Born in Agen, France, in 1900, Pierre Molinier started their career as a house painter. In their twenties they moved with their family to the city of Bordeaux, where they joined a secret esoteric society. A fervent promoter of the arts and of the ‘Salons’, in the 1950s they abandoned their job in order to dedicate themselves exclusively to their art. Molinier produced surrealist paintings, as well as hundreds of photographs, that have been inspirational for generations of performance and body-based artists – such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman – that followed. They have had solo exhibitions at L’Etoile Scelée, Paris; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Malmö Konsthall; Australian Center for Photography, Sydney; Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst, Berlin; Santa Monica Museum of Art; and IVAM, among others. They committed suicide in Bordeaux in 1976.
In Pierre Molinier’s black and white photographs the human body and its potential for gender performance are taken apart, turned upside down, and reassembled, while aroused female faces gaze back at us. Many of their pictures are self-portraits as a lascivious, bent-over transvestite with doll-like features and an uncanny multitude of legs. Pierre Molinier’s pictures are violent but beautiful, objectifying but also empowering – most of them are composed and centred around a butthole, but they appear highly aestheticised and symmetrical. In their photomontages, Molinier portrays themself as a shameless gender-bending pervert, unafraid of exploring their wildest sexual fantasies surrounding their own feminisation, and penchant for long elegant legs, stockings, suspender belts, high heels, makeup, and dildos.
But how are we supposed to read these mysterious images today? Would it be wrong to project contemporary terms of queer identity politics onto them? Born in 1900, Molinier produced a lot of their most transgressive work between 1950 and 1970, several decades before the emergence of queer theory with its politicisation of gender pronouns and its critique of the gender binary. They referred to themself as ‘lesbienne’ but did not explicitly align themselves with any political movement fighting for LGBT rights. The lack of an immediate political project, however, doesn’t make their photographs any less emancipatory. Instead of making claims for causes of social justice, Molinier’s works complicate the distinction between male and female attributes and uncover human sexual desires without falling into an esoteric fetishisation of authentic or natural sexuality.
In 1955, Molinier began corresponding with the founder of surrealism André Breton, who invited them to show at the International Surrealist Exhibition (EROS), 1959-1960, at the Daniel Cordier Gallery in Paris. However, despite sharing the surrealists’ interest in psychoanalysis and hidden human desires, Molinier’s commitment to transforming their own body in the most scandalous ways possible – as well as their proclamation to make art solely ‘for my own stimulation’– make them stand out from their more respectable and conventional artist peers.
Their surrealist self-portraits reveal the dialectical nature of the photographic medium: while inevitably failing to keep its promise to render the human body in its entirety, it possesses the ability to surpass realistic representation while still appearing to document a real physical presence in front of the camera lens. The power of photographic technologies to transform one’s own image and identity may have become second nature to the majority of people living in today’s age of Photoshop and Instagram-filtered selfies. However, even a digital self-portrait that has been visibly altered, manipulated, and doctored can serve as proof that a subject knows how to creatively shape identity markers on the surface of their body. Molinier’s creative approach to performing as themself in front of a camera is precisely what makes their photographs so much more powerful than their paintings. Rather than simply revealing the artist’s sexual fantasies, the self-portraits imply the realisation of them.