"Jean Clemmer + Paco Rabanne + Dali..."

By Laura Whitcomb.

The Swiss artist Jean Clemmer, who would become one of the world’s most renowned erotic fashion photographers, hailed from the town of Neuchâtel. The Swiss city burrowed in a dip between mountains, had been the birthplace of the prophet of modernism, le Corbusier, the Dada poet Blaise Cendrars and the automobile designer, Louis Chevrolet. Clemmer would attend the art school Ecole des Beaux Arts Chaux-de-Fonds which had spawned the Swiss Art Nouveau movement where he would graduate with a degree in jewelry making. As World war II ended, prospects of becoming a theater designer arose for him in the neutral country Switzerland’s capitol Geneva. Clemmer flourished in the city that became the epicenter of the war’s economic recovery where he saved enough money to make another exodus this time to Paris, the nucleus of modernism and the excitement it possessed as its cultural population returned after the long sojourn from Nazi occupation.


Upon arrival, The post-war Parisian artistic ensemble of Jean Cocteau, Zadkine, Louise Vilmorin, Jacques Fath and Marcel Rochas, recruited the young artist into their exclusive circle. Clemmer was enthralled with the post-war climate of Surrealism and mounted exhibitions of drawings and paintings. Surrounded by unlimited sources of inspiration – as well as captivating persona – Clemmer was drawn to the medium of photography as a means of documenting his experience.

Clemmer was particularly fascinated with Salvador Dalí and the Surrealist luminary’s focus on mythology – as well as the theatrical expression of his ideas. In 1962, Clemmer decided to embark on a journey to Dalí’s oasis/home at Port Lligat, a tiny alcove on Catalonia’s Costa Brava.  The bacchanals hosted by Dalí rivaled those of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” on the other side of the Atlantic, by way of profligacy and excess.  The Dionysian revelry taking place behind the white washed walls of Port Lligat was magnified by the ominous risk of discovery by the strict religious regime of Franco – that ruled Spain with an iron fist. This dichotomy of opposing forces provided an intense backdrop for a new generation fascinated with all things mystic, alchemical, and anti conformist – finding an unprecedented father figure in Salvador Dali.


Clemmer and Salvador Dali.

Port Lligat had become one of Europe’s most desirable destinations for the emerging quake of youth culture, as its host, Dalí, encouraged the indulgence of desire as a path towards discovering the Surrealist threshold of the sublime.  Clemmer mustered the courage to present himself at Dali’s oasis – without invitation, emboldened and encouraged by the assurance of the local townspeople that the maestro accepted unannounced visitors and was rumored to intuitively recognize talent with a glance from his transfixed eyes.


Dali and Ginesta.

Responding to three nervous knocks, Dalí opened the door, examined the young photographer and told him to return that evening at 8:00.  Clemmer had also been advised to be punctual.  He therefore had to endure a torrential downpour during his travel, only to be instructed by Dalí to arrive at noon the following day – with a beautiful girl.


Clemmer scoured the neighboring seaside town of Cadaqués, eventually finding a pretty German tourist who agreed to be pried from the clutches of her boyfriend for a day – to become Dalí’s muse. Upon arrival, Dali named her Ginesta and she was immediately incarnated into a series of tableaux vivants. For their photo shoot that day Dalí, blended his love of mythology with the secret forces of magical ritual, creating a theme based upon the principles of levitation.

Dalí had Ginesta suspended upside-down, dangling from a balcony while pouring 80 kilos of chickpeas that would bounce around her, simulating atomic repulsion. During the photo shoot, the mayor of Cadaqués arrived unexpectedly and was casually handed the ropes – unaware a naked model dangled precariously at the other end.

Dalí, dressed as master alchemist Hermes Trismegestus, suspended a model in a special parachute material given to him by the US Air Force, distorting her natural form as he pulled her towards him. Dalí subsequently invited Clemmer back, to explore themes of gender confrontation and the hermaphroditic. Their continued collaboration strengthened a bond of friendship that would last two decades.

Clemmer introduced Dali to the independent Paris producer Claude Joudioux, who, through A.P.E.C. Studios, had produced Chris Marker’s La Jetée and Roman Polanski’s Le Gros et Le Maigre while working on projects with Alain Resnais. Joudioux commissioned Dalí to direct his first solo film in 1964, Le Divin Dalí.


Jean Clemmer was hired to serve as the still photographer on *Le Divin Dali.  For this project, he borrowed Chris Marker’s 24mm Pentax camera – the one that was used to capture the still photography that was used in the making of La Jetée. Clemmer’s photographs portrayed Dalí creating a scene set upon tiers of glass, with nude models appearing to be in states of levitation as though they were ascending into heaven.

Dalí proclaimed to the cinema magazines at the time, that the film would symbolize “cannibalism and angelicism” – themes that had been central to the artist’s career. The film was to unveil Dali’s familiar use of religious symbolism in its archetypal role, linking the tradition of classical Greece to the familiar Western tradition of the sacred. Le Divin Dalí  deciphered what had riddled many in the nexus of Dalí’s‘s symbolic mystery. Sadly, the only known print of Le Divin Dalí was destroyed in a studio fire that year (1964), soon after it was shot.

In 1968, Clemmer continued his collaborative work with Dalí, photographing the elusive Amanda Lear in a spread for the British Daily Telegraph, in a feature that included a select group of Spanish-born designers such as Paco Rabanne.


Dali had made it a tradition to ally himself with the most astute catalysts of fashion. In the 1930’s, he closely collaborated with Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel, developing collections and costumes for the ballet. In the 1940’s, the designer Adrian had used Dalí’s textiles for gowns that personified the clean architectural lines of the era. In the 1950’s Dalí collaborated with Christian Dior, developing futuristic apparel with the “New Look’s” detonator as well as those intended as costumes for society balls.



With the arrival of the 1960’s, Dalí intuitively knew whom he would anoint as the next prophet of fashion. The defining moment of that decade was the moon landing and the world celebrated the massive leap for mankind that this event engendered. Rabanne focused upon materials and design iconography associated with space exploration. Mankind now had the freedom to surpass the confines of the planet, inspiring a new generation to break with all earthly conformity.  The arrival of the birth control pill served to further encourage this emerging life perspective, celebrating an unrestrained lifestyle that revived the pre-Christian era in all its Bacchanalian splendor – with irreverent Rock ‘n Roll music serving as the soundtrack.


Paco Rabanne, the son of a seamstress for Balanciaga, who had studied architecture at the École Des Beaux Arts in Paris infused the moon landing’s impact into the exploration of both crafts. Rabanne opened his fashion house in 1966, creating garments that extolled the visual components of what would soon become known as the 60’s esthetic. His confluence of backgrounds in tailoring and industrial construction led to Rabanne’s design of his first collection of disposable paper dresses. Paco Rabanne encapsulated the spirit of this era, utilizing the materials of space exploration that included rhoidoid, chain mail and phosphorescent plastic disks, aluminum, rubber, and plastic sheeting.  These materials were sculpted into seductive works that highlighted the provocative aspects of the body and its sinuous contours of exposed flesh.


Rabanne’s memes of space age futurism were embedded into history with his iconic costumes for Jane Fonda in Barbarella, as well as the gold-paneled dress he created for Francoise Hardy – which was constructed with the use of pliers. Rabanne brought sensuality into the future, replacing anxiety (associated with technology’s vast changes) with a seduction that compelled his audience to never look back.  Dalí – whose work focused on continuing the archetypal tradition of the gods and goddesses of classical Greece recognized Rabanne’s creations the ideal dress code of their futuristic avatars.


Both Dalí and Clemmer would develop close collaborative relationships with Paco Rabanne, culminating in their use of his sculpted pieces. Dalí intuitively recognized Rabanne as one of the most important catalysts in fashion, referring to him as “the second greatest Spanish genius.”  Rabanne designed a red zippered mandarin jacket that Dali often wore as a uniform of sorts – as attire for his various happenings, film projects, and television appearances.  For these events Dalí’s muses including Amanda Lear, Donyale Luna and  Elsa Peretti would often be seen in Rabanne-designed apparel.


While Dali was able to hoist Rabanne into the archetypal dialogue of the era, Clemmer became his expressive symbiotic equal. Clemmer’s works focused upon the erotic, prophetically seeking to use the medium of photography to serve as an essential role in the paradigm shift that would become known as the sexual revolution.  The Paris editor Pierre Belfond approached Clemmer in 1968, to produce a book of nudes. Clemmer immediately chose Rabanne as the clothing designer, meticulously styling each shoot.  This images would became a symbiosis of the nude female, with Rabanne’s futuristic adornment as sculpture. The book, Nues, would be banned in parts of France and would attract even more attention for Clemmer’s choice of models – which formed a rich repertoire of multi-racial ethnicity.


In 1970 Clemmer received the Canon award. Four years later, Dali – who had always been fascinated with the idea of death – asked Clemmer to “please photograph me as an apparition.” Clemmer began creating the Metamorphosis  series that pressed transparencies together,  rendering a collage like effect.  The metamorphosis series focused on female nudes as a blank canvas to incorporate imagery that ranged from Dalí’s persona – to the architecture of his newly consecrated Theater Museum in his hometown of Figueres – to their tableaux vivants at Port Lligat .


The most renowned Metamorphosis expression utilized Dali’s painting Tuna Fishing (Homage to Meissonier), painted between 1966 and 1967.  One of the highlights of this show portrays the work of Clemmer Dali and Rabanne as a cumulative trinity. This Metamophosis features one of Clemmers models from the Nues series wearing a Paco Rabanne creation, with a section of Dali’s painting superimposed. The work is signed by all three.


Clemmer, Dali and Rabanne formed a trinity of influence that would come to define some of he most revolutionary signals that transformed the cultural landscape of the 1960’s.  Dali passed away in 1989, followed by Clemmer in 2001 while Rabanne now concentrates on his drawings that Dalí had encouraged him to continue pursuing. Clemmer’s niece, the sculptor Hélène Clemmer Heidsieck, inherited the Jean Clemmer Estate estate and, passionately executes its archive with her husband, Yann Heidsieck.


Laura Whitcomb is a contributing writer for by such and such, and is also the author of the book, “Dali : The Paradox of Fashion.”