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Vertigineuses parentés

Dizzying relationships
Gilles Altieri
In the aisles of Fiac some years ago I was drawn to a photograph in which the harmony of line, the
simplicity of the structure, all of which was bathed in a magical light, produced in me a feeling of
quiet happiness, such as one might experience in front of those absolutely perfect pictures of traditional
Japanese interiors.
It was an architectural photograph showing the inside of a completely bare, modernist style building
(in retrospect, I think it was one of a series dedicated to Wittgenstein’s house). However this
initial impression produced by the peaceful objectivity of the shot gradually gave way to doubts
and suspicions. It was as if a discordant, but barely discernable, factor was disturbing the peaceful
contemplation of the viewer.
Having expressed my disquiet it was explained to me that the photograph was in fact taken in a studio
of a scale model previously made by the artist. The beauty of the picture coupled with the ingenuity
of the process instantly convinced me to exhibit the work of its author, the artist Philippe De
Gobert.
The exhibition of this artist’s work in the Hôtel des Arts is part of a double edged approach that
marks the programming of this venue. On the one hand an interest in Constructed Art well represented
in the exhibition of 20th century Polish art and consolidated by the exhibitions dedicated
to Anna Mark and Emmanuel and on the other hand the work of artists such as Laurent Millet
and Vik Muniz, who are past masters at trickery and illusions. Finally an interest in architectural
photography.
Nevertheless in contrast to Lucien Hervé’s very expressive pictures which concentrate on the spectacular
effect of a particular viewpoint and the dramatisation of the image by the power of the
contrasting black and white, the axial neutrality and the delicately nuanced and refined lighting of
Philippe De Gobert’s shots brings him much closer to the other great photographer of modern
architecture, Julius Schulman.
However by comparing the artistic output of Philippe De Gobert to that of these great photographers
I risk sending this introductory article in probably the wrong direction. For to consider
Philippe De Gobert as an architectural photographer, which he nonetheless is professionally and a
very talented one at that, would be wrong with reference to his work as an artist, except in an
oblique sense. To classify him, as with many contemporary artists, is truly problematic and
ambiguous.
In truth the art work of Philippe De Gobert is closer to that of other visual artists who construct
objects which they then photograph, with the photograph being the final stage in the work’s
process as well as being the work of art itself. The original object created by the artist then ceases
to have any use.
In the light of this it is desirable to approach Philippe De Gobert’s work as a photographer in the
broadest sense like that of Laurent Millet and Vik Muniz already mentioned, or, in order to
remain within the same field, that of James Casebere and Thomas Demand with whom he seems
to have a greater affinity as all three work around architecture.
The pretences that they resort to, by their very perfection, are at the root of uncertaintity felt by
the viewer who finds the photographs before him too perfect and therefore suspect.
However the cold objective pictures of Thomas Demand are in strict contrast to the limpid clarity
and very delicate tones of Philippe De Gobert, which remind me of the light-filled atmosphere
of Alphaville by Jean-Luc Godard or the strangely worrying clarity of light that bathes Cary Grant
and Joan Fontaine’s house in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Suspicion.
For, mutatis mutandis, the technical device used by Philippe De Gobert, which comprises making
an extremely precise scale model of a semi-real or imaginary place, in which he can freely modify
the layout by moving the openings, by changing, according to his whim, the scale of various elements
and by playing with the lighting, is not dissimilar to the techniques employed by the film
makers on the sets of the big Hollywood studios.
Thus when we look closely at Philippe De Gobert’s pictures we are struck by the unreality of the
proportions and scale, whether it’s the excessive height of the doors, windows or walls, a common
practice in the world of cinema particularly with a director like Alfred Hitchcock.
This easily made connection between Philipe De Gobert’s work and the cinema is given added
weight when we look at the archive photos of the great American studios taken by John Divola.
Certain shots in the seriesHallways from the 30s taken for Warner could easily be mistaken for
photographs by Philippe De Gobert.
As well as these obvious affinities with the world of cinema it is striking the closeness of the artist’s
work to the world of painting, particularly Dutch painting, an example being the painter Emanuel
de Witte who, in the 17th century combined aspects taken from several churches in order to create
a grandiose architecture. His magnificent picture Interior with harpsichord in which the painter constructs
space through the play of the light and reflections, creates a depth to the linked rooms
which possibly inspired several of Philippe De Gobert’s shots notably Suite de l’image précédente
and Va et vient .
There is also a deep affinity with Vermeer and his painting Love letter has obvious links with
Énigme hollandaise , and perhaps also Atelier 4 .
Above all there is a spiritual osmosis with Pieter Saenredam in whose work the purity of the bare
forms makes us hear the silence and experience the peace.
Finally Mondrian, himself a distant descendant of Pieter Saenredam who Philippe De Gobert
cleverly conjures upin the photograph Atelier 16-1 . As if in a direct line of descendancy
from this dizzying roll call the latter gives substance to the idea often expressed by Borges that
every great artist invents his precursors.
In Philippe De Gobert’s world these family links (real or imagined) go deep and draw on the oldest
origins of the painting of Northern Europe, proving, if there was ever any need, that all
advances in Art never stop swinging between rupture and continuity.