exhibition

Summary

At first glance, it’s easy to write off photographer Erwin Olaf as a commercial prima donna, airbrushing oiled models and strategically cropping “June” for the next gay men’s calendar. A low-rent photographer at high-rent prices.

Royal Blood by Erwin Olaf
 
Royal Blood by Erwin Olaf

Erwin Olaf

At first glance, it’s easy to write off photographer Erwin Olaf as a commercial prima donna, airbrushing oiled models and strategically cropping “June” for the next gay men’s calendar. A low-rent photographer at high-rent prices.

And much of the famous Dutch photographer’s work deserves little more attention than that. Even if his employers are media sophisticates, like Italian coffee brand Lavazza, they are also companies whose billboard-size exploitations of women are questionable.

Olaf, indeed, is a fan of the naked body but has the exasperating habit of destroying his own edgy intentions. Even when he is creating a series for art’s sake, rather than the consumer’s, he veers strangely off course. His 1999 series Mature, for instance, is a group of photos of older women posing as pin-ups. With sagging stomachs and deep wrinkles, their naked bodies sit atop soap suds or exercise machines. The images are a brilliant reminder of the fleetingness of youth and the inner sexiness that cannot be suppressed by advancing years.

But Olaf photo-shopped the women to make their asses look better. It was his first use of computer manipulations, and he simply couldn’t stand not to use it to do what he does best – make people look unerringly pretty. In a socially acceptable way, that is. What use is an artist who must do that?

But then there are the times when Olaf gets it right. When he lets his precisely staged material speak for itself, it speaks such complex volumes that it is difficult to tear your eye – or your mind – away. Some of this you will find at the FotoMuseum in Antwerp during EyeCandy, a show of more than 100 of Olaf’s photographs.

Perhaps the most infamous series – and one of the most striking – is Royal Blood, in which he photographs young, beautiful models playing various royal figures from Julius Caesar to Marie-Antoinette to Jackie O. Offering a literal interpretation of the catch-phrase, all are bleeding. Marie-Antoinette holds onto her own severed head; Sissi, the nickname of Elisabeth of Bavaria, who was stabbed to death in 1898, pulls back her slinky dress to reveal her death wound. Princess Diana, meanwhile, sports a Mercedes emblem half embedded under her arm, like a tattoo.

Royal Blood is a highly stylised tribute to leaders, murdered or otherwise victimised based on status and power. The subjects are at once both alive and dead, staring at the viewer either blankly or seductively, all the while questioning: Why did you not stop this?

This kind of emotional impact comes through in other Olaf series as well: the fairly recent Rain portrays people in a variety of situations in which they should be happy as sad, numb or indifferent. Elton John bought one of them for €25,000. Sadly, you won’t see any of Rain in Antwerp, but you will see a few works from the series Blacks, in which Olaf takes on American’s continuing discomfort with its racial history, and Rouge, a fantastic series of gender-bending footballers.

As for the rest, pay it no mind. There is enough in this show to impress even the most critical (re)viewer.

Where? FotoMuseum, Waalsekaai 47, Antwerp

When? Until 7 June

www.fotomuseum.be

Two more exhibitions run concurrently with EyeCandy at the FotoMuseum

The First World War ushered in the modern era of media photography once newspaper editors realised just how much of an impact the right photo could make. But the inter-war period also saw radical changes in the use of personal cameras, as photo technology became ever more accesible, and in the arts, when painters and writers starting aiming and shooting. Artistic differences arose immediately, as they so often do, among “traditionalists” and “modernists” both personally and professionally. Antwerp’s FotoMuseum presents Photography in Belgium Between the Wars, which examines all of these aspects of photographery between the First and Second World Wars.

Also on show at the museum are a collection of photos, drawings and texts by Vincent Beeckman. Made in Strombeek is a disarming series of portraits of average people in Beeckman’s hometown.