The scrappy French actress Béatrice Dalle was once quoted as saying that her sex appeal blossomed the moment she "decided to be beautiful." In much the same way, Anh Duong, the New York-based painter, model, actress and ubiquitous party-page presence in magazines such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and W, paints self-portraits that expose the layers of self-examination, determination and character that go into creating a famous "jolie-laide" celebrity.
Born in 1960 in Bordeaux to a Spanish mother and a Vietnamese father, Duong studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and danced with the Franchetti Academy of Classical Dance before she moved to New York City to work as a model. During the late 1980s and into the 90s, she posed for prestigious fashion photographers such as Michel Comte, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel and Deborah Turbeville, as well as serving as muse to designers Donna Karan, Christian Lacroix, John Galliano and Diane von Furstenberg. She also appeared in films, including the Sapphic psychodrama High Art (1998), the art-world psychodrama I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and the saccharine melodrama Scent of a Woman (1992).
Duong's first solo exhibition was with New York's Sperone Westwater gallery in 1990. Since 2000, she has been represented by the Tony Shafrazi Gallery.
Her high-profile relationships with art-world figures such as artist Julian Schnabel and Phillips auctioneer Simon de Pury have earned her a dubious reputation as a socialite. Yet she paints herself in unflattering postures, dressed in self-mocking garb such as a kinky French maid's uniform or an oversized NYC T-shirt. After having played the role of the swan on the social scene and modeling rare, beautiful clothes, her paintings expose an unexpected, unglamorous, intimate relationship with her body.
In spite of the poetic and charismatic body of work that Duong has produced, the critical response to her art has been largely dismissive. Executed using oil paint on unprimed canvas, her brushy self-portraits have been called narcissistic and characterized as sophomoric emulations of Francesco Clemente or Egon Schiele. But Duong's paintings should be viewed as contributions to a different genre -- they belong alongside the work of women such as Dora Maar, Anaïs Nin and Frida Kahlo, artists who compellingly exposed interior worlds whose beauty, intelligence and character inspired creativity, both in themselves and in others.
An exhibition of Duong's new still lifes was on view Mar. 16-May 13, 2005, at the Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont in Paris.
Ana Finel Honigman: When and why did you start painting?
Anh Duong: I have been painting as far back as I can remember. I was a very shy child, but a successful drawing would win me a lot of attention and I soon realized that art could be a great way for me to interact with the outside world. As a child, it was a great way to please and communicate and since then I have regarded my paintings as my way of interacting with others. I tried a few different careers -- all art-related to a certain extent. I have been a dancer, an actor and a model, until fashion brought me back to my first love, painting.
AFH: Do you feel fashion is still connected to your work?
AD: No. Fashion is just one of the many things that has influenced my work through my direct connection to it. I have a personal love for fashion but I am not especially interested in the dialogue between fashion and art. That has never been a conflict or an interesting subject to me. So, no, I wouldn't say that fashion is connected to my art. I wouldn't grant fashion so much importance.
AFH: What importance does it have?
AD: The importance of not being important.
AFH: How did fashion reconnect you with painting?
AD: I came to New York in 1988 to do a Christian Lacroix fashion show. I was one of his muses at the time. While I was in New York, I met Julian Schnabel. We fell in love. Suddenly, I landed in the heart of the art world, and it was a booming place in the middle of the 80s. In those years, there were so many opportunities offered to artists and the world was so hungry for art. It was in this high-energy context that I reconnected with my love of art and gave my talent the attention it deserved.
AFH: So it was through the art world that you rediscovered your love of art?
AD: Until I encountered the art world as it was in the 80s, I never thought I could be paid for my art. I never thought of it as a career. I had always been painting and art was so close to me that I almost dismissed it. I had my first show at the Sperone Westwater gallery in 1991, two years after I started painting seriously.
AFH: Has being affiliated with fashion affected your reputation as an artist or influenced the critical response your work has received in the art press?
AD: I should hope not and, if so, it has also brought me attention because I was already in the press, and there are moments when that attention may have been a challenge, where I felt I had to work harder because I didn't want my fashion to overshadow my art. Fashion and art have always had a tense relationship. I don't know the reasons. Maybe because art has a love affair with all things dark and tragic. The image of the artist is usually as a tormented man with a drinking problem. Is the world really ready to see art coming from a different place, such as a woman in a beautiful dress?
AFH: Could that tension just be attributed to jealousy, since fashion is such a glamorous industry and art is comparatively nerdy?
AD: Being in the public eye will always make you a target for all kinds of opinions. People have a love/hate relationship with fame. Warhol had to die to get the respect he deserved. He was attacked for his cult of celebrity, yet now he is revered as a genius for the same things he was reviled for when he was alive.
AFH: Do you think having rather high-profile relationships with other art-world figures has hurt your credibility as an artist?
AD: I find that a deeply boring and dated dilemma, but I can understand the attachment the public has with the myth of the artist/muse relationship. It makes a great story -- such as the tormented relationship between Frida and Diego.
AFH: Is there still a tendency for people to want to imagine that there is an artist and a muse, instead of two equally talented artists in a relationship?
AD: Women have the capacity to be both artist and muse. Independently of their talent as an artist, they can equally have the talent to inspire that shouldn't work against them but be a plus, not a threat. I find a Frida Kahlo / Lee Miller / Tamara de Lempicka-type figure much more interesting than a Lee Krasner style of woman artist. Those women combined their art and their personality. None of them modeled themselves after male artists. They are really women artists and that is something to celebrate and find very attractive.
AFH: Do you consider yourself in that group?
AD: I love the fact that I can inspire and be inspired. Those elements seamlessly go together in my life.
AFH: Did your experience as a model influence your decision to predominantly paint self-portraits?
AD: As a model and a dancer, I was a vehicle that other people could use to create their vision, yet as an artist, I am able to look at myself through my own eyes. Being a model definitely inspires a strong sense of self-consciousness.
AFH: I would think that level of constant scrutiny and self-consciousness might be inhibiting for some people. Do you consider yourself a shy person?
AD: Painting has been the only place where I would lose my vanity and any desire to please the demands of beauty. I know how I look on the glossy paper, but on the canvas I feel comfortable exposing myself under unflattering lights. I am not trying to be provocative, because there is no sense of propriety I am trying to adhere to. In painting, the only priority is that the painting be beautiful. The subject does not have to be beautiful too.
AFH: Why paint flowers?
AD: I wanted to stay away from the human figure for a while and flowers seemed like the next step since I have always been drawn to their mortality. They are already dead, yet they are the ultimate representation of beauty. When I started these paintings, I was mourning a relationship and starting a new one, so I was interested in exploring how beauty flirts with death and I wanted to capture the moment right before the end. In the process of exploring the crystallization of beauty before it fades, I started to feel that these portraits of flowers might be one of my most intimate self-portraits. The flower is here to say "I love you," yet she is also there the day you die.
AFH: Haven't you started working in a more permanent medium?
AD: Yes. I am now I am preparing sculptures in bronze. I saw the Matisse and Picasso show in Paris, and as I was walking through the rooms I saw a Matisse quote, "I am not a sculptor, I am a painter that sculpts." After reading that, I felt Matisse was giving me permission to try this new medium. Sculpture has intrigued me for ages but after reading that I knew it was the time to start casting my self-portraits in bronze.
AFH: In your more direct self-portraits, you paint yourself in extremely intimate poses. Do you think of yourself as alone in your painting?
AD: My paintings are an intimate dialogue between me and myself where everything is said that would be said in private, yet in the end it is all exposed bare on the wall to be seen by everyone. We forget Velázquez was one of the greatest artists of all time, while he was living at the court.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.