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What do you get if you cross an avant-garde French couturier with an equally visionary - and antagonistic - artist? Canned Candies: the love child of Paco Rabbane and Jean Clemmer, an exquisite and groundbreaking collaboration first published in 1969, under the less euphemistic title, Nues. Flash Projects brings these original vintage prints to London for the first time in a pop-up exhibition celebratng the book's 40th anniversary. Keen to know more, jotta caught up with Flash Projects director Christabel Armsden ahead of the launch, for an inside scoop on the pair and their impact on fashion.
While Rabanne is known for dressing icons (Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda in Barbarella), Jean Clemmer was a lesser known painter, musician, photographer and cohort of Dalì and Cocteau. His meditation on the female form – his artful but radical styling and imaging - was a potent match for Rabanne’s futuristic chain-mail jewellery and between them they bottled the era’s sense of sexual liberation. The shoot was also groundbreaking in its use of black and Asian models and was first unveiled amidst a flurry of cocktails and naked dancers at Paris’ legendary Crazy Horse Saloon.
What made you choose to stage this exhibition now?
Jean Clemmer's iconic collaboration with Paco Rabanne was one of the great creative unions of the 1960s. It conveys in its spirit all that Flash Projects aims to present in our exhibition programme. So for us it was an ideal launch exhibition. The Nudes of Jean Clemmer demonstrates Flash's dedication to original vintage photographs.
Clemmer both photographed and styled this work, at a time when styling was not an established vocation as it is now. Are the photos on display in the exhibition important in the history of styling? Clemmer was not only a photographer, prior to his collaboration with Paco Rabanne he was a jeweller, interior designer and painter. He and Rabanne were both complete artists who created between them a vision which went on to inspire many others.
The images here could almost be contemporary. Do you think this is a testament to Rabanne and Clemmer’s avant-garde vision? Or does the fact we live in an age of pastiche means everything feels familiar? The fact that the images feel almost contemporary is certainly an acknowledgement of Clemmer and Rabanne's avant-garde vision. But you're right, it does also reflect the cyclical nature of fashion and of fashion's continuing engagement with the importance of model as muse. That others continue to be inspired by these photographs is a testament to the strength of the vision created by Clemmer and Rabanne and its longevity. .
Even to modern standards, these images are very sexually charged. How did people react to them at the time?
The collaboration was deemed a great success and was very well received, however there was naturally some controversy. Jean Clemmer was not surprised by this and his niece Hélène Clemmer Heidsieck has spoken previously of Clemmer's acute enjoyment in being provocative! It amused Clemmer to know that certain towns in France had banned his book. He was happy to acknowledge a shocking side to his work and deemed the photograph as "the confrontation between the exhibitionist and the voyeur". But what's striking to the contemporary eye is their innocence.
Canned Candies was one of the first shoots to use black and Asian models and was inevitably influential on that front, but did it have an immediate impact on fashion/photography? Paco Rabanne gained fame for his pioneering use of black models in his fashion shows. Similarly, in Canned Candies Clemmer aimed to be innovative, to amaze and to challenge not just in the poses but also the choice of models.
We live in a world of increasingly digitalised media. How important is it that people still get the chance to see and experience original, photographic prints like these?
These rare original vintage prints are in fact better described as objects. In handling original vintage photographs you become increasingly aware of the multitude of paper types and of the physicality of the prints, of their incredibly tactile nature. Even in simply viewing the prints, the experience is entirely different to that of viewing contemporary editions.
Paco Rabanne designed the costumes Barbarella. Did the aesthetics and feel of Clemmer’s work directly inspire the film? Or did both just channel the Zeitgeist?
Rabanne's costumes for Jane Fonda and the characters in Barbarella took his fame to a new level, with its view of stylised sexuality and of a future world.
Can you describe Dali’s influence on Clemmer?
In response to Dali and Clemmer's friendship, Hélène Clemmer Heidsieck recently stated that "in his work with Rabanne and Dali, Clemmer wanted to find the best way to display the talents of each man - the designer's simplicity, the artist's delirium.... The privileged relationship he had with Rabanne and Dali allowed him to introduce them to each other. This turned out to be fruitful introduction and a series of productions made in Cadaquès are proof of this." (Hélène Clemmer Heidsieck, November 2010)
Do you have a favourite image in this series?
For me, Nus féminins (robes filets) (4) is absolutely representative of the spirit of the era and of the creative climate in which Rabanne and Clemmer were functioning. I love the strength and fluidity in the model's stance and the geometry of the silhouette formed by her pose and Rabanne's futuristic rhodoid and aluminium chain-mail jewellery. There is very much a sense of performance to the image, and of theatre.
Canned Candies. The Nudes of Jean Clemmer
26 November - 18 December 2010