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By Nathalie Léger.

This is an extract from Nathalie Léger’s Exposition, translated from the French by Amanda DeMarco (Les Fugitives).

And so each week Castiglione goes to the man who knows how to look at her. The photographer adjusts his devices, maybe they talk but only so much, they must have been accustomed to quiet; they’re at work. Each week, she comes to be present for the surface, she turns, she turns around, applies herself, then moves away. She passed through great reception rooms with allegories painted on their ceilings (rosy-fingered Dawn, the Sun in its chariot, vanquished Night laying down its arms), then come the rooms where the shoots happen, those are all garlands, those are all astragals; they glitter with gold, silk, and bronze, say the chroniclers, and at the back are the powder rooms, and over there in the maze of corridors, in the private rooms, the darkrooms, everything there is black as a tomb. This place is mechanized like the basement of a theatre, moving screens on invisible springs measure the light and modify the gradient of its rays according to the needs of the operation, canvases of all shades slide in their grooves and come to form the background of the tableau, painted skies, sea floor and fortresses, accessories on top of that, balustrades, benches, columns, barriers, stones, plants in pots and a piece of furniture in carved oak that can transform into a buffet, a fireplace, a piano, a prie-dieu, a desk. They’re ready. She has thought at length about the subject of the sitting — which scene, which outfit, which character? And the light, the orientation of her profile, and the story, the tale of herself, the legend retold each time, reinterpreted, with countless interjections and variants, the inner story that is muttered on some days, rapid and fluid on others, sung out. Montesquiou writes that she would return home to change, get an accessory, put on a piece of clothing. One could also imagine her undressing in one of the little chambers adjoining the studio, putting on costumes there. Judith or Elvira or the queen of Etruria. A Norman from the Pays de Caux (seated erect on a little wicker chair in a red wool dress, thick blue apron, and towering headdress of guipure lace. She’s holding some knitting, a large striped sock she seems to be finishing. Her elbows are pressed against her chest but under the heavy skirts, her thighs are spread, her legs planted solidly, her feet wedged in little patent leather flats with straps. The ball of yarn has rolled onto the floor, and a strange, silly grin drifts across her face.) She is an eighteenth-century marchioness, a severe Carmelite, she is Legouvé’s Béatrix, she is chaste, drowned Virginie, she is a man-eater as Donna Elvira, she is dressed as a Chinese woman, a Finnish woman, and here are funerals, a banquet, a ball. She prepares herself behind the scenes. Picture her hesitating before the cheval glass, trying on accessories, jewelry. The session begins. She appears on the little stage, always quickly assembled for the sitting. The session begins, and Woman makes her great appearance. She will try to put together a scattering of gestures and sentiments, turning them into one single image — telling a story in one single moment. She makes herself present, she turns, turns around, applies herself, then moves away. Look out, look out! Go! During those same years, the illustrious magician Robert-Houdin wrote a manual on conjuring whose eighth recommendation was: ‘Although everything said during a session may be, in a word, nothing but a web of lies, one must immerse oneself deeply enough into the spirit of one’s role in order to believe oneself in the reality of the fables being uttered.’ She immerses herself, she immerses herself. And when the session is over, while Pierson gives instructions to the lab, she lingers a little, she is no longer thinking of anything, the curtain has finally fallen on her inner theatre, its phantoms have been done away with. She watches the rain fall on the skylights, the starbursts opaque on the panes. She stands there, inert, as if entombed underwater, almost totally drained, standing still in the studio’s great luminous void, entrusting herself to a moment of silence and the absence of images, vanishing, carried away, swallowed up in the whiteness.

In 2005, the actress Isabelle Huppert was photographed by Roni Horn. Her face is bare, without makeup, without artifice. The series is titled Portrait of an Image. Someone told me that in each photo the actress had condensed the identity of one of her great roles: Madame Bovary, the Lacemaker, Violette Nozière… And so we lean forward, we look, but we don’t see anything — nothing but the actress’s face in each photo, a face with features drawn, a muddied complexion. Her gaze is hard, the texture of her skin uneven. A natural face, we think, a normal woman, attractive as each of us, plain as all of us, one who abandons all accessories to show us the true work: that Madame Bovary isn’t a wide-brimmed hat and a pinafore, but a detail, this imperceptible detail, this drooping corner of the mouth, this controlled distance between the eyebrow and the eyelid. We can’t see anything, but it’s there, this intensity, the work on the minutest nuance, an actress’s true work. We look again. No, that’s not it. The sole subject of this series is not the actress’s work, nor the incredible invisible machinery of acting; she herself is the sole subject, how could it be otherwise? Besides, the actress said: ‘When you pose for a photo, you want to know who you are, to be closer to yourself.’ The sole subject is simply this woman, her nudity, her consent to the banality of her face. Somewhere in the eye of another woman, she laid down the traits of her ugliness. Perhaps this is what the theologians of the Port-Royal abbey called a ‘truthful portrait’ (with visible simplicity, a portrait of excess and humiliation, a true portrait of oneself, formlessness in its very form, perhaps). A woman known for her beauty, Isabelle Huppert, her skin so white, her mouth so fine and ochre, her gaze cold, her presence unshrinking, dares to show herself to us without artifice. As she is. True determination. Courage, almost. However, by one of those rhetorical tricks inherent in self-representation, this truthful portrait is, by the very excess of its sincerity, the height of artifice and seduction. It declares precisely that which it pretends not to say. She gave false testimony (she who could largely rely on deception in all types of photography), gave it like the others, like all of the others, she — as we know well and can never forget, for these images are there to remind us of it — she who is always greater than the others because she exposes what the rest of us want to conceal, because she consents to her imperfection, because she consents to her ugliness. Nadar once said the photographic pose is a disease of the brain.

Another scene. The photographer is named Bert Stern and the model Marilyn Monroe. He makes her turn in space, indicates the poses, the accessories, gives a few instructions. He repeats that he wants her in a pure state, naked. He says it again. He even writes it down. He is unwavering in his conviction. Though his model opens herself to him easily, the photographer likes to believe that it will be difficult. Finally, he bypasses the difficulty he had invented and gets her drunk so he can photograph her.

Under one of her portraits, around 1861, she copies out these two lines: ‘Upon seeing such beautiful Sadness, / Who could desire Happiness?’

Nathalie Léger – Copyright: John FOLEY/Opale

Nathalie Léger is an award-winning, Paris-based French author, as well as an editor, archivist and curator. Léger’s first book under her name (she had published a previous title under a pseudonym), Les vies silencieuses de Samuel Beckett, was published in 2006. L’exposition (2008) precedes Suite for Barbara Loden (2012 Prix du livre Inter, 2016 Scott Moncrieff Prize) and La Robe Blanche (Gallimard 2018, Les Fugitives 2020) won French booksellers’ award Prix Wepler. Léger is the Director of the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine (IMEC), an organisation dedicated to the archives of 20th- and 21st-century French writers and publishers. She curated the 2002 exhibition on Roland Barthes and the 2007 exhibition on Samuel Beckett at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 12th, 2019.