Olivier Richon

Galerie Samia Saouma

Olivier Richon’s recent cycle of works, made up of seven color photographs and entitled “Et in Arcadia Ego,” 1991, shows us an iconography that is repeated uniformly, with variants that don’t change the structure of the image except in the angle and in the distance of the photographic shot. Unlike his earlier pieces, these works incorporate the verbal text into the iconic text. The anonymous, impersonal nature of the shots, and the insistence upon a series of structurally similar images, bring to mind the “Modernist” photography of artists like Bernd and Hilla Becher and their numerous disciples. Furthermore, the ever present relationship between text and image declares a conceptual ancestry. But Richon reconverts the photograph to a “post-Modern” tool of fiction. He does not reuse fragments of reality, but creates a set: the image of a velvet-covered table, on which are placed natural elements, like a lemon, two artichokes, an onion, or the same image with soap bubbles or clouds of smoke rising up in the air.

It seems clear that Richon takes the two different processes and finds one common aspect—the emblematic nature of the image. Instead of becoming emblems of our contemporary world, Richon’s images interrogate their own categorical value, deduced from the history of painting. His photography always sets up a comparison with 16th-century painting, and in particular with the genre of the allegory, where every image is in itself extraneous and altered to signify something else. In the work shown here, the estrangement ends up decontextualizing these same “classical” images. According to Erwin Panofsky’s famous interpretation, the symbol of the skull is assigned to the theme “Et in Arcadia Ego” (“Even in Arcadia, there is death, even in death there is Arcadia”), but the skull never appears here. Instead, the images Richon chooses are taken from vanitas compositions, still lifes containing symbols of life’s transience, such as a sliced onion or a partially peeled lemon. These are accompanied by references to various sources, such as Giorgio de Chirico’s artichokes, or ironically contemporary ones like the cloud of smoke. The verbal text, incorporated into the upper portion of the image, does not function as explanatory caption, but opens up to other associations, making reference to iconographies that are not represented, not even metaphorically.

The artist seems to see the history of painting as the accumulation of ruins that Walter Benjamin’s Angelus Novus would like to reconstruct, a task made impossible by the adverse winds of progress. And so the images are based on discrepancy (between text and image, between image and context), and moving beyond appearances. In this way Richon allies himself with the “fiction” of post-Modern analysis, which, at the end of history, intervenes in critical fashion in the ecstatic nature of the sign.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.