Short feature on controversial photographer Irina Ionesco
ZOO Magazine #50, 2016
For a few decades now, the canon of art history has been expanding to include female photographers. Nowadays, the ‘men only’ retelling of the past has given way to a more inclusive type of history — one that acknowledges the decisive contribution of women in all art forms. Think of the ‘rediscovery’ of a talented photographer such as Francesca Woodman, who did not receive the recognition she deserved until recently. Ma Réalité Rêvée [My dreamt reality], the publication accompanying Irina Ionesco’s exhibition at Reflex Gallery, follows this trend. But are there still prerequisites for female artists to join the ranks of the renowned? Ma Réalité Rêvée is more than a coffee table book. Available as a limited edition, it can be purchased together with an original print of one of three photographs signed by the artist. It also includes essays by Matthias Harder, chief curator at the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, and Pierre-Paul Puljiz, Larry Clark’s producer and documentary filmmaker. A look at the female artists who have been memorialized in art history reveals one striking common feature — they all seem to uphold the traits still expected of their gender: selfsacrificing (the Frida Kahlo type) and pure, both in morals and politics. (Nazi-sponsored cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl will presumably never be fully accepted into ‘respectable’ history books.) The lively biographical piece by Puljiz reveals the exceptional, and at times truly tragic, trajectory of Ionesco, who started as a dancer and discovered photography later in life. The female artist who becomes posthumously famous typically adheres to the stereotype of the ‘good’ woman: her art and life must be exemplary. (For example, there is no female artist comparable to French writer Céline, whose works are still taught at school despite his antisemitic propaganda.) Ionesco is surely a female artist who does not match the required profile. Her staged photography is seen as uncompromising, and at times even taboo. More problematic perhaps, the artist herself remains unapologetic — an attitude that arguably does not fit the expected submissiveness of the ‘good woman.’ Both the exhibition and the book reveal the richness and boldness of Ionesco’s oeuvre – visually and within the context of art history. They feature her work with female adult models — a ‘theatrical’ and ‘neo-surrealist’ world, as Harder describes it in his contribution to the volume. With its orientalist references, baroque mirror plays and uncanny props such as the head of a male dummy, Ma Réalité Rêvée is as extravagantly alluring as Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, and as memorable as Hans Bellmer’s photographs of disjointed dolls. They are visions of playful perversion and gentle role play — the kind of spirit that would elevate a man, but not so much a woman, to the ranks of the illustrious.