Paul-Armand Gette

Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle

I am tempted to conflate two of Paul-Armand Gette’s phrases: “On exoticism as banality” and “On eroticism as banality,” to characterize his work as “eroticism as exoticism.” The first of his phrases refers to the discovery of the multitude of exotic plants that grow alongside urban avenues; the second deplores the banality of eroticism in advertising. Gette’s work is far removed from this banality: its eroticism is one of the edge—of situations outside the norm which may appear exotic.

For some time, Gette has associated his love of plants and of nature with his love for women and young girls, those nymphs who haunt wood, gardens, and the seaside, as well as more private places such as dressing rooms and bathrooms. As both entomologist and botanist, Gette started photographing young women in natural settings in 1970, in works that suggest a link between the mutability of landscape and natural elements, and the latent metamorphoses of prepubescent bodies. He is especially interested in the notion of the edge, the fragile borderline between two domains, and by extension, the mixture of genres. The contact of the nymphettes’ skin and their clothes evokes those intimate limits that Lolita’s lover does not recognize as taboo. While apparently discreet, Gette’s photographs of little girls with hiked-up skirts, seated in boats on a lake, do allow a glimpse of the suggestive edges of their underpants.

The first part of the exhibition, entitled “La vue et le toucher” (The look and the touch), retraces Gette’s seductions/relations with his models, exciting the imagination more than they shock the eye. Among the “Travaux américains” (American works, 1980), created during the artist’s stay in California, we discover little Susannah, primly seated on a rock at the Berkeley Botanical Gardens. La contemplation des nymphes (The contemplation of nymphs, 1991) is composed of photographs of pubises covered with rose petals, surrounded with volcanic rock. From here, the progression from eroticism onward follows a natural path. The little girls have become big girls, and their anatomy can now show the world its metaphorical and semantic correspondences with “the grand genre of Nymphaea.” As for the volcanic rocks, they are “a metaphor for passionate states.”

With the series “Le toucher du modèle” (The touch of the model, 1984), in which the artist’s hand grazes young Sophie’s breasts, Gette may be realizing Henri Matisse’s temptation to draw “right next to the model . . . almost knee to knee.” But in another series, “De l'écume à la dentelle” (From foam to lace, 1992), he gives us a rather different version of his fascination with the essence of femininity. The Calais museum is unique in that it houses a collection of ultrafeminine lingerie, all embellished with the fine lace for which this town is famous. So Gette adorns breasts and thighs with it, in voluptuous ochres and fleshy pinks, this time showing the young woman in all her beauty. He has also drawn prototypes of underpants, and the captions for these maintain the theme of this attraction to the ambiguity of edges and borders, here muffled by sea foam: a “paw between the legs, with interior ornament, visible only under certain circumstances.”

Anne Dagbert

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll