies in the field of painting at the National School of Decorative Arts (École Nationale des Arts Décoratifs), in Paris. In the 1970's, during her studies at Chelsea School of Art in London, she turned to the creation of installations and participated in various performances, which also marked her first contact with the field of photography.

Photography dominated her artistic production at the beginning of the eighties, when, in cooperation with her life partner Jean-Michel Fickinger, she turned to the renegotiation of paintings and iconographic types of the past, by implementing, as she claims, an allegorical approach. The artists' couple works in the following way: Leriche chooses the theme and apprehends the composition, whereas Fickinger attends to the shooting, dealing with all the technical details deriving from it. The year 1997 was a milestone in their career, as for the first time, they turned to the use of digital technology for the photograph Sophie Isabelle, from the Portraits sous influence series (Portraits under influence), an indirect reference to Tiziano's Holy and profane love (1515). That way, they incorporate in their work the stage of post-production1, which can last up to one year. The responsibility for the biggest part of this production lies with Fickinger, who elaborates the photographs and proceeds to the necessary changes with the aid of digital programs.

The biggest part of their artistic production consists of portraits of women, references to painting compositions of the past, to which they give a contemporary and at the same time diachronic dimension; contemporary because the models are women of their times and close friends of theirs, and diachronic because they refuse to include any chronological hint in their photos.

The photographer's heroines are portrayed in the nude, allowing the camera to depict their body in its most realistic version. What could possibly be more realistic, more tangible and more ordinary than the nude body? The body that is presented without clothes and accessories and without any intention of beautification and illusion.

Her purpose is to provoke a different perception of the spectacle of the nude female body, the very opposite of the voyeuristic dimension of the painting of the past, of the contemporary advertising and of pornography. In her photographs, women are presented as active subjects, even when they assume the role of the model, by contributing, to some degree, to the creation of the composition, by accompanying the exhibitions' catalogues with texts, and by giving their names to the photos of Leriche2. Additionally, the natural size of her photographs enhances the air of estrangement and meditation that she aspires to achieve.

The re-approaching of the paintings is made in a seditious and symbolic frame of mind, as the artist herself claims. With the presence of well-known iconographic attributes, including animals, in her photos, she reveals the extensions that the paintings of the past implied as regards the portraying of the naked body, she outlines the portrait of the contemporary woman and she keeps a reserved position towards scientific progress.

In the Portraits sous influence series (1992-1997), dedicated to the remakes of paintings dated between the Renaissance and the 19th century, she gives a new perspective to famous museum exhibits, converting them into allegories of the modern times. She touches on various issues, always with the nude female body as a point of reference. In the photographs of Ayaba (1992), Lakshmi (1992), Hanneke et Elise (1996), while making use of famous iconographic symbols, she gives a new dimension to the representation of the nude female body, revealing at the same time issues concerning race, the pictorial relation of women to nature and the use of perspective for the establishment of a sexually charged iconography. Her critique goes along with the portraiture of contemporary woman, as seen in the photos of Laura (1994), Marcelle, Gyuellene, Jyly (1996), Florence (1996) and the redefinition of female body, as a result of scientific evolution in Isabelle et Dominique (1995).

In 1998, the French photographer became interested in the iconographic dictionary of Cesare Ripa, which was published in 1593, in Rome, under the title Iconologia overo Descrittione dell'Imagini universali cavate dall' antichita et da altri luoghi...Opera non meno utile, che necessaria a Poeti, Pittori & Scultori, par rapresentare le virtu, vitij, affetti, & passioni humaneane. As the title indicates, it was a dictionary destined for painters, sculptors, architects and poets, proposing to them the iconographic codes they had to adopt in various themes, in order to depict the virtues, the evilness, the human desires and passions.

There had been previous similar editions, such as the Book of Emblems by Andrea Alciati, in 1531, and the Hieroglyphics of Pierio Valeriano, in 1556, indicating, among other, a strong influence of the Egyptian hieroglyphs on the intellectual life of Florence in the 16th century3. The dictionary of Ripa is part of the efforts of the Counter Reformation to control the artistic production, within the context of the decisions of the Ecumenical Synods of Trident. The last one took place in 1563 and worded decrees concerning the art, especially the religious one, which had to be in accordance with the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and the allegories, which, in their turn, had to be easily identified and understood4.

Allegories were organized in an alphabetical order, according to their latin name. Ripa's description provided information on the figure's clothes, the symbols accompanying it and justification of his choices, usually based on references of the classic literature. The woodcuts, giving shape to Ripa's versions, an oeuvre of Guissepe Cessari, were added for the first time in 1603. Ever since, all the editions have been illustrated5.

Leriche decided to give her own reply to the Latin humanist, replacing the female personifications of his allegories by contemporary women. Women, as the photographer claims, were no longer impersonal allegories that could personify any concept with the addition of the right symbols. It is for this reason that she gave the opportunity to women who engage with art, either as creators, or as theorists, to word their own version for the contemporary allegories, in texts accompanying the catalogue, by actually suggesting the artistic conception of the composition that the artist adopted. The contemporary daughters of Ripa have the right of speech, they determine their presence themselves, and they perform in their daily life the actions that Ripa attributed to them at an allegorical level.

The allegories of Leriche constitute a different, restaged version of Art History. The pose of the model in the contemporary allegory of Virilité and the symbols surrounding her is an allusion to the contribution of male artists to the establishment of female iconography. The four models of Beauté de Femme, coming from different parts of the world, represent a multiracial and not a one-dimensional beauty, as it is usually the case with the models of the past. The contemporary woman who has recovered her voice and is accounted for active presence is seen in the personifications of Philosophie and Les Muses where the women she chose for the personification of each art, serve the relevant art in real life. Finally, a place in the photographs of Leriche is reserved not only to women who have well-shaped bodies, but also to those whose bodies do not comply with the standards of a "regular" and "normal" body, like the figures of Fraude and Destinée. Their "flaws", in the photographs of Leriche, carry a different kind of charge, transforming their bodies into a vehicle for new symbolisms, following contemporary researches in theory and artistic practice.


1 It is mentioned in a text written by the artist under the title Sophie Isabelle that she gave to me during our meeting.

2 For example the model of the photograph Sophie Isabelle , Sophie Isabelle Dufour, has written a text regarding her work with Dany Leriche, under the title La femme et son image, réflexion du modèle.

3 Rudolf Wittkower, Allegory and the migration of symbols, Thames &Hudson, London 1987, p.128.

4 Marie-Domitille Porcheron, Dany Leriche, Les filles de Ripa, Éditions Galerie Rachlin Lemarie, Paris 2000, p.3.

5 Cesare Ripa-Maser Edward Andrew, Baroque et Rococo Pictorial Imagery:The 1758-60 Hertel Edition of Ripa's ‘Iconologia', Dover Publications, New York 1971,p.9.