[March 5 2015]
Bettina Graziani, one of the world’s first supermodels, died on Monday in Paris, aged 89. The following text was written by Emanuele Coccia about Bettina Graziani in Purple Fashion magazine issue 23.
Azzedine Alaïa’s exhibition on the model Bettina — and the fashion images of her dating from as far back as the 1950s — is much more than the celebration of the first French supermodel to become a major celebrity and household name the world over. Bettina Graziani, the “most photographed woman in France” — who was the muse of Jacques Fath and Hubert de Givenchy; whose beauty inspired the greatest photographers of the era, including Irving Penn; who was the companion to Prince Aly Khan after he divorced Rita Hayworth; who survived the terrible car accident in which the prince was killed in 1960; and whom Françoise Sagan called “an eminence rousse” —
is there in the gallery on the Rue de la Verrerie. And at the age of 89, she is cheerfully signing exhibition catalogues.
Nothing in the photos of the redheaded Bettina can take you back to actual events of the past century: all we see has no other reality than its appearance, here and now. We may well repeat until we are blue in the face that photography bears witness, showing us the definitive past; the photo is the eye that saw in our stead into the past. It is the vehicle that assures us that “this object did exist and was there when I saw it.” And yet all you need to do is open a fashion magazine to see how wrong you are. Not one image of Bettina is an unwavering witness to “this happened.” This woman was not really in that place, wearing this coat, that day at that time. And yet it is not a fake photo. In fashion photography, everything seems to be sort of conditional, to alternate between the “this could have been this way” and “if it ever happened, it would have been this way.” And these images do not come to us from the past: they hover in the nooks and crannies of time, between the instant and a purely visible future. Thanks to fashion, photography has been freed of the pretention of “swearing that what I see did, in fact, happen,” and the obstinate attempts to make us believe that the past is henceforth as sure as the present; that which we see on paper is as sure as that which we have touched. On the contrary,
in these magazines, as in this issue of Purple, fashion photographs offer us an unreal, fictitious element, a possible model for future reality. This woman with her alias (her real name is Simone Micheline Bodin, and she was born in Brittany in 1925), who was not really in that place, who was not really wearing that coat on that day — is the base upon which I intend to build my daily reality. The “more real” is now experienced in the conditional sense. But it is not the lens of the camera that produces this metamorphosis: it is thanks to the models that it is possible. It is through their bodies that the world changes its nature and status.
Being a model is not only an art; it is also the only form of magic our society recognizes and tolerates. And like all other forms of magic, it attracts skepticism, contempt, or negligence. We are used to thinking of modeling as the most obvious symptom of the moral decadence of our time, of its materialism, its penchant for absolute superficiality. And yet it would be difficult to find a more spiritual figure. Everything in the model’s body becomes an idea: the smallest detail of facial expression, the smallest gesture is meant to convey the sense of a form of life, of a world, of a universe of values. The body is no longer biological — it is a giant mirror, a medium able to speak without language. Using only a posture, an attitude, or a movement, a model can transform life and make the image an accomplishment of all identity.
“When I would look at myself in the mirror, it was sometimes hard for me to recognize myself.” This sign is posted on one of the walls of the gallery on the Rue de la Verrerie, just above the chair where Bettina continues to sign autographs. All models are masters of disguise. A model continues to multiply her images, yet her face may not be immediately recognizable. Her job, you might say, is to create selfies, but they are universal selfies. If we can identify with her, it is because she herself identifies with all others. She is an ascetic, transforming the nature of “me” into a universal face, a common, anonymous possibility instead of making it strictly private property. She constructs a ready-to-wear identity that everyone can put on.
Bettina was probably the first female model to embody and expose this paradox: that of having a name known the world over — refusing the anonymous nature of the “coat racks” and the doppelgangers (what we used to call models) — opening her face to incorporate all the faces in the world, being the woman with whom all other women identify, transforming her appearance to accommodate everyone, and letting her skin reveal a universal beauty. Being a model means pushing the limits of individuality and humanity further.
The word mannequin, French for “model,” comes from the old Dutch mannekijn, meaning “little man.” And a homunculus (Latin for “little man”) was also a technical term used in alchemy to designate the perfect human being, the one it sought to build. The body of a model is in the end an open-air laboratory in which humanity may be made and unmade in an instant. At each click of the camera shutter, a moral and aesthetic model of humanity springs up and is fixed for eternity in visible space. With each posture, a line toward perfection is laid out. And yet there is nothing more fragile from this living athanor (an alchemy furnace) that receives in its belly the primordial soup of all human traditions.
This perfection, these ideals of beauty, travel through the body of a model in order to radiate into the ambient universe, but they will never belong to her. The indescribable grace of a model — her elegance — is but the capacity to receive without trying to own. And it is this lightness that allows Bettina to live forever in these images.
Text Emmanuele Coccia and photo Olivier Zahm