Photo Essays

Resurfacing the Work of a Filmmaker Who Was Obsessed with the Underwater World

In the early 20th century, Jean Painlevé used inventive film and photography techniques to capture the odd nature of marine life.

Jean Painlevé, “Crab Claw” (1928) (© Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris, courtesy Ikon Gallery, Birmingham)

A student of biology at the Sorbonne who was involved with the early 20th-century Paris avant-garde, Jean Painlevé used film and photography to encourage a closer look at the curious world of underwater marine life. Rather than document some exotic sharks or deep-sea creatures, he magnified the humble claw of a crab and the rostrum on a shrimp’s nose, transforming them into sculptural behemoths in large-scale, black-and-white photographs.

Like his Surrealist contemporaries Luis Buñuel and Man Ray, he had an eye for the odd and uncanny, but used the techniques of a scientist, such as a microscope-camera combo, aquariums, and underwater photography. In the 1930s, he made his only underwater film, journeying into the Bay of Arcachon to observe the seahorses, then remixing the views of nature with humorous insertions like footage of a land-horse race. All the aquatic specimens, from octopus to sea urchin, were found off the coast of Brittany, where the French artist kept a studio.

Jean Painlevé, “Rostrum on the nose of the shrimp” (1929) (© Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris, courtesy Ikon Gallery, Birmingham)

His work, especially the seahorse film that spurred something of a seahorse craze, was popular in his day, but has since fallen somewhat into obscurity. Bridging between art and science, he certainly still has fans (a 2009 Criterion Collection edition of his films has scores by Yo La Tengo), yet his legacy can be hard to pin down. Currently, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, is exhibiting his first UK solo show, simply titled Jean PainlevéOrganized in collaboration with the Archives Jean Painlevé, the retrospective features his photography, films, and jewelry designs.

“Painlevé recently has been an artist’s artist, and we wanted to present him to a wider public,” Jonathan Watkins, director of Ikon, told Hyperallergic. “He was very engaged with music, jewelry, as well as film and photography, and this suits the cross-art form nature of Ikon’s program very much.”

By the time of his death in 1989, Painlevé had created more than 200 films, from 1928’s The Octopus, which details the rippling tentacles of the cephalopod while noting that “the open eye is very human,” to the playfully macabre The Vampire (1945), which combines jazzy music and animal body horror (with shots of an octopus creeping on a skull) to consider how biology may have influenced the fictional vampire. The Ikon exhibition, curated by Marie Jager and Jonathan Watkins, features four films. One from 1955 shows Alexander Calder performing his kinetic sculpture “Circus.” Also included are Sea Urchins from 1958, Phase Transition in Liquid Crystals, and, of course, L’Hippocampe (The Seahorse). One room of Ikon Gallery is swathed in a wallpaper based on a seahorse scarf sold at a stall in Paris’s Printemps department store, which hosted a whole frenzy of seahorse accessories in response to the popularity of the film, including delicate jewelry designed by his partner Genevieve Hamon.

Although the artist’s foray into fashion may seem a bit unexpected, Painlevé was always committed to the accessibility of his work. He also enjoyed the play with traditional expectations of gender and sexuality represented by the seahorse, where males carry babies in a collaborative birthing process. As he once stated: “To those who are ardently striving to better their daily lot, to those women who long for someone free from the usual selfishness to share their troubles as well as their joys, is dedicated this symbol of a tenacity which unites the most masculine efforts to the most feminine maternal care.”

Jean Painlevé with a Debrie camera in a waterproof box (1935) (© Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris, courtesy Ikon Gallery, Birmingham)
Jean Painlevé, “Sea Horse Wallpaper,” installation at Ikon Gallery (2017) (photo by Handover Agency, courtesy Ikon Gallery, Birmingham)
Jean Painlevé, “Female Seahorse” (1936) (© Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris, courtesy Ikon Gallery, Birmingham)
Jean Painlevé, film still from The Seahorse (1934) (© Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris, courtesy Ikon Gallery, Birmingham)
Jean Painlevé, film stills from The Seahorse (1931) (© Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris, courtesy Ikon Gallery, Birmingham)
Jean Painlevé, “Lobster Claw” (1929) (© Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris, courtesy Ikon Gallery, Birmingham)
Jean Painlevé, “Shrimp Tail greatly enlarged” (1929) (© Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris, courtesy Ikon Gallery, Birmingham)
Promotional photograph for Jean Painlevé’s seahorse jewelry (1936) (photo by Philippe Halsman, © Archives Jean Painlevé, Paris, Halsman Archive, courtesy Ikon Gallery, Birmingham)

Jean Painlevé continues through June 4 at Ikon Gallery (1 Oozells Street, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, UK).

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