Though nobody knows why, not every landscape gets equal care from heaven.
Midway between the Alps and the Mediterranean, at the base of the tiny parcel of planet occupied by France, sits a narrow, rugged massif called the Luberon.
They say the quality of its light is unique in the world. They also say that the winter sunsets here create shades of orange and mauve that are impossible to reproduce.
Painters have nonetheless tried to tell the story of Provence. Its fiery fields of poppies, its never-ending expanses of lavender, its queer huts of dry stone. Its aqueducts from another era, its rock formations looming on the horizon like meteors, on which men have built villages.
They also say that, to capture the magic of a country, one has to live in it – or preferably, be born there.
Magic: one day in the last century, at this exact location on the globe, in the town of Apt, a miracle was born. Or rather a story, a story in color, brimming with dreams, like a children’s book.
In the late 40s, in this sub-prefecture of the Vaucluse with a population of about four thousand, people lived as they always had. The gentlemen wore their town hats, the peasants their straw ones, and the ladies, white dresses. On Sundays, after church and the market, people gathered at the big Café Grégoire, a stone’s throw from City Hall. Meanwhile the children, tucked into the distant landscape, would return evenings covered in heath, their ankles scented with juniper and thyme.
Yes, in this country of clement weather, everything appeared frozen in an immutable eternity, save for the war perhaps. Brothers, cousins, and countless boys had fallen on the front. Others came home missing arms and legs – or their love of life. Decorated with the Croix de Guerre for the bravery of its resistants, the little town of Apt licked its wounds, and while the world prepared for modernity, here one only thought of forgetting the past, perhaps to once again enjoy the present.
As for the future… credit cards, color TVs, microwave ovens, Velcro, the pill, sonograms – and tourism – all that could wait a little longer.
At least… for our story to begin.
Its first heroes were Mady and Francis.
She was the only daughter of Joseph Bernard, heir to the famous Apt ceramics works, which turned pottery into poetry.
He was enrolled at the Prytanée national military school La Flèche, the most prestigious of French academies.
On the first page, Francis made a blunder that turned into a seminal act. At La Flèche, the teenager was playing with explosives and got a little too close. They blew up in his face and a black monocle was screwed onto his eye forever.
The second page told of Mady – who swiftly fell in love with the injured man. It was very soon decided: it was she who would take care of him.
Why did she pick this one-eyed pirate out of a crowd of fops? Did she already sense that his eye, gouged out by fate, would give birth to another extraordinary one?
In any case: history was on the march. On September 12th 1950, the fruit of their love entered this world. Madeleine Bernard and Francis Faucon named their child Bernard Faucon – invisibly combining their family names while willfully combining their destinies.
Bernard was born at home in Apt. During those first few years, the little boy loved everything he set his eyes on, and remembers all of it: Mady’s braids and pony tail, the big leather bed he jumped into Sunday mornings, Floraline’s milk and good porridge, the little cement terrace, the zinc tub where they’d take showers in the summer and the first sensations of the seasons: an entire roadmap, he writes, for an earnest faith in the future.
Between the seaside outings, the bucolic walks, the start of school, and family meals, the young household was brimming with happiness.
The first timeless memories were carved into Bernard’s mind, beginning with grandpa Joseph who showed him the ancestral terres mêlées technique. Joseph would transform the pigments contained in the region’s ochre into multicolor earthenware. Kneaded like dough, the mixture was alchemized into a flame-like motif. The thickness of each piece revealed a unique and secret design.
But despite the beauty of the craft, young Bernard set his sights on other priorities.
His favorite pastime was exploring the new domain of Saint Martian, which Tatié, his philosophizing, bohemian, storytelling granny had acquired. The family settled on this hillside, a place every child would dream of, close to the village and yet sheltered. From now on, Bernard would make it his own.
With the companionship of a donkey he got for his seventh birthday, the little boy melted into a limitless world of light mingled with the vigor of plants and pistils. An Eden of rock and grasses teeming with bees, cherries and fruit, all free for the picking. The boy built treehouses and swings in every branch, hung kites in the clouds. So natural was it all that he asked his mother’s doctor for a pill that would prevent him from growing up. When he was six, an answer came in the form of his first little brother Jean. No more Mom, Dad and Bernard: the closed circle had become an extended family.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Mady decided to start a summer camp. The hillside at Saint Martian would echo forevermore with the voices of children. Bernard quickly became an assistant counselor and then a counselor, inventing all kinds of games, and looking after children scarcely younger than himself.
Not only was the venture not a burden, it quickly turned into a godsend: for want of a pill to stop the aging process, Bernard’s mother had gotten him a multicolor pallet of childhood, marvelously carefree, and constantly replenished.
However, the world of everlasting childhood must meet the world of grownups – with its strange schools filled with hostile students, preordained destinies, and arcane subjects like history, geography and German. What good is doing your homework when you have the horizon right in front of you? Only one subject proved an exception: Ms. Suau’s bible study. Who was this spirit capable of making the cosmos out of chaos? And what about this Jesus – half-God, half-man – waiting to be resurrected? And what of Marie’s virgin motherhood? The Bible heralded the beginning of a new value system. The day of his Communion, clad in his white alb, Bernard got lost in a glittering new light.
It was his first moment of mystical ecstasy, the first sign that an inner peace was already lacking.
But before condemning “the world of adults” out of hand, let’s give it credit for creating the Cavalcades. Each season at Pentecost, floats decorated by locals would come barreling down Apt’s main street. When he was five years old, Bernard, disguised as Louis XIV, left his mark on the Versailles-themed parade, perched several meters in the air, donning a curly wig and scepter. The local paper wrote: “This morning the little Sun King prayed to his father for good weather during the festivities.”
With its puppets, its theater, its surrealist decor, the Cavalcades kindled a new brand of imagination: the opposite of buds, branches, and tree sap. As though it were possible to invent, to fabricate another kind of beauty.
And with that, everything was in place: the family nest, the landscapes, the fragrances, Tatié, the Cavalcades, pottery, and a childhood wedded to eternity.
And now the second chapter could begin…
The first part of life was a discovery.
The next part was an apprenticeship. Or rather: several apprenticeships. The icons offered by life were followed by the image as an idea.
An image created by human beings, through human eyes – or his grandmother’s.
The first epiphany, as usual, went by the name of Tatié. The house’s walls had always been lined with paintings, drawings and artworks gathered through chance encounters and flea markets. It was this woman who gave Bernard his first lesson on things – who, in the words of Rousseau, taught him to feel.
The lesson was so simple it could be summed up in a few words: “This is good – That is less so – That’s not good at all.” In a flash, the boy realized that a successful artwork has nothing to do with technique or subject matter. He glimpsed a new hierarchy, which turned out to be a revelation or maybe even a destiny.
When he was twelve years old, another star lit up Bernard’s sky.
That star was named Pierre, his second little brother, whom he immediately took under his wing. The child’s late arrival in the family, his fair eyes, his shyness, and the sense of eternity he reawakened in Bernard lent him an almost magical aura. Beyond technique or subject, this new being was also a “successful artwork.” A masterpiece even, whom his elder brother never tired of photographing. Neither to mark time nor to make art: just for the pleasure of seeing. Though nobody suspected it, Pierre was his first model – his first living model.
We should mention here that Bernard didn’t yet consider photography to be art. The Semflex he got from Tatié, with its twin lenses and viewfinder on top, reproduced beauty too easily. The skies were all divine, the sunsets multicolored, the children marvelous. Then there was the pleasure felt upon contact with the film: whereas true creation could only come from effort, from labor.
And then there was Tatié who would repeat: “My grandson will be a painter one day.” She got him a box of pastels. Only too happy to keep the real at a distance, Bernard would sketch his dreams. These were apocalyptic – filled with hangmen in trees, the glow of lava, shadows of lost souls making their way into the skies.
Despite the hard work, his efforts paid off. In the region, people began to whisper that there was a budding artist at the Faucon place. When the rumors got back to Bernard, they transformed his life. His uniqueness was finally defined by a single word: artist.
But being unique is not a career. With school graduation coming up fast, you were supposed to think about doing something with your life. Blinded by his golden childhood, incapable of imagining any future at all, the student could only contemplate three paths: die young, join the priesthood, or else become… a great artist.
And even though fortune had already chosen for him, it still sent the teenager a sign, or rather, an emissary.
Henri Koerner, a teacher at a top Parisian high school vacationing in Saint Martian, came into Bernard’s life like something out of a fairytale. Aware of his difficulties, he took him under his wing for an entire summer, talked to him about philosophy, poetry, music and faith.
A brotherhood formed, which turned his life upside down.
Tatié predicted it when she asserted: “Meetings are all there is in life.”
Suddenly everything became clear: a new way of learning, of knowing, emerged in contrast to the crudeness of official education. Someone finally explained to Bernard that he had always been a poet mistreated by bad teachers rather than an inept student.
This even altered his relationship to images: steeped in his new friend’s mysticism, the burgeoning artist forsook plain old beauty to photograph what he called the metaphysical stillness of the world, the ineffable palpitation of what is. He even came to realize that, aside from the amount of work required, or the swiftness of the process, photography and painting are one and the same.
But amidst these esthetic revelations, a page had turned in Bernard’s life without his even realizing it. Already, behind him, came the echo of his First Photographs.
It was the beginning of what we call adulthood.
Bernard got his high school diploma by correspondence and miraculously escaped the first curse of his generation: military service. Once the possibility of machine guns, drills, combat fatigue and screams had vanished, they freed up an unhoped-for horizon.
But Saint Martian couldn’t contain that horizon.
To study philosophy, he would have to leave the enchanted hillside, move to Aix-en-Provence, and live on his own for the first time.
Instinctively, all Bernard brought with him was his box of pastels and his camera.
And it was within the compass of this solitude, with only a few books on his shelf, that he made the acquaintance of new beings of reason.
Though Bachelard and Bergson dominated contemporary wisdom, through a series of accidents, it was Jacques Maritain – a Christian philosopher – who most captivated the young exile. The man’s renown was immense and surpassed the world of religion. Cocteau himself wrote to Maritain: “I didn’t convert to God, I converted to you.”
Deep in his rereading of Thomas Aquinas, the student divided the world into existence and essence, found nourishment in transcendence, and learned each of Maritain’s texts by heart.
And then, one day, reality merged with fantasy and the disciple received a response from his spiritual master.
When Maritain invited Bernard to his home in a Dominican convent, it was like taking a step closer to heaven. The theologian’s model of humanity tolerated no doubt.
At this juncture in our story, Bernard’s destiny could have taken an entirely different path. But once again a few strokes of good luck were to decide things differently.
Quite unexpectedly, when Bernard planned to devote himself to religion, his old master Maritain, who had befriended great artists like Chagall and Rouault, checked him, replying: “You are an artist.”
Thanks to this encouragement, Bernard remained wedded to the image, and sought to represent his newfound faith through painting even if it meant going monochrome.
At the same time, as if the sky sent him a second sign, two new windows opened up in Bernard’s imagination. The first could be called the Arab World.
As surprising as it might seem, the King of Morocco fell in love with Faucon pottery, and ordered a year’s worth of dishes from old Joseph for his palace.
A fairytale bridge spanned the cities of Apt and Rabat. “His Majesty” entered the family’s life. After some reluctance, young Bernard allowed himself to taste the luxury of limousines, Oriental palaces, palm trees, and the newness of the scorching sun. The pleasures of the body which had so far been limited to the crispiness of a croissant or the unctuousness of hot chocolate, were turned upside down on subsequent trips.
Was it possible to reconcile Christian austerity with Mediterranean light-headedness? The box the philosophy student had been shut in was about to burst at the seams. When Azdin, a friend of Pierre’s, brought the two brothers to the beach, Bernard eschewed metaphysics in favor of the flesh of ripe watermelon, sea breeze, and two young Gods, one blond, one brown-haired, who frolicked in the waves.
Back in the Luberon, Bernard glimpsed an angel of sorts among the cherry trees who danced with life like some dance on stage. This magnificent apparition dealt a fatal blow to the harshness of the conceptual. Stronger than dogma, happiness resurfaced with renewed urgency. Yes: during all those years of mysticism, the love of imagery – and the love of love – had been sorely missed. Bernard broke down and cried.
Sometimes a second is all it takes to change directions: despite moving to Paris and enrolling in a philosophy program, something in Bernard’s heart and mind snapped. Rather than study his classics, the young Aptésien visited the capital by night, fascinated by the snowy streets, buoyed by a rebirth that gave him wings.
When Maritain died, a last rampart crumbled. The student lost interest in the Sorbonne, gave up on getting his teaching license. And he drifted away from the university, as though thumbing his nose at the world of ideas. Bernard grew passionate about the materiality of common – but tangible – objects.
His painting, which he set aside for what he called boxes, took on a new, more theatrical dimension. In these odd dioramas, the artist tried all manner of combinations: photos, trinkets, icons, bouquets of lavender, anchovy filets, spaghetti and candy. He used every excuse to put a little substance into the dream, and to mock the sacred to free himself from it.
It was 1974. After dropping out of school, Bernard began to understand who he was.
And it was then, after the temptations of mysticism and self-abnegation, that destiny offered him its first gift.
The first batch of models appeared in his life and in his photographs.
One swallow does not a summer make: destiny chooses to act in mysterious ways.
For his first intuition to use mannequins was not an act of creation – but of business. One morning, in a flea market in Apt, Bernard was struck by the strangeness of a tailor’s bust, an inert and yet almost lifelike character.
Free of his studies, the young man realized that the mannequins left no one indifferent. He wanted to profit from the emerging world of kitsch, and the nostalgia of the rapidly disappearing vieille France. It was a simple, fun way to turn a profit: to pay for gas, a raspberry tart or a sack of sweets. And there was indeed something here to savor.
Except that in Paris, the business gained traction: Bernard crisscrossed France in an old Citroen 2CV drumming up business at flea markets and drugstores. Accompanied by budding explorers, he located shops likely to contain old treasures in their basements. Quickly, the collection grew. Guided by instinct, our eccentric bargain hunter decided to save the most beautiful child dummies. As though to create a second family for himself, far from the colony of Saint Martian.
But art would prevail over business: Mady took the first test photo of a mannequin, purely for fun. Meanwhile Francis threw a few sheets of papers in the air, unknowingly sealing a set of creative axioms. From those first moments, everything was there: the contrast between motion and stillness; living life and pretend life, accessorizing nature, an allegorical tale that was more accessible to the heart than to language.
As for painting, Bernard brought his paintbrush to bear on the old photos. Another way of freezing childhood, in acrylic this time.
At the same time, in full creative swing, the artist filled his boxes with more cumbersome – and more worrisome – objects. The remains of food and various bones, cemetery wreaths and angels: death invited itself into his four-cornered sanctuaries. But also, the intact but frozen life of the first mannequins, for whom these sets were an unexpected tomb.
And that is when the idea came to escape the frame, to shift from still-lives to unstill lives. To liberate all the life contained inside the mannequins.
In the Spring of 76, the first real staging came to be. A blond head next to a wax one. There was also an armchair and a bouquet of dried flowers.
After this revelation, the mannequins came out into the light and colonized Bernard’s childhood haunts – spreading a big-bang of unknown forces wherever they went.
Soon he was mixing the real with the fake to the point where he couldn’t tell who was more real, the wooden mannequins or the children of the flesh.
And it was smack in the middle of this visual revolution that, through a friend, the “photographer-director” met a “photographer-observer.”
The two men made fast friends. Jean-Claude Larrieu was his name and he realized something major was happening. Fascinated by what a piece of work Faucon was, he became passionate about the man’s art, his eccentricity, the power of his imagination – and he decided to accompany him in his spectacular inspiration.
To begin with, he documented the miracle. With black and white photos, and color film, Jean-Claude recorded the preparatory work – the highly unique ritual Bernard had developed when dressing, assembling, repairing and breathing life into his mannequins.
Then after documenting came collaborating.
When Jean-Claude discovered the artist at work, tracing a chalk line on stone, he volunteered a few technical remarks, notably about lighting – his specialty.
At first resistant to any outside input, Bernard opened up to the gaze of this eccentric little man who was both deeply rustic and deeply refined.
Without asking for anything in exchange, Jean-Claude became an exceptional ally.
One who could light the un-lightable.
One who could transform abstract images into scenes.
One who could help the poet translate his fantasies into words.
One who could push him to produce the impossible photo every time.
In this whirlwind of happiness, many advised Bernard to show his works in a gallery. Though lacking confidence, the artist finally played along.
The gallery was small but the success was instantaneous: everyone loved his photos.
The critic André Laude called Bernard “Mr. Transparent” as though the images exuded absolute sincerity from the beginning.
From Aix-en-Provence to Paris, the shows immediately garnered devoted fans.
Bernard Faucon fans felt as though they were rediscovering a body of work that had always lurked in the deepest recesses of themselves. A teacher of esthetics at the College de France and one of the most respected intellectuals of his generation, Roland Barthes was passionate about the young Aptésien’s work: “Your photos,” he wrote, “are marvelous. To me, they are ontologically (please allow me this pedantic word) photography itself, in the limit that speaks to being: fascination.”
Buoyed by this tide of confidence, Jean-Claude organized a trip to New York. Their suitcases full of slides, our two Frenchmen left to conquer the New World.
In a flash, Bernard the Provençal met the antithesis of everything he knew. In the land of burgers, pop art and marketing, the photographer didn’t fit in. Incapable of being phony or fashionable, his purity saved him. Jean-Paul Goude, who was about to discover Grace Jones, offered his list of contacts. Thanks to a kind of misunderstanding, the little Frenchmen convinced the trendsetters. His pictures did the rest. When Bernard, who was still a nobody, naively phoned Leo Castelli, the most prominent gallery owner at the epicenter of contemporary art, he was given a meeting – and then immediately his own show.
Back in France, it was Agathe Gaillard, the “Queens of black and white” who reneged on her principles to exhibit Bernard’s colors. His popularity soared. His first books were published.
Between Paris, where he moved in with Jean-Claude, and his cabin in the Luberon, where he worked over Christmas and summers, a new period had begun for Bernard.
Having set out down a road of light, he could finally think about the next steps.
But in only a few years, everything had moved so fast that the mannequins seemed to have lived a life or rather: their life.
In love, as in friendship, it’s best to split before boredom sets in.
After summer follies, autumn strolls, and winter snows, the artist foresaw the necessity of a conclusion. Like a painful farewell, the wax figures exploded, split, burned – punished, perhaps, for feeling too much joy.
Five years after the first staging, and despite what he had imagined, Bernard sensed that his photography could do without the mannequins. That it was enough to dream of childhood without having to embody it – to convoke childhood.
The power of these characters, their burning magic, would come to exist in another form. For example, as fire which, from the dawn of time, had fascinated and frightened – and which had always been secretly contained inside them.
To put it another way: the time had come to blow the lid off everything.
It was 1981: new forces were conjured to fill the vacuum left in the wake of the mannequins. In addition to fire, time’s invisible manifestations would become a major subject.
Let’s look at the color of the wind, the music of flowers – and the noise happiness makes just before it walks out the door.
Provence became the centerpiece of works fashioned by a demiurge that transcended it. Taken from reality, the landscapes seemed to be colored with crayon, composed of several paper cuttings. Devoid of bodies, these new stagings invited spectators to fill the space with their own fears, fantasies and dreams, to enter the image.
Each photo constituted an experiment coupled with a chemical or mechanical challenge. In his open-air laboratory, Bernard’s loyal friends assisted him.
It was 1979. This series entitled The Probable Evolution of Time proved to the artist once and for all that his inspiration would survive his marvelous meeting with the mannequins. Overflowing with faith, the photographer confessed: “If my life had stopped there, it would have looked like a legend, a waking dream.”
In December 1982, Bernard was invited to Tokyo to present his photos. Japan immediately fell in love with the young Provençal, whose imagination proved so close to the Japanese spirit.
But life has a mind of its own. Back from Japan, life had two surprises in store for Bernard that only it had the key to. Shortly after his thirtieth birthday, while an amusement park ride raised him to the clouds, Tatié died in the hospital in Apt.
A cloud set in over his life.
For the young artist, it was the first great rupture, a rampart that fell to pieces, the end of innocence.
There were so many more photos to take, so much happiness to feel… but it would never be the same.
But when a piece of family slips away, we build another family to stand up to the vicissitudes of time: friends.
Bernard, who had always excelled in the art of entertaining, opened the door of his new Paris apartment to friends with his coconspirator, Jean-Claude.
The photographer-cook made a thousand multicolor inventions – all vegetarian – with the watermelons, tomatoes and goat cheese he brought from the south.
These were the “Goutte d’Or” years – full of extraordinary banquets mingled with childhood, made-up games and magic tricks.
And then appeared a sudden flash of light. Introduced by a mutual friend, Hervé Guibert appeared one lovely morning at the edge of a lavender field. He was a young prodigy of French letters whom Bernard had already run into as an art critic for the newspaper Le Monde.
Little did Bernard know as he snapped pictures of the writer and his friends – from behind, from the front or leaning against a fence – that an undying friendship had just been born that would last until Guibert’s untimely death at 36. In the meantime, the two artists never ceased to inspire one another and the figure of Bernard would run through the writer’s work.
At the same time, in the vicinity of the Luberon – and thus of photography –, the flames and ash left the landscape to penetrate into houses or transmute into flashes and reflections…
Like an incantation intended to revive the dead.
Using the fence from his first portrait of Guibert and friends, Bernard set up an intermediary and enchanted space. Neither completely inside, nor completely outside.
His called it: Eternal Life.
Enamored of this work, Guibert described it in these terms: A mess of garbage at the end of a grey curve, a gloomy landscape enclosed by a fence with a joyful little dip in the middle, like a picket fence at a circus. Among the trash, easily missed, is a newspaper clipping of the prince of Holland’s face.
Then as the months went by, the flames died down, leaving a memory. Memories of mannequins, of vanished childhoods, their costumes, reflections and their presence. Their evanescence.
It was then that Bernard got the feeling that a chamber forms… as soon as love is born. And that the miraculous space where light glows by itself, as fragile as a first morning of tenderness, can show itself – materialize. For when one loves, any piece of earth becomes a bed of love and the slightest sliver of sky, a ceiling that protects one from everything.
Gradually, the chambers series took shape.
Traces of time, traces of a caress or traces of a smile: Bernard captured the waves that, far from the light, make life worthwhile. After photographing mannequins emptied of reality, the artist invented a reality emptied of human presence, or almost.
From that point forward, the possibilities were infinite.
Each chamber offered a new story to the imagination. White pebbles, flashes of love, a simple glass of water, offerings left for the Gods who pass that way.
At the first Chambers exhibit, in the spring of 1986, hardcore fans didn’t need convincing.
But even the others – the dubious, the incredulous – understood that the works they were looking at belonged to a major artist. The mannequins weren’t a stroke of good luck. The stroke of good luck, the gift from the heavens, was Bernard Faucon himself.
From that moment on, the exhibitions followed, fast and furious. Each event was the opportunity to invent a “real” staging etched into life. Party favors, balloons, dancing fires, Champagne and various gifts: one attended a Faucon opening as one attended the theater, as a way of prolonging the magic hanging on the walls.
The winds of success carried everything the artist touched with it like balloons into the sky. It was doubtless what is called recognition.
The book publishing world fought over Bernard’s photos to adorn their covers. Buoyed by the international press, the photographer made his way into the popular imagination.
The Pompidou Museum invited him to participate in the “Atelier Polaroid” exhibition alongside the greatest photographers of the day. The Guggenheim in New York one-upped them however, honoring Bernard’s work in the exhibition “French Artists Today.”
A “French artist” who was ready, ten years after discovering Morocco, to experience a new geographical shock. A far cry from the scorching Middle East, Bernard discovered, as one discovers a truth, the charming leisureliness of the Asian continent and life.
Light years from “divisive monotheisms” it was a continent that swept away the very idea of opposites: no more sweet or salt, raw or cooked, no more no or yes.
And more importantly, no more light and darkness, but two twin countries: one of shadow, one of gold.
Better than the flavescent sheets of Japanese Kabuki, the sparkling façades of Bangkok’s temples, invade the artist’s imagination.
After that, the Rooms of Love were transformed… into Gold Rooms.
After the fire which engendered the earliest civilizations, this most precious metal revived primitive perceptions. For the photographer, gold is close to “the last visible surface before pure incandescence, before whiteness.”
Whether through chance or a sign from the heavens: only one model gave life, in the flesh, to this new series. Baptized Little Buddha, the aura he exuded created new perspectives.
When Parco, the Japanese department store, ordered a TV commercial from Bernard Faucon, the scenario practically wrote itself: ten slumbering angels gradually awoken by an explosion of light. TV viewers liked the spot so much they called into the station to find out when it would be on. And in the subway, riders took down Parco posters – which, as everyone knows, isn’t very Japanese.
From the beginning, Bernard’s pictures had enchanted the Land of the Rising Sun.
Beyond the mythification of an eternal Provence, or a haiku-like ode to the transience of time – what did the artist manage to capture in thirty seconds that moved so insular a people?
Maybe a certain idea of eternity – in so powerful and so fragile a country –which was already contained in the very first stagings, as exemplified by the timelessness of Summer Camp.
It was an idea, in any case, that led Nanasaï, Japan’s oldest manufacturer of mannequins, to offer to buy all of Bernard’s specimens to use them as the centerpiece of a future museum.
In Kyoto, the photographer received assurances that his “wax children” would be treated better than princes. Like authentic treasures.
Stored away for 10 years, Bernard had to suddenly freshen up the heroes of his most formative adventure. It was an opportunity to place them in their simplest poses.
Without staging, without fireworks: nothing but an ultimate… family portrait.
When these hundred some-odd characters took flight, it was like an era had ended – and, as usual, in the most poetic way possible. For they say that, upon arriving in Kyoto in an old tea room in the middle of a fabulous garden, the mannequins expressed great anger. They hadn’t been given a proper welcome ceremony. A monk came and reassured them as to their fate, after which they remained calm.
What if Bernard had been right and the mannequins were alive from the start? You only need the smallest of doubts to think… maybe.
As though to offset the dispersion of his “wax children,” the next series zeroed in on bodies, making them the main subject. Just as la Cène – an image without characters – had led to the first Chambers, it was the little Buddha that inspired the photographer to imagine an unprecedented staging where the abstraction of gold would collide with the carnal fluidity of blood.
These were Idols and Sacrifices.
After so much illusion, lighting effects and edifices, the material means were suddenly scaled down significantly.
The idea was to confront the bodies of those whom photography names “idols” in their pure incarnation. That is, beings still imbibed with the absolute, at the height of childhood, at the summit of perfection – still undamaged by time.
And to get even closer to the absolute, the artist dreamt of an immense, apocalyptic flame. A flame that blinds as much as it illuminates; and makes us weep with joy.
As for the blood-red landscapes, they bring us back to the past. Facing the burning newness of idols, they impose themselves like a bleeding into nature, the first source of the photographer’s inspiration.
These new steps came with consequences. The exhibition Idols and Sacrifies led Bernard to part ways with the loyal Agathe Gaillard. Her French gallery became too small, and the “contemporary art world” made its interest known. It must be said that collectors had only recently become interested in photography, which had long been considered a minor – or at least marginal – art form.
It was 1991. After his works made noise at the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain in Paris, Bernard accepted an offer from star art dealer Yvon Lambert. His new show was a great success. In attendance, regulars mingled with flesh-and-blood idols, and buyers from around the world rushed to buy the photos. In Japan, on a whim, a couple of collectors bought up the totality of the exhibition.
What did Bernard do with all this money? As always, he gave gifts.
He also threw a giant party on the last Sunday in August 1994, which marked the end of the camp at Saint Martian… For back in the Luberon, it was time for Francis and Mady to take a break after planning the summers of thousands of children.
Surrounded by musicians, exotic flowers, strange fruits, swings, hot air balloons, pizza and ice cream trucks, Bernard staged the most joyful goodbye ceremony imaginable.
When night fell, the most magical moment arrived.
At the top of the hill, accompanied by noble organ music, the photographer held one of his famous star releases.
Hervé Guibert witnessed that miracle and wrote about it in his journal: Bernard removed the top of a flashlight, and took out the tiny round lightbulb from its socket which he tied to a balloon intoxicated with weightlessness. The star flew into the sky: night hid the balloon; its glow was lashed by the wind. We stood there dazzled on a promontory and we laughed at the idea of crazed astronomers maddened by the appearance of this new celestial object. I had seen Bernard do incredible things, mix sugar and essences to set the night ablaze with fireballs, force the door of a chapel to fill it with recorded whale song, abuse Chinese pyrotechnics, but I had never seen him invent a thing so devastatingly simple.
But as grandiose as it was, with all the childhoods it took along with it, the camp’s closing gradually led the photographer to doubt images.
Faced with the disappearance of an enchanted present: Bernard had no other choice but to replace the incandescence with thought – and thus with words.
Here again, ten years earlier, an intuition (Mon petit cheri) had predicted the series to come.
Using a strange gimmick, the series Writings combines the visual with thought, two things we thought mutually exclusive. We can’t sublimate the great riddles, but they are gentler in contact with the sublime.
As for desire, immaterial by its very essence, it transmutes into an object.
Photographing words in the wild is not simple. After considering fire, ribbons of electricity or light bulbs, someone gave Bernard the idea of a reflective fabric. Eureka! It only took a powerful flash to transform his wooden mantras into fragments of truth etched into the landscape: almost stolen from the image.
With the sacralization of the text, the principle of photography itself was contested.
The Writings already comprised the first step toward of a conclusion.
The second and final step smacked of revolt: after the bodies, the artist made the setting itself disappear – naming his series: The End of the Image.
Apart from the text, which says the unsayable, only flesh in its strictest sense remains, beyond form and proper and common nouns. Nothing but an infinitely varied, infinitely subtle color – an off-white canvas of past and future dreams, the natural habitat of the meaning of life.
For the first time, the creator abandoned the square format, at the origin of his gaze, in favor of the rectangle of the written page. As if it had ceased to be photography, or at least his photography.
Having begun with wide-angle shots and the illusion of wax and painted wood, and now ending in extreme close-ups and the exactitude of the skin, Bernard seemed to have come full circle.
And thus we too have come back to the starting point.
And the conclusion that was foretold came to be. At barely fifty years old, Bernard knew that he’d said everything and put his camera down. How many human beings have this courage – this lucidity?
Considering the road he had just been down, the artist confided in his journal: Thinking about it, I realize that I painted to exorcize the torments of desire, I photographed and directed to exhibit, to exult in the beauty of its figures, but I always wrote, as far back as I can remember, to tell the truth, the strict truth of each era about this desire.
But when a photographer stops photographing, what is left for him to do?
Other than promoting his work, there are several responses.
The first is to teach the magic of the eye, of the moment snatched up from the passing of days, of the most beautiful road in the world, of The Happiest Day of My Youth. From Essaouira to Angkor, by way of Damascus, Havana, Berlin, Taiwan and Rio, Bernard shared his inspiration with young people from the four corners of the globe. Assisted by the writer-photographer Antonin Potoski, a close friend and filial double, he taught them to select and observe, but especially to love everything that is loveable, that is invisible.
Then there was the return. To himself – and to his lands.
In Provence, the sale of the house of his youth pushed Bernard to exorcism. Obsessed with getting rid of things, the artist invented The Liquidation of the Cabin.
For his big retrospective at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie – one of the artist’s crucial partners since its creation by Jean-Luc Monterosso in 1996 – following a non-denominational but religiously inspired ritual, Bernard dispersed all the objects of his youth without regret, including the accessories of his first staged scenes.
From the leather bed he was born in to the mannequins’ toys, everything was given away.
Informed visitors and lucky strangers took turns carrying off a little piece of his past. After two days, nothing was left, except for memories – and a few friends from way back, like Jean-Claude Larrieu, holding a camera and filming the moving ceremony for posterity.
At the same time the famous VU photo agency, founded by another longtime partner, the art historian and critic Christian Caujolle, was presented with images from the Temps d’Après.
Curiously dated “Summer of 2550,” these snapshots taken with a disposable or digital camera constituted the last fragments of a means of expression that is dead and buried in the eyes of the artist. The proof that, beyond the pixel, it won’t be possible to create new images anymore.
Like a reverse-angle facing away from bodies, for the first time, Bernard contemplated what human beings had built by removing the human beings.
Mainly Summer of 2550 was a book project where words dialogue with images on each opposite page – finally detached from each other.
In a certain way, the ultimate esthetic step had just been taken, once again owing to a premonition: that of a city devoid of “the living.” For it was in 2010 that Bernard discovered what he called his “last means of expression.”
Thirty years after the epiphany of his staged scenes, twenty after the Writings or the End of the Image, what else remained?
Maybe quite simply: to tell a story.
To recount what life was, from the dream of childhood to the death of the two brothers and both parents, to recount the world from profusion to disappearance, to recount, beyond the fragments of words, all the pages that photos can’t contain: the off-camera space of existence.
Here is how the artist’s last and the most ambitious project was born: My Routes.
The setup was simple: nothing but a camera placed on the car’s dashboard.
And then the most beautiful roads of the world.
And then, like a rearview mirror, Bernard’s voice reminiscing.
One only has to get onboard – and listen.
There were few or no people on these roads. Like an image of the world after movement, after life. As though the story had absorbed the heart of images for good. As though this point toward which we indefatigably drive and which constantly recedes into the distance was our destination, common to all of us.
At first these mobile landscapes accompanied Bernard’s journeys, from the Luberon to Morocco, but they ended up becoming their sole purpose: from Peru to Vietnam, from Myanmar to Laos, from Cuba to Argentina, by way of Bolivia, each time it was a question of traveling the supreme road, halfway between time and they sky.
Or why not… between France and China.
For it was an unexpected road that led Bernard to forge deep ties with the largest, most multifaceted and fascinating country in Asia.
It all began with Zeng Fanzhi, a major figure in contemporary painting, who fell in love with the photographer’s work thanks to a single image – The Flying Papers, which he judged extraordinary – or rather familiar – on the spot.
Myriam, Bernard’s Asian curator, wrote to the artist from Beijing: What a beautiful sign of recognition for your work to be honored in 21st century China, still suffering from a long period of repression in the personal sphere and in terms of personal expression. Your “true fictions” are to me the echo of the famous allegory of the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi: One day, the philosopher fell asleep in a flowering garden and had a dream. He dreamt that he was a very beautiful butterfly. The butterfly flew until it was exhausted then fell asleep in turn. The butterfly also had a dream. It dreamt it was Zhuangzi. At that moment, Zhuangzi awoke, he didn’t know at all if he was now the real Zhuangzi or rather the Zhuangzi from the butterfly’s dream.
A few years later, via another path, the creator of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie would introduce Bernard to Zhong Weixing – a celebrated businessman, photographer and immense collector who wanted to honor the world’s great image-makers in his city of Chengdu.
The benefactor and the artist instantly clicked. With Sebastião Salgado and a few others, Mr. Zhong decided to reveal the work of the man he considers a miracle to his fellow countrymen. As soon as they met, he asked the photographer his birthday. When Bernard told him, Zhong replied: “On September 12th, I invite you to my home to come film the roads of Tibet.” From that day forth, beyond the kilometers and magical journeys, a common road was traced between the heart, the mind and the eyes of the two men. A road lined with images and deep mutual consideration.
Before hiring a general, Napoleon would ask: “Is he lucky?” convinced that good fortune was an ability like any other. In the domain of the arts, luck is also a talent. Thanks to his profound singularity, Bernard came across men and women throughout his life who were as moved by his personality as they were by his creations, convinced of their importance, their necessity.
But beyond success, exhibitions and books, it must be said that Asia has always had a special relationship with Bernard Faucon. Notably in China where poets are still as famous as rock stars.
In Japan, his work had inspired a popular TV series, a slightly anxiety-inducing retelling of Summer Camp – called The Fucon Family. These images also fascinated South Korea, the land of high-tech. And so much so that famous K-Pop bands draw on them for their music videos.
As for China, it was in Chengdu that the first “life-sized” journey into the artist’s world was inaugurated in 2019, accompanied by a complete retrospective of his work, including a section of never-before-seen works. The artist’s life-sized Provencal world will be reconstructed and dressed with his authentic seminal objects. But unlike the cottage at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, these treasures won’t be dispersed. M. Zhong promised Bernard: “I will keep them always.”
It is said that artists create to live forever.
As for Bernard Faucon, the question isn’t to know if, but how his photographs will become eternal. For, from the beginning of humanity, few have conceived of images so impossible to forget. Once seen, each is etched deep in the soul.
In his journal, Hervé Guibert doubtless depicted the artist’s identity better than anyone: Making pies, drawing well water to wash up, tearing up a sheet as toilet paper: I sense Bernard is in a prehistory, a purity, a parsimony, an origin more than a renaissance. His work is also prehistoric, it doesn’t belong to the history of photography, he isn’t even an outsider or innovator, he is rather the divine essences of its original parameters, light and darkness, color, transparency, infinity, messages of love.
As for the creator himself, despite the pitfalls of creation and this voluptuous tragedy that constitutes existence, we can wager that he isn’t worried about his work. Something in him, from the beginning, knew he was connected to a time vaster than the confines of his own passage on earth.
This might be what we name genius. Or quite simply: sincerity.
And in a few centuries, millennia, or years, a little boy or a little girl enchanted by a Room of Love will call up the artist’s last confident, undying words on her digital cornea or mental screen: I always knew that my images would be reborn under other skies, in other times, that the flush of youthfulness that my 6 x 6 slides produced when I spread them out over the lightboxes of New York art dealers in 1978, would remain alive, that the spell would continue to work.
Translation by David Pickering