Martina Scorcucchi: Les Femmes Oubliées

by John-Paul Pryor

A conversation with the photographer about beauty, the difference between fashion and art photography, and reclaiming eroticism from the male gaze

The legendary and dissolute French poet Baudelaire once wrote the lines ‘courtesans and pimps you often offer pleasures the vulgar mob will never understand…’ and his love for the glimmering light that exists only in those characters that inhabit the timeless dark netherworld that will forever shadow the surface of bourgeois society fascinated him above all things. It’s a fascination that is shared by the fashion-designer-turned-photographer Martina Scorcucchi – one of the pre-eminent creatives at the cutting edge of contemporary Italy whose entrée into the world of fine art photography La Femmes Oubliées marries an eye for gothic elegance with a seductive timeless eroticism that both hearkens to the classicism of a bygone era and feels acutely attuned to a moment in history where the homogenization of female representation by the male-gaze of 21st century advertising is under attack. The work premiered as a satellite show to the alternative fashion festival AltaRoma in her hometown and is here presented for the first time to a global audience. Here, Scorcucchi tells us how she fishes for her inspiration in Res Cogitans (the world of ideas) and why the history of independent women is inextricably tied with that of the courtesan.

Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide–what is your opinion of that statement?

I am not sure I can describe myself as an artist. My experience as fashion photographer made me realize I am a person specifically able to communicate through images. Art is the starting point of my research, though. I am particularly attracted by French Impressionism, some neo-classical portraits, Leonor Fini’s surrealist vision and very much by Picasso’s Blue Period. I was inspired by all of these when creating this series. I chose to portray normal women; and by ‘normal’ I mean they aren’t professional models – many of them are actually very good friends of mine. I came to this decision because it is difficult to create an intimate environment with professional models, and my aim was to bring out my characters’ intimacy and to describe their deepest emotions.

Would you describe the work as an investigation into desire and femininity?

I wanted to investigate real eroticism – not the one stereotyped by fashion and the lexicon of acting. In a society where everything is explicit and accessible what stays veiled and apparently hidden increases its value. Eroticism generates curiosity exactly because it is not shown.

Today’s eroticism is so widespread in communication it has become ordinary and pedestrian–you just have to look at advertising and the way it uses sex to sell any kind of product. It was essential in this project to establish a deep intimacy during the shoots so that each of my characters could express a more real vision of eroticism and femininity, according to their own experience. Through this personal project I have finally had the chance to convey my view on beauty and femininity without any obligation to seasonality issues, or the need to use specific brands and adhere to female stereotyping.

Tell us how the project came together and about the unique ways in which you created the prints. 

The circumstances are confidential! The research behind this project moved along two parallel lines: the historic and intellectual research on one side and the search for materials and artisans that could best present this work on the other. I encountered several difficulties, particularly in this second aspect. The ancient photos, and, especially, the fin de siècle postcards, which used to be sent to lovers and relatives, were my inspiration. I own a little collection of them, so I started from there.

How would you describe beauty? Is beauty something you strived to capture in this work?

My sense of beauty is absolutely clear and defined but it is mostly pure instinct. Sometimes it comes to me so naturally that you could say I am driven by it even during everyday life. I think beauty is a mixture of different factors too complex to be listed; it is almost an inspiration that evolves over time. Most of the time, beauty to me is related to the concept of res cogitans (the world of ideas). So, when I see an old picture and a detail, like a gesture, or a specific part of a dress, it strikes me–this tiny detail is able to open in my mind entire worlds.

Why do you feel our society no longer supports the figure of the courtesan?

In our society ‘the courtesan’ has been dismantled. Nowadays, we lack a Renaissance figure able to express herself in different ways. Heteraes in Ancient Greece were among the few women allowed to have a higher education and to independently administrate their incomes. In the libertine Venice the salonnières were not only enjoying unrestrained pleasures, but also entertaining the leading figures of society–debating about politics, literature and poetry. Between 800 and 900 centuries we can finally remember la “Belle” Otero, singer and dancer, who entertained monarchs and scholars in all Europe and was the first woman to be filmed during her dancing performances.

Interview by John-Paul Pryor
All photographs courtesy of the artist