Bernard Faucon: Growing Up
By Lynn McLanahan
A discussion of the work of French Photographer Bernard Faucon, based on his recent exhibition at the Galerie Agathe Gaillard, 3 rue du Pont-Lauis-Philippe in Pans, during Le Mois de la Photo.
The Houston Center for Photography will present a retrospective of his photographs from February 28 to April 6, I985.
Bernard Faucon's large group of color photographs made an exhibition you could really sink your chops into: meaty, challenging, and rewarding. It was one of the few real diamonds among an otherwise lackluster series of exhibitions at Le Mois de la Photo
Born in 1950, this French photographer is best known for his images of children acting out a variety of strange and mystical rituals. More often than not, the children aren't real, but rather are mannequins. Faucon acts as the costume designer, make-up artist, and director in his "mises en scene photographiques," He even has to adjust the bodies of his "actors" (arms up, head to the felt, right leg forward, etc.). In Faucon's work we can see the directorial mode at its utmost.
The result of his mammoth efforts of hauling his own little world around the countryside with him and staging scenes is a body of rich and complex tales. Casual glancers often remember his photographs as happy visions of childhood: children having fun at parties, playing in fields, and doing things kids will do. Those willing to look closer quickly see their oversight. Each photograph challenges the viewer to interpret a wealth of symbols and the task is never easy. These are not pat one-liners. Just when you may be congratulating yourself on a religious interpretation of what's happening in the foreground, you notice unusual games being played in the background.
Faucon's world is inhabited by young children, mostly boys, both real and artificial. The viewer is forced to become a child as well: Faucon allows us entry to his world from a lower, child's eye level. We are not looking down upon his world, safely casting judgment. Rather, we are a part of his world and it is not always a comfortable feeling. You are constantly battered by sexual, political, religious, social, and economic questions, the kind that are piled high in our subconscious, and which we generally prefer to leave behind.
In "Le banquet'' (I978) we have a royal feast in the countryside which has been interrupted by an approaching fire. In "L'enfant qui vole" (1979) we have a boy "flying" off a cliff, his friends playing in the field below. Faucon adds to the tension by sometimes juxtaposing real children with his mannequins. In "Colin-maillard" (1977) a young girl tentatively stands amidst a group of young male mannequins on a hillside, all of whom are in uniform pajamas, stumbling around blindfolded. Possible interpretations seem endless in so many of these photographs.
Faucon has chosen to use the Fresson process to print his photographs. A Fresson print is similar to a gum-bichromate print: various pigments can be mixed with the light-sensitive potassium dichromate and the colors can be modified by using different pigments. The degree of difficulty involved in making Fresson prints scares most artists away, but as Faucon is in Paris where the process was invented at the turn of the century and where the L'Atelier Fresson de Savigny still operates, he can take advantage of professional printmakers.
Unlike color prints on commercially manufactured paper, Fresson prints are made on archival print-making paper and have a soft, soothing quality that enables us to bypass harsh reality allowing us to drift into Faucon's fabricated world as believers.
In this exhibit, work from Faucon's "children" series was delegated to the downstairs exhibition space, and on the main floor was a "new Faucon." Gone for the most part are his children, yet one does not feel a stranger amidst the new work. Studying these landscapes and interiors, one quickly becomes aware of the rich iconographic vocabulary Faucon included in the earlier work. The children may be gone, but the symbols remain. Northern Renaissance painting fans will delight in the wealth of symbols to be found tacked to the walls, casually arranged on the floor, even leaping out of cliffs. The abundance makes you want to run to your bookshelf, dust off your Fergusons’s Signs and Symbol’s in Christian Art, and get down to decoding.
While you may find fire, grapes, and assorted flowers in Ferguson's, you won't find many of Faucon's other trademarks, such as aesthetic bits of garbage and flying envelopes. These symbols took on a somewhat secondary role in the earlier mannequin-dominated work, but here they have to survive on their own and Faucon has subtly prepared us for this transition by introducing these elements in his earlier work. Viewers with a bit of the detective in them will enjoy spotting the Faucon iconography in this new work.
The question becomes — can these symbols hold their own without the children? Some do so better than others, but it is a bit unfair to judge because in this exhibit we seem to have experimental work, work that hasn't yet arrived at a point as highly developed as his earlier series.
In some of these landscapes and interiors, Faucon appears to be weaning himself of the children by including only one huddled by a bush or two appearing only as shadows behind a suspended sheet.
One could look upon this transition as the slow death of his "civilization", the only remaining trace on a barren earth being scattered symbols. Perhaps this is what Faucon was alluding to n the earlier "L’enterrement des jouets" (1978) which depicts several mannequins futilely trying to play in a barren graveyard of toys.
In a newer image we have a somber interior, the floor covered with melons and one young boy curled up asleep in the shadowy background. This is in contrast to his earlier "La Sieste”(1979) in which eight children fill the picture sprawled on a field, having feasted on the melons which fill the remaining space. In the newer image we can see that Faucon is still testing the strength of his symbols, not quite ready to turn the photograph over to the melons and their surroundings
Following this weaning process to completion, we are confronted with several landscapes and interiors altogether devoid of children and populated only by Faucon’s symbols, some of the landscapes remind one initially of John Pfahl's manipulated landscapes, but Faucon’s mark is much more haphazard and whimsical.
A surge of white balloons rises out of a field of blue flowers in one, and in another our view of a field is hampered by a curtain of white streamers. Such party decorations remind one of the Peter Pan "I won't grow up" spirit present in the earlier work, but these more superficial symbols don't hold up very well without the children. In other more successful images, nature plays a more independent and active role. Fire, a familiar symbol from the earlier work, takes on a personality all its own as it hovers menacingly over a field in one, and emerges dramatically from the side of a cliff in another. Though just as carefully planned and staged as the rather forced balloons and streamers, the fires contain that hint of the supernatural so prevalent in Faucon’s earlier work.
Moving to the interiors sans enfants, the symbols very often hold their own. Viewing this evolution, one is reminded of the history of the still-life genre.
Centuries ago objects played a secondary role and their prosperous owners or religious counterparts dominated the paintings. Slowly but surety, the objects came to stand on their own and to tell the viewer a tale without any human figures present. In one of the new images we have almost a scene of the-crime: envelopes flying about the room, benches turned over, a state of disarray; one senses that Faucon’s children have been here. In another, we have a white room and a table with a white tablecloth laden with symbols such as a silver goblet- sliced oranges, and scattered leaves, fruits, and nuts. Scenes such as this begin to hold their own, and one doesn't automatically hearken back to the "children" and view the interior feeling that they've just left.
However, one is reminded that Faucon is still exploring by images such as one in which we have a comer full of subtly colored pieces of folded cloth piled high. Such images seem closer to simple studies in color and. perhaps resisting the change. I found myself missing the supernatural overtones.
Faucon’s highly developed earlier work is going to be a tough act to follow. I applaud Faucon for having the gumption to move on and grow, never an easy task especially when you can so comfortably rest on the laurels of your already acclaimed work. In this exhibit we see Faucons attempts to move on: in some he seems to be floundering, in others he seems to be on to something.
Viewers can partake of this transitional journey, feel almost a part of the growing process because of the rich vocabulary of symbols Faucon has taught us in the earlier work. The fires, feasts, flying envelopes, melons, locks, knives, flowers, fields, and water these old friends and more are all here to help Faucon on his journey and play with him along the way.