PRINT May 2022


Pierre Molinier, La belle inachevée (The Unfinished Beauty), 1977, ink, oil, and gold-leaf on board, 33 1⁄2 × 29 1⁄2".

In painting I was able to satisfy my leg and nipple fetishism.
—P. Molinier

I WAS SHOWING A FRIEND some pictures by cross-dressing painter-photographer Pierre Molinier, and we were arrested by one of the artist en travesti, posing beside one of his paintings, wearing a maniacal grin of the sort one comes to expect in his photographs—a grin that is rich, beautiful, luxurious, desirable, insane, “Joan Crawford stars in Possessed!” The interior is drab, dreary, “comfortable,” in that asphyxiating way we’re familiar with from Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. Molinier is a character mostly of the postwar period, and his work from the 1960s and ’70s percolates with sick genius, with energized wit. Yet, trawling for references, I want to compare his deportment to the Paris of the Second Empire in the poetry of Baudelaire. The Walter Benjamin quotes feel like they are just there. “Something different is disclosed in the drunkenness of passion: the landscape of the body,” writes Benjamin in his Passagenwerk. “These landscapes are traversed by paths which lead sexuality into the world of the inorganic. Fashion itself is only another medium enticing it still more deeply into the universe of matter.”

In most photographs, Molinier wears what is pretty much a uniform: Black stockings encase legs I can’t help feeling are too thin for a man; there are corsets, gauntlets, spike-heeled pumps, garters, maybe a nice lace brassiere. Fetish wear. It’s vaguely humorous, as sexual costumes so often are (c.f. Peter Berlin, Lady Gaga). As ever, Molinier’s truly sinister frozen smile beams sans cesse. It could be a plastic attachment it’s so steady, permanent.

Born in Agen, France, in 1900 and a lifelong resident of Bordeaux, Molinier in 1931 married Andrea Lafaye. Already, however, he had acquired some notoriety as a sexual nonconformist. He was an infamous transvestite, but was he substantially or primarily homosexual? It’s hard to say. André Breton liked him. “Be assured, dear Pierre Molinier, that the Surrealists are very much your friends,” he wrote. Breton organized the single exhibition of Molinier’s paintings in the artist’s lifetime, held at the Paris gallery À l’Étoile Scellée in 1955; he also invited the artist to contribute to the magazine Le surréalisme, même. But Breton was a prude, really, and the core Surrealist group quite stridently homophobic. By 1959, the Pope of Surrealism had had it with Molinier’s dildo bisexual transvestite filth, and in particular recoiled, it is said, from the artist’s various lewd advances. Surrealism was such a bourgeois affair.

Molinier was a housepainter by trade, but early on he became possessed by the spirit of the avant-garde and the School of Paris, passing through Impressionist, Symbolist, and Cubist modes in a manner glancingly similar to the young Picabia. The Symbolist phase stuck, and the paintings that were shown at L’Étoile Scellée, as well as those that appear in the following pages—most of them disappeared into private collections; a few were reproduced in a 1979 French exhibition catalogue—suspire the perfumed and humid air familiar from the paintings of Gustave Moreau and Jean Delville. Certain other off-the-most-beaten-track Surrealist painters also come to mind—Remedios Varo and Léonor Fini—and obviously Hans Bellmer’s drawings and photographs. One of the works here, unfinished, portrays a gilt seraphim whose bee-stung lips evoke the artist’s rictus. It has never before been shown; this portfolio is its debutante ball.

In 1950, Molinier, in the spirit of Surrealist effrontery and I’m-going-to-kill-myself-I-swear teasing, created a mock tombstone with this epitaph:

Here lies
born on 13 April 1900 died around 1950
he was a man without morals
he was proud of it and gloried in it
No need to pray for him.

Twenty-six years later, he shot himself with a Colt handgun, killing himself in the dark apartment he’d lived in for fifty-odd years. Isn’t parody eo ipso cruel? Even so, Molinier’s works are loving. When guys (especially homosexuals) dress up in women’s clothes, they love it but it’s a mockery. Or so I’ve been told.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Pierre Molinier, Jeune fille voilée (Veiled Girl), 1940–73, oil on canvas, 15 3⁄4 × 12 5⁄8".

Pierre Molinier, Le messager, 1952, oil on board, 20 1⁄8 × 28 3⁄4".

Pierre Molinier, Le duel, ca. 1950, oil on board, 28 3⁄8 × 39 3⁄8".

Pierre Molinier, Le temps de la mort n°1 (The Time of Death No. 1), 1962, oil on board, 38 1⁄4 × 51 1⁄8".

Pierre Molinier, La commune d’amour (The Communion of Love), 1967–68, oil on canvas, 21 1⁄4 × 17 3⁄4".

Pierre Molinier, Suzinella, 1960, oil on canvas, 24 × 18 1⁄8".