Photographer Cornelie Tollens graduated in 1990 at the Photography Academy in Haarlem, The Netherlands. She started working as fashion photographer for magazines like Elle and Elegance, but soon had her free work also published in Vogue, Dutch, Tank, Avenue, Blvd., Credits, La Vie en Rose, M (NRC) and Dif.
Tollens combines a rare combination of perfection, glamour and shamelessness and actually flirts with form and content, art and commerce, theatres and pornography. For her the only boundaries to express her self are those of the laws of artistic expression. Her goal: the printed image must catch the eye – be it on the page of the latest glossies or mounted on the museum wall.
Cornelie Tollens’ body of work is entirely engaged with the body – erotic, subversive, in thrall to thanatos, insatiable, the opulent performance of femininity enacted within the theatre of flesh. These are images of women, occasionally men and sometimes children that teeter on the edge of …What? If I write perversion then I am reducing Tollen’s work to an entirely phallocentric (or worse, reactionary) interpretation. This is work that is wholly female – lustful, encircling- the sexual woman capable of satisfying herself. Work that gazes upon the female experience with a tender, unflinching lens. Elaborating a meta-language – words caught in flesh – all meaning is distilled to the meat of being. These sumptuous images portray women ravenous with desire – desire for love and pleasure, a dark romance that is costumed in silks, feathers and lace. Small girls, barely pubescent sit scandalously primped and preened for the camera, their faces distorted by make-up that is lurid on their young skin. How better to castigate society for its objectification of women than by taunting it with its hypocrisies?
Tollens’ mines a symbolic syntax that is wholly grounded in phallocentric culture and seemingly valorises images that reduce female models to sexual function, but the work is intended as a subversion of teleology, and with this aim, Tollens’ renegotiates a strategic essentialism, affirming the body as a site of truth and/or experience, not merely anatomical fact. Using mythic and popular signifiers Tollens’ subverts the erotic language of the body. She presents woman in the process of becoming, and therefore taking possession of her anatomy and sexuality and with that her eroticised image.
In our strange age of rampant media female objectification, sited within an over-sexed culture where the male gaze slobbers over images of scantily clad girls and where young women choose to pose for such pictures in an attempt at ‘empowerment’, Cornelie Tollens’ unsettling photo’s portray all that horrifies the dominant culture. One can only wonder what’s so scary about a woman who can satisfy herself and anyone else she chooses, and do so beautifully, her pale hand tucked into the pink folds of her panties?
With work such as The Garden of Lust and Hunger – we are confronted by a post-lapsarian Eve, draped in silks and a cascade of hyper-real blooms, that barely conceal her naked body, her direct stare issuing a challenge, while her black nipples intimate giving suck to death not life. This work reflects the inherent symbols of Eros and Thanatos that co-exist in much of this collection. Tollens presents us with an Eve wholly sympathetic to and informed by her predecessors in the panoply of female symbols and archetypes such as Lillith – the ‘first’ woman who demanded equal status and knowledge with Adam, Baubo – a female demon said by the ancient Greeks to be a personification of female genitalia, and of course, Kali. Thus cast out this Eve becomes a dark goddess who must destroy before she can create ensuring the eternal return, a symbol of fertility and regeneration.
Further images contrast traditional ‘feminine’ textures, such as silks and satins with flesh. This dichotomy in which she portrays the imperfect body enmeshed and encased in opulent, flawless fabrics reinforces the encoding and concealment of the physical-self central to the fashion industry. Tollens goes on to toy with mythic signifiers in Hunters Mourning, referencing Leda and the Swan, her model, dressed in white satin, looking for all the world like a dishevelled bride, clutches the neck of a dead swan… this is Leda unvanquished, in fact, this is an elegant portrait of a God Slayer – a virgin perfectly capable of defending her honour by any means necessary. Tollens also pays homage to Courbet’s The Origin of the World in Merci Monsieur Courbet, a thanks perhaps for demystifying the representation of the Cunt, though in this case, the luxuriant pubic hair is replaced with exotic plumage that is at once a concealment and an invitation.
The images of Cornelie Tollens’ tempt, delight and terrify depending on the audience, just as powerful, seductive and sexually rapacious women have for millennia. These aren’t merely decorative, nor merely titillating, but excitingly exquisite attempts to capture the dark heaven of female sexuality.
Essay by Heidi James Garwood