Bettina Rheims, from ‘The Book of Olga’
Still wondering, at this late date, what to get for Christmas? A whole host of men’s magazines suggest The Book Of Olga, by Bettina Rheims and published by Taschen, an extended nude photo shoot of Olga Rodionova commissioned by her husband, Sergey Rodionov, a Russian oligarch. Things Magazine explains the implications:
This object operates on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start. As an opulent presentation of what is deemed quite literally a ‘trophy wife’, it’s the modern equivalent of Gainsborough or Reynolds, portraiture for the post-Madonna and post-Koons world.
But through Rheims’ involvement the portraits also claim to operate on the level of art, an expression not of love or taste (however misguided this might appear) but a statement of the role of portraiture and presentation within a relationship. The pornographic gaze has evolved from the blurred edges and frenzied brushstrokes of Giovanni Boldini, hinting at a hidden eroticism. Instead, everything is on display. Like Boldini or Gainsborough, these images are struck through with fantasy, and just as in the past, that fantasy doesn’t necessarily belong to the sitter, but to the person who paid for the picture.
Rheims’ participation in this has caused the French press to (typically) announce this project to be a major work of Art, another de Sade, and indeed they managed to pull in some serious high minded erotica cred in the form of Catherine Millet, who wrote the introduction. But you still can’t help but wonder at how high minded this project actually is, given that, despite all of the claims of art and echoes of history and literature, this book doesn’t really extend much farther than that initial ‘opulent presentation of a trophy wife.’
Which is really where this would end, if the scale of the entire project weren’t so magnified: The subject is a well known and extremely beautiful public personality; The patron is a member of a class well known for their no expenses barred lifestyle and frequent lack of morals in obtaining the means to fund that lifestyle; the photographer is a famous portraitist, and not one who just anyone can commission; and the publisher is internationally known for their beautifully made art books. Even the price ($450!) and limited edition status marks this an exemplary late capitalist product.
The kitchiness of the images and the cartoonish scale of all of this is supposed to imply a critique of the system that led to this, but it seems fairly intellectually dishonest that the very people who most benefit from this system (oligarchs and limited edition art book publishers) are the ones who are supposedly ($450!) critiquing it. Rheims, in my mind, doesn’t come off too terribly in this, mostly because her work historically has been wrapped in an ambiguous erotic gaze (see here, and keep in mind that it’s a woman who took these pictures), so this just seems part and parcel for her.
[An interesting post script to this whole affair is that this book is banned in the Rodionov's native Russia, leading Olga to claim that this entire thing is a feminist act of rebellion. Heh.]
I guess it’s worth noting, that this entire thing could have been much more explicit, kitchy, and raunchy, as evidenced by a previous Olga Rodionova shoot for Russian Playboy by David Lachappelle [NSFW], which features, among other things, Rodionova being mounted by a Russian bear and fondled by Russian soldiers in front of a portrait of Khruschev.
For my part, I prefer my photography free, uncomplicated, and on the internet.