Brigitte Bardot stands apart from all of Warhol’s 1970s Society Portraits in size and technique, lending it a distinctive eminence that reflects Warhol’s unparalleled admiration and enchantment for his subject. Typically, the other portraits from this decade adhered to the artist’s standard 40 by 40 inch format; during this period Warhol would take his own Polaroids of his sitters with his ubiquitous Big Shot camera and use these portraits as the source images for his silkscreens. Stories abound of the sessions in which Warhol invited his subjects up to the Factory to sit for his camera. However, for Bardot, the portraits were executed in an exceptionally large format, and rather than using his own photograph Warhol based the screen on the acclaimed photographer Richard Avedon's iconic 1959 image of the sultry starlet at her peak. Sachs provided the image—found in the pages of a magazine—to Warhol upon his commission, and it is not known if Warhol was even aware at the time that he had paraphrased an image by the famed Avedon. Avedon had photographed Bardot fifteen years prior, in January 1959 in his Paris studio. The actress wore a sumptuous Lanvin dress and had her hair done by Alexandre of Paris, then considered the world’s most famous hairdresser. Alexandre had also styled Elizabeth Taylor’s classic coiffure for Cleopatra—another image Warhol used in his portraits of Liz, making Brigitte Bardot the second chance collaboration between Warhol and the hairstylist.
Reverberating with extraordinary volume, Bardot’s hair swoops symmetrically away from her face and enrobes her sharply contoured features in a mane of pure luxuriance. Avedon’s portrait already possessed a distinctly Warholian quality in its pronounced double-exposure effect; each curled lock of hair appears to vibrate independently within the confines of the frame, achieving the quietly rippling effect of Warhol’s out of register screens through Avedon’s own darkroom manipulation. In this regard, Avedon’s portrait functions as a sort of readymade, already exuding the buzzing of Warhol’s silkscreens a priori to the artist’s appropriation. Based on an existing photo that was not his own, in both painterly approach and style Bardot aligns with the seminal silkscreens of Jackie, Liz and Marilyn, whose images Warhol collected from the press. Divergent from the brushy and almost expressionistic application of paint familiar to Warhol's large corpus of society portraits, Bardot evokes a retrospective appropriation of the earlier hard Pop style of unmodulated coloring and closed contours to emphasize a machine-like touch. Detached, however, from the sobering presence of death in the portraits of Marilyn and intimated at in his depictions of Jackie and Liz, Bardot is sheer screen magnetism incarnate.
Following Warhol's first major retrospective exhibition in Hamburg during 1972, an effort largely initiated by Sachs himself, the set of eight paintings of Bardot were commissioned to hang as pendants to a corresponding series portraying Sachs. Intended to adorn the walls of his extravagant Pop Art temple in the tower of the luxurious Palace Hotel, St. Moritz, the portraits of Bardot and Sachs together stand as a testament to their fiery and brilliantly seductive relationship. Finally executed in 1974, Warhol's seductive portrayal of Brigitte Bardot was a creation almost eight years in the making. The origin of the eight paintings after Bardot's iconic likeness can be traced to the couples' very first encounter with Warhol during the spring of 1967. Visiting the South of France to promote his film Chelsea Girls, Warhol first encountered Sachs at the Gorilla Bar in St. Tropez. Though Warhol's attempts to host screenings of his film were abortive, the artist and his gang of Factory cohorts stayed to star-gaze and bask in the glamorous atmosphere. Famed for his lavish lifestyle and burgeoning reputation as a visionary arts patron, Sachs was approached directly by Warhol, who made such a striking first impression that Sachs was prompted to describe the encounter "as unusual as Andy Warhol himself.” (Ibid., p. 18) For Warhol however, the most memorable aspect of the entire encounter was meeting Sachs’ wife, Brigitte Bardot. Documented in Warhol's 1960s memoirs, the artist remembered meeting Bardot in some detail: "We decided to hang around anyway and just have fun as that's what we were always good at, going to parties, water skiing, meeting the foreign movie people... we met Gunter Sachs, the West German heir who brought us home to meet his wife Brigitte Bardot. She came downstairs and entertained like a good European hostess, and I couldn't get over how sweet that was – to be Brigitte Bardot and still bother to make your guests comfortable!" (Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties, London, 2007, pp. 267-68) Warhol and his entourage spent an evening captivated by the newly-wed couple, however it was Bardot's grace, easy temperament, and otherworldly beauty which truly left the group star-struck.
Present among the company from Warhol's Factory, Ultra Violet recalled details of the evening spent in the company of Sachs and Bardot: "The party was half in the house and half on Gunter Sachs’ boat. The house was very nice. Minimal but in good style. He even had servers on the boat. The dinner was just delicious, and champagne galore. We were swimming and drinking champagne. Bardot was outstanding. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. She looked like a goddess, and Gunter was much in love. This was a new affair for them. Warhol was impressed by the whole setup. Of course he was a celebrity hound. We wound up at some club. I think it was called Vroom Vroom or something. Bardot was so gracious, and when she danced all eyes were on her. She didn't jiggle, she had grace. I think Gunter probably ordered the portrait then." (Ultra Violet cited in Exh. Cat., London, Gagosian Gallery, Op. Cit., 2011, p. 18) For Warhol, Cannes in 1967 represents a turning point; following the announcement of his 'retirement from painting' in 1965 and wholesale focus on the art of the silver-screen, Warhol realized, in the words of Glenn O'Brien, "that even if film was his future, painting was still the way to 'bring home the bacon,' and there were great portraits still to be made." (Ibid., p. 19) Indeed, of the work belonging to the next chapter in Warhol's career, the portraits of Bardot stand among the most elite and iconic.
By the time Bardot married Sachs in 1966, the actress had long since attained legendary status. At the age of only 15 she had appeared on the cover of Elle, and forged the blueprint for the original jeune filles and prototypical Lolita five years preceding the publication of Nabokov's eponymous novel. In 1956 Bardot shot to stardom almost overnight in the controversially provocative film directed by her then husband Roger Vadim, And God Created Woman - the film which scandalized America and earned her the status of sex-kitten extraordinaire; by 1959 the Bardot myth was truly cemented when she elicited the attention of France's existential elite as the focus of Simone de Beauvoir's article "Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome." This essay recognized Bardot as the "locomotive of women's history" presenting her as the most liberated woman of post-war France, a status which would be nationally endorsed ten years later when Bardot was prestigiously asked to bestow her features as the first official incarnation of the traditionally archetypal Marianne – France's revolutionary icon of liberty and national symbol of le patrie. With the sweep of Warhol's silkscreen, Bardot's magnetic on-screen presence and intoxicating yet liberated sexuality was immortalized as the ultimate Warholian blonde-bombshell post-Marilyn Monroe. As outlined by Olivier Zahm, "BB, then, was the anti-Marilyn. Marilyn was the ultimate fetish, the planetary sex symbol molded on a panoply of male fantasies, while BB incarnated the emancipation of feminine desire." (Ibid., p. 28). Bardot presaged the advent of the sexual revolution, at once embodying the female beau ideal without compromising her own agency as a woman; she did as she pleased and lived life freely and provocatively. Through Avedon's photograph Warhol arrested in paint the very peak of Bardot's fresh-faced beauty; looming with unimpeachable facial symmetry, Bardot's signature full-lips and lush mane radiates as the ultimate contemporary goddess and icon of star-power.
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