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Currently on show in Paris for the first time, 19 of Charlotte Rampling’s paintings can be seen at the Musee d’Art Moderne de Paris (MAM) until September 10th as part of the “Mondes parallèles” collective exhibition
Some 25 years ago, the renowned and singular British actress, Charlotte Rampling, had an irresistible and overwhelming urge to paint. Her paintings remained for years unsigned, intensely private, and her closely guarded secret.
It was a tortuous progression of learning what was right, which colors would satisfy her inner urge to put her feelings onto the 45cms x 50cms fiberboard panels she used. Her method of painting was almost primitive: she used her thumb and the flat of her hand, rubbing and scratching the surface of the canvas, the colors quickly becoming darker and more sombre. She said that her paintings, “came out of the darkness, out of my darkness.” Her painting has become an obsession, the silhouettes appearing from the darkness like ghostly apparitions.
Her paintings are visceral — she has no plan. She believes that the paintings are psychological, emanating from the mystery within her, that manipulating the paints will help free the genie.
The morning she started to paint for the first time, she had been watching her then husband, the musician Jean-Michel Jarre, paint an abstract watercolor, and had simply thought that she too would like to do something with her hands, never imagining that the act of painting would so quickly subsume her, that her, ‘darkness,’would find a visible expression.
Part of her darkness came, no doubt, from the suicide of her sister Sarah at the age of 23. Both Rampling and her father hid the cause of Sarah’s death from her mother. It is more than possible that film producers sensed this hidden darkness in Rampling and chose her for multidimensional, grave, sometimes decadent roles.
In 1969, Rampling starred in a Visconti film, The Damned, set in 1930s Germany, loosely based on the Krupp steel industrialists and their involvement with the Nazis. The film opened to international acclaim but its explicit sexual themes of homosexuality, pedophilia, rape and incest, caused contention. Again in 1974, Rampling starred with Dirk Bogarde in the film, The Night Porter, one of the most controversial films of the time, where Rampling plays a survivor from a concentration camp who, unexpectedly in the 1950s, meets her SS officer who is now working as a night porter in Vienna, and their sadomasochist affair continues. Rampling, born in 1946, was an iconic product of the Swinging Sixties. She began her career as a model in London but soon moved onto classic 60ss films playing Meredith in Georgy Girl in 1966. Even earlier as a mere 14 year old, Rampling performed with her sister Sarah in their own cabaret act. It was a foretaste of things to come.
Rampling’s father was a British army officer and consequently she spent many of her formative years in Gibraltar, France and Spain. Back in Britain, Rampling’s distinctive looks were soon recognized by a casting agent and she never looked back. Rampling could easily have made her career in the UK but was sought after by Italian directors, including Gianfranco Mingozzi and Luchino Visconti. She was never to be pinned down in predictable roles, and acted in diverse productions, from TV series including The Avengers, and opposite Yul Brynner in the adventure film The Long Duel, to playing Anne Boleyn in the costume drama Henry VIII and His Six Wives. Rampling’s talent was soon in demand both in the UK, USA and in Europe and it seemed almost destined that Europe would win out when she fell in love and married the French composer Jean-Michel Jarre, and made her home in France in 1978.
Fluent in French, it was inevitable that Rampling would be in demand from French directors and here again, Rampling chose challenging roles, refusing to be typecast and never opting for the easy or orthodox. Rampling constantly provoked both herself and her audience. Her unusual beauty, the sharp planes of her face, the long slim body, still attracted long after her Dolly Bird days. In 1974, she posed nude in Playboy photographed by Helmut Newton. In 2009, Rampling posed nude once more in front of the Mona Lisa. Beautifully dressed, she appeared on the covers of Vogue, Interview and Elle magazines. More recently in 2016, with actress Tilda Swinton, Rampling and Swinton appeared at MOMA in Paris as human easels, holding and interacting with portraits and landscapes by celebrated photographers such as Richard Avedon, Brassai and Irving Penn. This cerebral, thought-provoking exposition directed by Olivier Saillard, the director of the Palais Galliera, was the perfect vehicle for Rampling and Swinton’s unique looks and personas.
Rampling has made over 110 films, partnering with an impressive list of male co-stars including Sean Connery, Peter O’Toole and Paul Newman. These movies were as diverse as Cleanskin, a terrorist thriller; The Mill and The Cross, in which she plays a nun; Street Dance; and Night Train to Lisbon. In 2015, Rampling starred opposite Tom Courtney in the poignant film 45 Years, which told the story of a couple about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when Rampling discovers the truth about her husband’s previous lover, a truth so painful and bitter that it shatters all her illusions about their marriage. The film was screened at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. Courtney won the Silver Bear for the Best Actor and Rampling the Silver Bear for the Best Actress. This was only one of many awards Rampling has been awarded over her long and illustrious career. Not content with cinema roles, Rampling embraced television with an unerring instinct for quality, starring in the hugely successful British series Broadchurch; the BBC drama London Joy, and as Dr Evelyn Vogel in Dexter, and the ever classic Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (1998).
Rampling has received a number of honors and awards. She was made an OBE in 2000 for her services to the arts; she received an Honorary Cesar in 2001; France’s Legion d’Honneur in 2002; a Lifetime Achievement Award from the European Film Awards in 2015. She was awarded the 2017 Volpi Cup for best actress at the 74th Venice International Film Festival.
In 2002 Rampling recorded “Comme une Femme,” and in 2022, “A tes reves. T’es toi quand tu peins.” And if you can sing, then why not write as well? In 2015, Rampling released her biography, Qui je suis, which she wrote in French, then released the translation in English, Who I am, in 2017.
Rampling has never deliberately courted controversy, but it has found her nevertheless. Her first marriage to New Zealand actor Bryan Southcombe was in 1972. She shared an apartment with Southcombe and Randall Lawrence, a male model. The inevitable “ménage à trois” label was used liberally by the press. They divorced in 1976 and two years later Rampling married the hugely successful French composer Jean-Michel Jarre. Tabloid stories of Jarre’s affairs with other women proved too demeaning for Rampling and the marriage was dissolved in 1997, their divorce finalized in 2002. Rampling’s last partner was the French journalist Jean-Noel Tassez, who died in 2015. Rampling spoke out in 2016 about the efforts to boycott that year’s Oscar ceremonies over a lack of “racial diversity,” amongst nominees who were “racist to whites.” She later apologized that her comments had been misinterpreted.
Rampling has admitted that she doesn’t make films to entertain people, that she chooses roles to challenge herself, to break through her own barriers.
In her apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Rampling continues to delve unsparingly, obsessively, into her subconscious, trying to drag out the darkness and mystery within her, not by the use of words or action, but in a primal use of the medium of paint. Charlotte Rampling’s painted reliefs.
Mondes parallèles, until September 10, 2023
Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris (MAM)
11 Avenue du Président Wilson, 16th
Tel: +33 1 53 67 40 00
Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm
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Lead photo credit : Italian movie Sequestro di persona (1968). Wikimedia commons