Last Chance to See: Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House

By Ben Miller | 06 March 2015

Somerset House presents more than 100 works by the Paris Vogue favourite, created between 1955 and 1987

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From the Man Ray protégé who wheeled around Britain with a pair of mannequin legs in the boot to swimwear models riding atop dolphins and huge super-8 projections in which ridiculously-clothed models shudder back and forth like mesmerising vogue pop videos, Somerset House’s arch survey of the career of Guy Bourdin is seductive to the point of irresistibility.

Bourdin’s style feels as cutting-edge as it was when he debuted for Paris Vogue during the 1950s, surreal without being preposterous, gleefully sleazy without becoming naff or sickly.

A black and white photo of a woman in a fashion coat standing on a darkened hill
British Vogue (September 1975)© The Guy Bourdin Estate, 2014 / Courtesy A+C
Perhaps the finest element, in the central tunnel around which decadence, intoxication and the conceptually bizarre flank the walls, is the chance to see Bourdin’s storyboards encased: a decisive planner possessing poetic visioning, Bourdin sequences symbols in tight little vignettes of lurid colour: hands hold bouquets of flowers, a widow drinks a glass of champagne, a spring-adoring woman lies naked on crushed grass, candles are reflected from the glasses of their beholders.

In one drawing, starkly countering the polished glamour of Bourdin’s finished prints, the evolution of an unmistakably Bourdin scene is laid out, bereft of its mystique, on grid-like lines: a tiny figure dwarfed by the horizontal body of a woman, her head out of shot, a television blaring by the door.

Bourdin’s cinematic sense of drama sets him apart. Alfred Hitchcock’s principle of the MacGuffin – using an object as a filmic device to mysteriously advance an unspoken plot – inspired him, and the ubiquitous shoes these alluring photos were supposedly advertising become mundane and benign props in his endlessly alluring world of tights disappearing down rabbit holes and multi-coloured legs tied to train tracks.

A photo of a pair of mannequin legs without a body walking on a shore next to a still sea
Artist's archive (1979)© The Guy Bourdin Estate, 2014 / Courtesy A+C
Anything could be about to happen to the dismembered legs tiptoeing up to a bus stop, walking a shore or passing beach huts: the abiding sense is of chilling suspense, coiled opulence or post-crime horror. Images are repeated within themselves (Bourdin was a follower of the Droste effect, a recursive technique first used in a Dutch advert for cocoa powder in 1904), enticing and then shocking the viewer with the finesse of the deftest surrealist.

A snail makes its way across a billiard table, a cherry hangs from a drop, a woman has a power socket plugged into her: suggestive, witty but never predictable, Bourdin’s career surely remains the envy of the fashion world.

  • You can see Guy Bourdin: Image Maker at Somerset House, London until March 15 2015. Open 10am-6pm (9pm Thursday). Admission £9/£7, book online. Spotlight tour 1.30pm Wednesday and Friday.

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