In the 1950s, André Breton, the anarchic poet-founder of Surrealism reached out to the Bordeaux painter and photographer Pierre Molinier. He had become obsessed with the man’s work: sexual, dream-like and utterly transgressive. As it turns out, Molinier was both gay and a transvestite, and through his work employed his body and that of acquaintances to create visions of a hybrid identity, unencumbered by traditional gender notions.
Intertwined limbs, many-headed creatures and deformed bodies were not just visual references intended to shock; while Molinier’s tended towards the extreme, his exploration of the erotic foreshadowed work by the likes of Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe.
Earlier this year, London’s Richard Saltoun Gallery played host to the first UK exhibition of his work for over 20 years, and at this year’s Paris Photo, Artcurial are presenting a collection of Molinier’s work for sale. Nearly 200 works by Molinier, including photographs, drawings and personal correspondences have been compiled for the auction on Friday 13th November by Emmanuelle Arsan, a muse of the artist who drew equal inspiration from him – she later wrote the legendary erotic novel Emmanuelle.
The process Molinier put his images through – cutting them up and reassembling them, daubing them with ink and rephotographing them, photomontage – mirrored the transformative aspect of his subjects and the fluid ambiguity of his sexuality. Picking up photography at 18, “the artist realised that photography had the power to confuse reality, reflecting a more faithful image of himself than his mirror and providing the perfect medium for performing his own transformation into the ideal being: the androgyne, half man, half woman,” explains Artcurial’s Christophe Lunn.
In Molinier, Breton recognised not just a kindred spirit, but someone whose graphically erotic sensibilities perhaps outmatched his own. He attempted to bring Molinier within his circle with a Paris exhibition of his paintings in 1956 but after a 1959 display of his painting at the Bordeaux Salon, the degree of his artistic perversity was deemed too much for the French cultural elite. The man Breton dubbed the “magician of erotic art” was shunned and later committed suicide in 1974, shooting himself with a pistol.
After the posthumous publication of a book of his works and a 1979 exhibition dedicated to him at the Pompidou Centre, Molinier has received renewed attention. His work was exhibited at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and with this auction, the forgotten man of Surrealism will perhaps receive his due.
The Forbidden Sale: The Pierre Molinier Collection is taking place on Friday 13 November at Artcurial, 7 Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées, Paris. Find out more about the sale here.