Irina Ionesco

Irina Ionesco | Ma réalité rêvée

19 March 2016 till 10 May 2016

The theatrical, neo-surrealist world of Irina Ionesco. Painting and photography must always be understood within the context of their creation and the prevailing spirit of the times. Only then can we judge whether a nude is particularly revealing, provocative, or even obscene – and not only appearing to be so. Our art museums are filled with nude paintings that date back to the Renaissance and Baroque, during which not only the mythological figures of Venus, Eva, Maria, or Lucretia served as models, but also young women from the environment of the painters at the time. Through oil paint on canvas they were transformed into captivating saints or personifications of virtue, according to the visual canon and traditional reception at the time.

Much later in the 1960s and ‘70s, the changes unleashed by the sexual revolution were dramatically felt in the social fabric as well as the arts. And artistic photography, with its visualization of the naked human body, played a significant role, for instance through the enigmatic and melancholic images of Irina Ionesco. Ionesco grew up in Constana, Romania and settled in Paris in 1951, where she explored painting and then took up photography. She had her first solo exhibition in 1974 at the Nikon Gallery in Paris, the first major forum for many notable photographers, such as Helmut Newton one year later.

Even today, photography like no other medium can enchant or disturb us, excite or amuse us. A single photographic image can exert immense appeal and influence. The human body, particularly the nude female, is one of the most photographed, and thus one of the most important motifs in the history of the photographic medium. Most of us are fascinated by nude photographs, whether consciously or unconsciously; and through them Eros can transform into an obsession. The photographic gaze onto unclothed people, from the early daguerreotypists to the likes of Edward Weston and Man Ray, from Nan Goldin to Joel-Peter Witkin, has captured all varieties of love and passion, harboring both beauty and fear. And when the work of a photographer like Irina Ionesco is so hotly debated, it deserves to be re-examined after a few decades of distance.

Ionesco’s erotic productions evade simple categorization as only portraits, fashion, or nudes. Instead they are a composite, in which the photographer explores the dualism of revealing and concealing, and plays subtly with the lewd and the louche. Ionesco outfitted her female models in lingerie and fur stoles, veiled them in tulle and netting, adorned them with opulent jewels and flowers, and posed their semi-nude bodies in nocturnal, neo-surrealist settings, often in front of mirrors. The models donned costume after costume before Ionesco’s camera, against the ever-changing backdrop of her small stage. Unconventional props, half-object, half-decoration, and theatrical makeup underpinned her subject’s personality, indeed, role. Pictured mostly alone, they play the role of femme fatale among others, staged by the photographer, their director.

Ionesco’s complex, often dark arrangements function like a theater play in several acts, or a movie, captured frame by frame. Yet the decisive element in her refined black-and-white images remains the partial nudity and immediate sensuality of the female models. Sometimes their breasts are exposed, or their pubic area, or with their eyes half-closed they can seem almost corpse-like in the windowless interiors. Morbid associations come almost immediately to mind, with the late 19th-century symbolism with its images of melancholic, world-weary women and maidens at the height of beauty in the throes of some deadly disease.

Ionesco’s productions abound with poetic and natural eroticism; never do they seem distasteful or pornographic. She makes occasional references to the stories of French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet and possibly films by Luis Buñuel. Her models appear simultaneously fragile and self-confident; this apparent ambivalence owes much to the shifts in the perception of women in Western society. The complementary duality of voyeurism and exhibitionism present in Ionesco’s work, like that of showing and hiding, is clearly inscribed in the field of fashion photography, for example. Fashion aims to seduce, as it should – visually, cognitively, and factually – to encourage consumption of the dresses and stockings, jewelry, and footwear it depicts. It is no wonder that such things have become popular objects of fetish.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Irina Ionesco developed a keen and intense eye for women and their seductive allure. The impact of her nude photographs, with their enigmatic and timeless aura, reached well beyond the gaze of male viewers. Indeed, artists like Irina Ionesco helped to establish a new type of woman: a sensual and ambivalent embodiment of the unconventionality and permissiveness of the times.

When artists in their representation of people tread the fine line of the morally permissible, as was the case with Ionesco’s contemporaries and successors such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Cindy Sherman, discussion about the work and the bourgeois outrage it sparks is inevitable. And this may very well be the only way to expand the photographic canon: when such images beyond the norm take hold in our individual and collective visual memory.

Matthias Harder

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Past shows (selection)

In Times Of Plenty | The Shape Of Things Today

Jul 7th - Sep 4th 2018

Ichwan Noor | Ichwan Noor | Beetle Sphere

May 26th - Jun 30th 2018

Miles Aldridge | Miles Aldridge | ART HISTORY

Apr 7th - May 22nd 2018

Keith Coventry | Keith Coventry | Junk & Pure Junk

Feb 24th - Apr 4th 2018

New Beginnings

Jan 3rd - Feb 17th 2018

Roger Ballen | Roger Ballen – Ballenesque – a Retrospective

Nov 23rd - Dec 30th 2017

Unseen Photo Fair 2017

Sep 22nd - Sep 24th 2017

Chen Nong | Chen Nong | Silk Road

Sep 16th - Nov 11th 2017

Joel Morrison | Joel Morrison | New Works

May 6th - Aug 15th 2017

Iris Schomaker | IRIS SCHOMAKER | Come To The Edge

Feb 25th - Apr 26th 2017

Unseen Photo Fair 2016

Sep 23rd - Sep 25th 2016

Marcus Harvey | Marcus Harvey | SHIPBUILDING | New Works

Nov 25th - Jan 7th 2017

Sculpture Project Gelderlandplein | Permanently On View

Donald Baechler | Donald Baechler | New Works

Sep 16th - Nov 15th 2016

Photo London 2016 Somerset House, Booth no. X2

May 18th - May 22nd 2016

Unseen Photo Fair 2015

Sep 18th - Sep 20th 2015

Andrew Moore | Andrew Moore | New Works from Dirt Meridian and Cuba

Nov 28th - Feb 20th 2016

Todd Hido | Todd Hido|Selections From A Survey: ‘Khrystyna’s World’

Sep 12th - Nov 21st 2015

Araki | Nobuyoshi Araki | Alluring Hell

Jun 6th - Aug 15th 2015

Araki | Araki | August and Megumi Kagurazaka

Dec 20th - Feb 28th 2015

Barry Reigate | One Cannot Get Fingerprints From A Rock

Oct 4th - Dec 6th 2014

Unseen Photofair 2014

Sep 18th - Sep 21st 2014

Beauty of Darkness II

Jun 21st - Aug 4th 2014

Miles Aldridge | One Black & White and Twenty Four Colour Photographs

Mar 8th - May 10th 2014

Robert Yarber | Robert Yarber | Panic Pending

Dec 6th - Jan 25th 2014

Artissima 2013

Nov 8th - Nov 10th 2013

Harland Miller | Harland Miller | Wherever You Are Whatever You’re Doing This One’s For You

Sep 20th - Nov 24th 2013

Unseen 2013

Sep 26th - Sep 29th 2013

Something Like Summer

Jul 17th - Sep 13th 2013

John Copeland | All We Ever Wanted Was Everything

May 25th - Jul 16th 2013

Hisaji Hara | Hisaji Hara | A Photographic Portrayal of the Paintings of Balthus

Mar 23rd - May 11th 2013

Arco 2013

Feb 13th - Feb 17th 2013

Chen Nong | Chen Nong | Climbing To Moon

Sep 29th - Dec 31st 2012

Pulse Miami Contemporary Art Fair

Dec 6th - Dec 9th 2012

Daido Moriyama | Daido Moriyama | Journey For Something

May 19th - Jul 28th 2012

Marcus Harvey | Marcus Harvey | Glass Paintings

Apr 7th - May 16th 2012

Arco Madrid 2012

Feb 15th - Feb 19th 2012

Roger Ballen | Roger Ballen | Animal Abstraction

Nov 12th - Dec 10th 2011

Harland Miller | Harland Miller | Rocky 6

Jul 9th - Sep 13th 2011

Moby | ‘Destroyed’ – Booksigning and Exhibition

May 31st - Jun 16th 2011

Araki | Nobuyoshi Araki | It Was Once a Paradise

Jun 1st - Jul 16th 2011

| John Copeland | Times of Grace

Nov 27th - Feb 15th 2011

Andrew Moore | Andrew Moore | Making History

Apr 10th - Jun 7th 2010

Harland Miller | Harland Miller | I’ll Never Forget What I Can’t Remember

Sep 18th - Nov 9th 2010

| Kristen as seen by Miles Aldridge and Chantal Joffe

Mar 14th - Jun 7th 2010

Alla Esipovich | No Comment

Jan 15th - Mar 13th 2010

Contemporary and Vintage Photography

Sep 26th - Nov 28th 2009

David Lachapelle | David LaChapelle | The Rape of Africa

Jun 6th - Jul 31st 2009

Bill Owens | Bill Owens | Riots & New Suburbia

Feb 28th - Apr 4th 2009

Miles Aldridge | Miles Aldridge | Acid Candy

May 3rd - Jul 5th 2008