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On the occasion of the exhibition Sigmar Polke’s Photographic Infamies at the BAL in Paris, Blind unpacks an emblematic image by this prolific artist.

It is misshapen, stained, damaged, and dog-eared. It is the opposite of a well-polished, carefully developed photograph. The subject’s face is nearly unrecognizable. Her mouth is parted to form a smile broken by a blotch.  

This is a photograph by Sigmar Polke, a painter at the edges of abstraction who, in the 1960s and 70s, spent his time wielding a camera. He would bring it along to parties and let his friends borrow it sometimes, so that it is now impossible to tell if it was Sigmar Polke who took the photos he is credited with, including this one. He is the photographer insofar as we know he loved photographing the women he visited. Having taken the woman’s portrait, he enjoyed soiling it using various methods, as he did throughout his photographic practice.


Sigmar Polke, Untitled (Hannelore Kunert), 1970-1980, Collection of Georg Polke © Sigmar Polke, Cologne/ADAGP, 2019

Solarizing, using expired photo paper, overexposing…, Sigmar Polke pushed photography to its limits, even if it meant abandoning representation and shifting toward total abstraction or the invisible. Looking at his photographs, one must squint to make out the shape or perceive the pattern. When he printed his photographs, Polke would soil them, creating what the BAL calls “photographic infamies,” the exact opposite of a classical image that calls for clarity and order.

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” recalled the artist whose photographic work is understood as a desire to undermine reason and lend his images a hallucinatory dimension, like a dark, uncanny daydream. When photographing his women acquaintances, he never shrank from damaging the image, making the portrait less visible and the women less likeable. “The object of love is transformed into something scary,” noted the exhibition curator, Bernard Marcadé. And so the smile breaks down in the chemical process of developing. “Chemistry is key. Chemistry is poison,” one art historian wrote speaking of the work of Sigmar Polke.

By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin

Sigmar Polke’s Photographic Infamies 

September 13 to December 22, 2019

Le BAL, 6 Impasse de la Défense, 75018 Paris

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