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Jungle Red and the Divine Countess

The development of photography as a fine arts medium has at times been determined by a powerful woman subject. This trend is exemplified by Francine Hunter/Jungle Red Studios an exhibition of photographs of Francine Hunter aka Jungle Red at Camera Oscura (San Casciano dei Bagni, Italy) and La Divine Comtesse, an exhibition of photographs of the Countess of Castiglione at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Paradoxically, both women are intensely private (despite a penchant for exhibitionism before the camera) and neither created her body of work for public consumption. In the case of Francine Hunter, the photographs have been sitting in boxes for decades and the Camera Oscura exhibition represents a first opportunity to view her choice work. After Castiglione’s death in 1899, most of her photographs were acquired by friend and biographer Robert de Montesquiou and only in 1975 did the Metropolitan Museum purchase 275 of the 400 known works.

Francine Hunter McGivern, Only the Brave Stay Blonde, 1980, costume by Jungle Red, boots designed by Araken Oliviera and Berghard Schmidt, photographed by Michele Singer Reiner. | Edouard Delessert (?), L’Ermite de Passy (The Hermit of Passy), 1863(?), photographic print retouched with charcoal and watercolor, 31.5 x 23 inches.

Francine Hunter has been photographed by such distinguished photographers as Nan Goldin, Kevin Higgins, Thomas Höpker, Elliot Irwit, and Laurie Simmons. The Countess of Castiglione was photographed by court photographer Pierre Louis Pierson. In both cases, however, it was the subject who concieved and orchestrated her tableaux. Hunter and Castiglione share a fascination with role playing and art direction, having been photographed in such diverse guises as Cleopatra, a falcon huntress, the Queen of Etruria, a cloistered nun, and a Japanese geisha. Hunter collaborated with New York designer Ken Angelico to develop highly inventive and compelling costumes and wigs. The Countess of Castiglione worked with Madame Roger, dressmaker to the Empress, to create such memorable costumes as the Queen of Hearts which commanded the admiration of Napoleon III. Both artists share a a marked interest in the use of fetishistic eroticism to express sexual power. Both women chose the medium of photography as it affords them greater control over the use of their bodies than traditionaly male dominated genres like easel painting. In so doing, Hunter and Castiglione evoke their own myths and legends.

Venues to see work of the Countess of Castiglione and Francine Hunter in October 2000:

La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione curated by Pierre Apraxine from September 19 through December 31, 2000 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, The Howard Gilman Gallery, Second Floor.

Francine Hunter/Jungle Red Studios curated by Cornelia Lauf from October 28 through November 31, 2000 at Camera Oscura, San Casciano dei Bagni, Italy.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2000.

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