Pierre Molinier, the forgotten Surrealist

Even by the standards of the Surrealists, Pierre Molinier led an extraordinary life. Locked away in his Bordeaux studio (or 'boudoir' as he preferred to call it) the artist acted out the kind of sado-masochistic fantasies that Salvador Dali and his contemporaries dared only to explore in paint
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Je suis lesbien declares the artist. His legs are encased in black stockings, secured to a suspender belt; his waist is constricted by a tight corset. On his head he wears a veil and a black mask. His fingers press a switch, a shutter clicks and Pierre Molinier, the forgotten Surrealist, is caught on camera forever. From his photographs Molinier greets us with a demonaic grin. A plastic penis has been inserted between his buttocks.

An avowed homosexual transvestite, Pierre Molinier lived the violence and sexual obsessions his fellow Surrealists only dreamt about. Now barely remembered as a footnote to the Surrealist movement, it was Molinier - not Dali, nor Magritte - who did it for real. Between 1965 and his suicide in 1976, he chronicled his exploration of his subconscious transexual desires in Cents Photographes Erotique: graphically detailed images of pain and pleasure now on show in London.

Molinier was born in 1900. From 1920 he studied as a painter, progressing in style through Realism and Impressionism to abstraction. By 1936 he was producing surreal Symbolist works in which he interwove Moreau-esque imagery with a fascination for the more savage aspects of ancient Egyptian and Indian religions, Satanism and the teachings of the Brotherhood, a secret masonic order which he had joined in the 1920s. It was in these paintings of cruel, multi-limbed women, reminiscent of the work of Hans Belmer, that the artist began his investigation of the sexual ambiguity which was to become his obsession.

In 1955 Molinier made contact with the leading Surrealist Andre Breton and by 1959 was showing at the International Surrealist Exhibition. At this time he defined the purpose of his art as 'for my own stimulation', indicating his future direction in one of his exhibits in the 1965 Surrealist show - a dildo. It was also in this year that Molinier, with the aid of a remote control switch, began to create photographs in which he assumed the roles of dominatrix and succuba previously taken by the women of his paintings.

In these beautifully-made, intimate black and white photographs, Molinier, either alone with doll-like mannekins or with female models, appears as a transvestite, transformed by his 'fetish' wardrobe of fishnet stockings, suspender belt, stilettos, mask and corset. In montages, an unlikely number of stockinged limbs intertwine to create the women of Molinier's paintings. In other, more direct images, the artist presents himself alone, in dominant pose, with his hands on his hips or lying in submission across a chair, buttocks exposed to the camera. At their most extreme the pictures involve self- sodomisation with a cleverly devised home-made dildo which the artist attached to the high heel of his shoe. His ingenuity knew no bounds. He even constructed a set of stocks which enabled him to practice auto-fellatio.

On an immediate level Molinier's erotic self-portraits recall Salvador Dali's enigmatic painting of 1954 'Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by her own Chastity', but it is possible to discern earlier roots. When Molinier stands, hands on hips, emphasising his own exaggerated genitals, he echoes Donatello's disquietingly erotic Renaissance bronze putto 'Attis Amor', now in the Bargello museum in Florence. Contorting himself in self-satisfaction, he becomes a figure from Bosch's 'Garden of Earthly Delights'. Similarly, Molinier the priapic, laughing demon is the Dionysius of ancient Greek sculpture. The honesty with which the artist addresses his naked self suggests precedents in Schiele, Picasso and Stanley Spencer and such followers as Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman. In common with the sexually-explorative work of these artists, Molinier's photographs - neither gratuitous nor exploitative - also invoke the debate concerning the boundary between erotic art and pornography.

The Surrealists, like the Symbolists and Romantics before them, were concerned to liberate man's latent eroticism through their art. In 1959, Breton defined eroticism as 'a privileged place, a theatre in which incitement and prohibition play their roles, and where the most profound moments of life make sport', and for the last 11 years of his life Molinier played out his own most profound moments in the 'theatre' of his Bordeaux 'boudoir-atelier'.

Molinier intended his photographs to shock. He invites each viewer to bring to the images his or her own response, of excitement or disgust. What was essential was that everyone should be 'contaminated'. Only then would they be able to know themselves, to discover their true erotic sensibility and find real spiritual freedom. Molinier explored his own senses and uncovered connections between religious ritual and sexuality which he believed had been obscured by the post- Renaissance morality he so despised. He was a transvestite Baudelaire who rather than words, chooses as his medium the corset, the mask and the chain. He asks the viewer to challenge received orthodoxies of art and morality and, like a jester, seeks to destroy taboos. In both this, and his transvestism, Molinier echoes the ancient Shamanic tradition and his experiments in sexual transformation can be interpreted as an attempt to regain the primordial, Platonic perfection of the androgyne. It is significant that his (unrealised) biography was to have been entitled The Shaman and His Creatures.

At the time that they were made, Molinier's photographs may have carried the power to shock that was necessary to achieve his aim. But whether they have the same effect on today's audience is as questionable as their pornographic status. To our eyes, dulled perhaps by the monumental technicolour coitus of Jeff Koons and La Cicciolina, they seem almost as quaint as the Edwardian boudoir photographs which hang in public bars.

Paradoxically, Molinier's own legacy works against him. His importance lies not in the power of his work to affect a contemporary audience, but in his position in the development of performance art. In making himself the subject of his own art, Molinier foresaw the future 'outrages' of Warhol, Acconci, Agullo and Gilbert and George. His acts and the images they engendered were to Molinier the 'magical' door through which he might take his audience to rediscover a lost truth of the human condition. When he shot himself dead on 3 March 1976, he was only enacting the final act of self-transformation. His boastful epitaph says it all: 'Here lies Pierre Molinier. This was a man without morality.'

Pierre Molinier's photographs are at the Cabinet Gallery, 8 Clifton Mansions, 429 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, London SW9

(Photograph omitted)

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