ARTICLE NATASHA FRASER-CAVASSONI
PHOTOGRAPHY PIERRE ET GILLES
THE INSEPARABLE ARTISTS HAVE BEEN CREATING OPULENT PORTRAITS OF ICONIC CELEBRITIES SINCE THE '70S, CAPTURING ANDY WARHOL, MADONNA, MARC JACOBS, AND MANY MORE. IN THE LATEST CHAPTER OF AN INCREDIBLE STORY THAT INCLUDES THEIR OWN ROMANTIC TALE, HERE THEY DEBUT A WORK THAT CELEBRATES THE NEW RIGHT OF GAYS AND LESBIANS TO MARRY IN FRANCE
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Pierre et Gilles’s hand-painted photographs are both highly revered—the likes of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and PPR king François Pinault collect them—and instantly recognizable. Exquisitely colorful and perversely naïve, the French artists’ dreamlike portraits capture the intensity of their subjects, who include Andy Warhol, Iggy Pop, Madonna, Marc Jacobs, and Catherine Deneuve. “Their images are iconic, yet none of their sitters look robotic,” says shoe designer Christian Louboutin, a friend since the late 1970s. “That’s because everything is done by hand and they don’t use a computer, which can rub out the character of the face.”
Pierre et Gilles are an inseparable and unusual couple—“both in their professional and personal life,” according to Louboutin. In the increasingly technical world of photography they are extremely artisanal. “Each portrait takes about three weeks from the beginning to the end,” explains Gilles, “because we do everything from creating the décor to taking the picture to constructing the frame.” With regard to choosing ideas, “We are always inspired by the person’s personality,” says Pierre.
The couple—Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard, always referred to as Pierre et Gilles—met in 1976 at the inauguration of the Kenzo boutique in the Place des Victoires, and a few months later started living and working together. “Pierre took photos and I did painting,” says Gilles. Their famous technique began thanks to a photo session with some of their girlfriends, who were snapped grimacing. “I used really bright colors and was pretty disappointed by the result,” says Pierre. “It was not flashy enough,” says Gilles. “And that’s why I decided to paint on the photographs to further express our vision.” It was daring and “very precise,” according to Farida Khelfa, the French style icon and one of their early subjects. “Really, they invented Photoshop before anyone,” she says.
Their first professional portrait was of Andy Warhol for Façade magazine, the now defunct French publication. “We went to his apartment on Rue du Cherche-Midi,” says Pierre. “And it was really exciting because we were his superfans,” adds Gilles. Their second cover portrait was of Iggy Pop. “Talk about rock and roll,” enthuses Pierre. They arrived at Pop’s hotel room to find him in bed with a groupie and a battlefield of empty champagne bottles and glasses smashed into the carpet. “We took a picture of him in a white shirt wearing Pierre’s leather tie, which Iggy refused to give back,” says Gilles.
Their reputation quickly attracted the attention of designer Thierry Mugler and led to their creating his invitations for three years. “Thierry would talk about the collection and give us the colors,” says Gilles. “It was a delightful experience.” They also began to work with Jean Paul Gaultier and to take pop-world portraits, ranging from Sylvie Vartan to Madonna. “Singers corresponded to our childhood,” says Pierre. It was in 1996, with Taschen’s publication of their complete works—launched to coincide with a retrospective of their work at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie—that their career exploded. “In Bangkok, we found people selling our photos printed onto canvases lined up next to fake Picassos and Warhols,” says Gilles. “And in Spain, they put our Virgin Madonna on the cans of beer,” recalls Pierre.
Though their public persona is definitively downtown and edgy (count on them wearing jean jackets to black-tie events), in private, Pierre et Gilles bring to mind courteous, sweet-natured elves consumed by their art. Indeed, their studio (which doubles as living quarters) is an eccentric shrine to their make-believe world. Upstairs sits Gilles’s atelier—a delightful indoor greenhouse—where a portrait of a blond Adonis with elaborate wings waits patiently for the final brushstrokes. Elsewhere, makeshift sets reflecting Indian and Sri Lankan influences are scattered around a kitchen table, wooden chairs, and more practical-looking furniture.
In the basement, the photo studio has been transformed with kitsch décor—a saccharine serenade of silver stars and pink tulle—commemorating Koh Masaki, a famous Japanese porno star. “He’s beautiful,” says Gilles. Masaki is “100 percent gay,” according to Pierre, as is a large percentage of their work. “We’ve never hidden being gay,” says Pierre. But as his partner is quick to point out, “We’ve taken photographs of everyone and never placed ourselves in the gay ghetto.” Their autoportrait salutes gay marriage, which has just become legal in France. “It’s actually our second time doing this,” notes Pierre. “Because in 1993, we did a fake wedding which showed Gilles as a bride.” As ever, Pierre et Gilles remain ahead of the game.