Somebody Is Always Offended By Art
28 January 2024
“Somebody Is Always Offended By Art”
Formerly in Italian ‘Vogue’, today in the museum: Photographer Miles Aldridge presents colourful, perfect worlds with depths he found in his own family history. And he criticizes the changed zeitgeist that no longer allows for shocking art.
She doesn’t wear one of those shabby 3D glasses you buy at the entrance of the multiplex and inevitably leaves at home for the next movie visit. She has chosen a stylish plastic model with red-green glasses, matching her lipstick and even her fingernails. The half-litre Coca-Cola cup is so full that the foam sloshes against the lid, and the popcorn seems untouched.
Only the perspective distortion makes the viewer doubt whether it is real junk food from the cinema cashier – or two specially built props. The young lady, however, seems captivated by the screen. But if one believes the reflections in the glasses, the screen is empty. Perfectly dressed for a cinema visit, in her mind, you can see the captain of the football team sitting next to her, staring at beauty into nothingness.
Beneath the flawless surfaces simmer abysses
The picture is from British photographic artist Miles Aldridge, 59, whose retrospective opened on February 2, 2024, at the Berlin Photography Centre Fotografiska. Founded in Stockholm in 2010, it is now led by entrepreneur Yoram Roth, with branches in London, Tallinn, New York, Shanghai, and, for the past six months, Berlin – in the former department store that was, for many years after the reunification, a mix of squatted house and artists’ meeting place known as Tacheles. Some patina was left on the walls, but now it’s one of the chicest new places in Berlin, with long lines at every exhibition opening and confidently priced gastronomy (lobster omelette with French fries for 45 euros). Aldridge was a highly successful fashion photographer from the 90s but has been showing his pictures in galleries around the world for almost 20 years. His images are colourful and elegant, every eyelash in place, and no pore disturbs. However, beneath the flawless surfaces, madness and abysses boil.
The exhibition is loosely organized thematically. In one room, there are photos in which Aldridge has his models interact with sculptures by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. Next to the pope struck by a meteorite lies a naked woman with a fox-red wig and matching pubic hair. Elsewhere, Aldridge shows his approaches to classical images of saints, which, in his case, have the sugary patina of a Virgin Mary statue from the souvenir shop. And then a series of doll-like perfect housewives, whose idyll shatters on the ground.
His portraits are as colourful as his entire oeuvre and equally thoughtfully choreographed: For example, he photographed fashion designer Rick Owens with a naked model and a studio employee in a white coat, observing the woman with the sternness of an entomologist: “There is a photo, I believe by Cartier-Bresson, showing Matisse with a nude model. The same gaze, the same coat,” says Aldridge, who, unlike many artists, expresses his references very openly. Like Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, his goal has always been to tell stories even in commissioned work for fashion magazines: “They were always very sincere with their desires, obsessions, and fears.”
You don’t necessarily notice this dark side in the man. He looks remarkably good in an unsettling way, almost like his pictures (though less colourful), and he speaks quickly, focused, and without fatigue. The day before the exhibition, he arrives in Berlin, visits the Neue Nationalgalerie before his own show, and plans to go to the opera later with his son. When he used to work for fashion magazines, he always worked on his motifs in the studio for so long that they called him “Midnight Miles,” but he has no time to lose now.
And while one is still pondering whether it might bother him to be asked about his father, Alan Aldridge, who was a very successful illustrator in the 60s and 70s, collaborating with the Beatles, Elton John, and the Rolling Stones, he immediately and voluntarily gets to the point. “My father was a genius. He looked like a mix of John Lennon and Albrecht Dürer. I remember sitting on his lap as a four-year-old boy while he smoked his cigar and produced wonderful images, one after another.”
The early years of young Miles sound, in retrospect, like something out of fiction. The family lived in a house he describes as a “psychedelic palace.” Sometimes, Eric Clapton picked him up from school, a family photo shows them backstage with Elton John, and they hung out with Elton John’s songwriter Bernie Taupin. Until it turned out that the father secretly had a second family, leaving Miles, his sister, and his mother in London and moving to Los Angeles.
“A painful separation. With violence and betrayal in their most extreme forms. I am not a psychologist and don’t know how analysis works. But perhaps my images, despite their beauty, are disturbing for this reason. Why is the woman holding her hairdryer like a gun? Why is a cigarette extinguished in the fried egg? It may be related to my childhood experiences.”
When his father once gave him a Pink Floyd T-shirt, teenage Miles painted the words “I hate” in front of the band name, officially making him one of the coolest boys in his school. In late 70s England, the consciousness-expanding worlds of Swinging London had been replaced by harsh reality. Young people who valued themselves listened to the Sex Pistols and, like Miles Aldridge, saved up for a T-shirt from Vivienne Westwood’s legendary boutique “Sex” or wrote a sentence from Karl Marx on the back of their raincoat, without giving too much thought to its meaning.
A Muse Named Michelangelo
At first glance, the flawless, colourful surfaces of his art seem to have little to do with the rugged aesthetics of those years. However, Aldridge demonstrated his understanding at that time of the importance of cultivating the right look at the right time – and a fearlessness that would shape his career.
Instead of distancing himself as much as possible from his father, he studied illustration at the art school—and discovered that art history was not only comprised of the magical worlds of Alan Aldridge and the underground comics of Robert Crumb. “My then-girlfriend loved Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. She opened my eyes,” he says. He also came across the very classical black and white nudes of the British photographer Bill Brandt, whom he still admires, and the handwritten poems of Michelangelo. “I forgot the poetry, not the wonderful handwriting.” Aldridge continues to develop his ideas and motifs with pen and paper. In the past, when he had meetings with fashion magazines, he would bring his sketchbook.
His landing in that field was due to a series of coincidences and autonomous decisions. After his studies, he worked as an illustrator for “Vogue,” earned a bit of money for the first time, and, like supposedly every young man in London, wanted to look like David Bowie on the cover of “Changes One”: “with well-groomed hair.” But then that seemed too safe to him. “I could still do that when I’m old.” With the Super 8 camera his father had given him, he started making experimental films. He immersed himself in what would become his most important source of inspiration: avant-garde cinema. “With a doughnut and a coffee, watching three films by Godard or Antonioni in a row.”
In the early 90s, a photo Aldridge had taken of his girlfriend ended up in the hands of a “Vogue” editor. “I still had my father’s old camera; I couldn’t take photos, but that was exactly what fit the times,” he says nonchalantly. Soon, he was photographing for Italian “Vogue,” which was considered the most artistic and sophisticated until the death of the editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani. As a photographer, one cannot achieve more.
“We met twice a year in Paris, after the Chanel show, and we joked: She was my pope, I was her Michelangelo.” Due to the transformation of the media world, this artistic freedom has been lost. And due to the changed zeitgeist. “Art must shock and surprise. But today, no one wants to be shocked anymore. And somebody is always offended,” says Aldridge – and doesn’t sound offended himself.