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Issue No. 17 - Enigma

Meet the Inventor of the Chemigram: Pierre Cordier

Pierre Cordier

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Pierre Cordier was born on January 28, 1933 in Brussels, Belgium. A former lecturer at the École Nationale des Arts Visuels in Brussels, he is also known as the inventor or the father of the groundbreaking chemigram technique, which combines the processes of painting, photography and science without even using a camera. Cordier continues to live and work in Belgium today.

Cordier has exhibited his work internationally, including at MoMA in New York in 1967, the Musée d’Art Moderne in Brussels in 1988, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2010, and the Armory Show & AIPAD in New York in 2011. His retrospective exhibition in 2007 called Cinquante ans du chimigramme at the Musée de la Photographie Charleroi in Belgium highlighted his work with chemigram over the past fifty years. 

www.pierrecordier.com

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How long have you been an artist and how did you first start creating ?

My first chemigram dates from 1956 - 56 years ago !  Before that I was an amateur photographer.  As a child I loved being handy.  I repaired the shutter of an old Kodak box camera with one of my mother’s garters.  I’ve always been drawn to experiments, to inventions.  An artist who’s content with repeating what already exists has little interest for me.

Who, what and where inspired the beginning of the chemigram technique ?

During military service in Germany in 1956 I wrote out a dedication to a young German girl, Erika, writing with nail polish on light sensitive paper. So from the start there was writing, painting, and photography. I was already interested in painting (Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Gustav Klimt, Saul Steinberg) and in photography (Fox Talbot, Hippolyte Bayard, Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy).

Can you briefly describe the process behind the technique ?

Nowadays, you have to explain that before we had digital, photos were based on silver.  The surfaces were light sensitive thanks to the silver salts they contained.  You developed the image with developer and you fixed it with fixer.  Chemigrams use these same products but without a camera.  To get shapes you turn to things you can find in the kitchen, the bathroom, or the hardware store, and these are what we call resists.  They can be soft (honey, syrup, oil) or hard (varnish, wax, adhesive).  You set them onto the light sensitive surface with brushes, rollers or sprayers.  By soaking the paper alternately in developer (to get the blacks) and fixer (to get the whites), there gradually appear images impossible to obtain with painting, photography, or the computer.

What inspired the name, chemigram, and were there other name options you had in mind early on ?

The chemigram combines the physics of painting (varnish, wax, oil) with the chemistry of photography (light sensitive emulsion, developer, fixer), without use of camera, enlarger, and in broad daylight. I chose the word “chemigram” because I wasn’t using a camera.  Yet since the physical phenomena were so important I might have said “physico-chemigram”.  But the more economical “chemigram” is in universal use today. 

What was the initial public and personal reaction to the chemigram public ?

I often say there are 7 billion people in the world who are ignorant of chemigrams.  Georges Brassens said that it’s harder to please certain people than it is to please everyone.  These certain people have been Otto Steinert in Germany, John Szarkowski, at the time director of photography at MoMA, Brassaï, Lartigue, Aaron Siskind (my “spiritual father”)… 

Was it tough trying to introduce the chemigram technique to the mass public ?

At the time, it was hard to gain acceptance for hybrid works.  Painters took me for a photographer and the photographers for a painter.  Besides, I’ve never tried to introduce a technique as peculiar as this one to the larger public.  Even photograms, which were practiced in the twenties by great artists like Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy, never received much public acceptance, and have been mainly relegated to art schools.  Chemigrams have become better known through the lectures and workshops that I’ve conducted since 1979 and, more recently, by artists like Douglas Collins in his blog which I recommend to you, nonfigurativephoto.blogspot.com. 

Having mastered the chemigram technique, what else have you mastered in your life time ?

Georges Brassens had a pivotal role in my choice of becoming an artist ; Brassens is to the francophone world what Bob Dylan is to Americans.  I’ve become one of his intimate biographers through photos and recordings I made of him before he became celebrated.

What are you currently working on ?

After a long stay in the south of France while I worked on a monograph collecting all my notes on chemigrams entitled “le chimigramme / the chemigram”, I returned to Brussels.  In March 2011 I was encouraged me to take up chemigrams again by an Austrian artist and painter I met, Gundi Falk.  We’ve collaborated on a series called “Windows on the Unknown”.  Nests of sturdy lines are windows opening onto a night where you can see stars, moons, suns, unknown beings.  An opposition between order and disorder, between the controlled chemigram and the random chemigram.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time ?

Music, especially jazz: Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Monk.  And classics: Debussy, Ravel, Satie, as well as contemporaries like Steve Reich.  My reading runs from Nabokov, Borges, Georges Perec, to humorists like Groucho Marx.

What advice do you have for emerging artists and chemigrammers ?

Take the time to find yourself and when you become yourself, keep on going. And for the chemigram, three bits of advice: practice, practice, practice.

 

 

 

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