For Jean-Paul Goude, the days of false modesty are over: The extravagant French illustrator, photographer and ad man _ best known internationally for his TV spots for Chanel's Egoiste and Coco perfumes _ says he now finally considers himself an artist.
A new retrospective at Paris' Arts Decoratifs museum shores up that conclusion. With hundreds of drawings, sketches, photo collages, videos and installations that include a life-size steam engine made of wood, "Goudemalion" traces the evolution of his exuberant style over the past six decades.
The show plunges visitors into Goude's very particular creative universe which _ peopled with long, lean uber-women _ is no less compelling than those of many who have long worn the mantle of "artist."
"Before, I was falsely modest, (always saying) 'I'm but a humble artisan' and so-forth in hope that everyone would say, 'No, no, no. You're an artist,'" Goude told reporters in an interview ahead of the exhibition's inauguration Friday. "Now, I'm sick of waiting, and I proclaim it myself."
The exhibit "is a way of proving to people that the work I do is not just about advertising. It's a body of work that was nourished, in a way, by ads," he said. "When you do an ad campaign, you have big budgets you wouldn't have otherwise, and I've taken advantage of that throughout my career."
One of the side-effects of Goude's longtime emphasis on commercial work is that although his name might not ring a bell, much of his work is instantly iconic. Any visitor to Paris is bound to recall the wacky, sexy, extravagant posters for the Galeries Lafayette department store that have plastered the metro here for over a decade.
And who could forget the image of Grace Jones, wrapped in strategically placed bands and balancing on one leg, from the cover of her 1990 album, "Island Life"? And what about the perfume commercials with the building-full of hysterical beauties maniacally opening and slamming French doors as they shout "egoiste," or the feather-clad Vanessa Paradis swinging on her birdcage perch?
Born in 1940 to a French father and American mother who had once been a moderately well-known dancer on Broadway, Goude was raised on a steady diet of Hollywood musicals _ and those movies' sunny optimism and kitschy aesthetic are still palpable in his work today.
The retrospective opens with some promising childhood doodlings, including watercolors of cowboys and Indians that Goude painted at age 7 and some racier teenage sketches that already hinted at one of Goude's most enduring theme: the mixing and matching of cultures, ethnicities and identities.
Commissioned by then-President Francois Mitterrand to re-imagine the 1989 military parade commemorating the bicentennial of the French revolution, Goude delivered a fetching but motley crew made up of battalions of Chinese break dancers, Soviet revolutionary guards, headscarf clad North African women spinning on giant mechanized ballgowns and the Florida A&M marching band. (The life-size locomotive which is the exhibition's centerpiece was a prop in the parade.)
Photos from Goude's New York years _ he was the artistic director of Esquire magazine from 1969-1982 _ celebrate the ethnic diversity of the city, where blacks, Hispanics and whites of Irish and Italian descent came together in mixed-up urban tribes.
Then there are Goude's recurring rifts on shifting races or genders, like the 1982 photo of Grace Jones with milky white skin and a shock of orange hair, or the 2008 collage of supermodel Laetitia Casta as a man, complete with a platinum crewcut and convincing five o'clock shadow.
Though you don't have to dig too deep to hit on the political implications of such images, Goude insists his work is purely aesthetic, focusing exclusively on "beauty, on balance and on shapes.
"Politics can prevent me from doing my work, but my work is not political," he insisted.
Goude added he was "stunned" that some have interpreted his work as racist. Such critics, he said, "turn everything inside-out and tear everything apart" to support their thesis. "It's really terrible for me."
While it may be hard to see how Goude's exuberant celebrations of multiculturalism could come off as racist, the hypothesis that he might have a wee issue with women is an easier case to make: Almost none of Goude's muses _ an impressive series of drop-dead gorgeous women including Jones, a North African beauty, and his current wife, the so-called Queen of Seoul _ escape a photo session un-retouched.
Like a modern-day Pygmalion, Goude reworks the women till their perfection becomes supernatural. Goude calls it his "French correction": He says he aims to "sublimate" his muses by elongating their already impossibly svelte legs and necks, downsizing heads, hands and feet and bestowing on them what he describes in one sketch as a "horse's posterior."
Early on in his career, Goude relied on low-tech props like 30-centimeter platform shoes hidden beneath flowing skirts, but soon he took to cutting up his negatives and taping them back together again to give the illusion of elongated perfection. In the digital age, he uses Photoshop to tinker with his photos.
Goude takes umbrage with any suggestion that his drive to improve his models came from any place darker than pure love and admiration.
"If I fall in love, but the person doesn't take care of her appearance, or she says silly things, I'll try to help her," said Goude. The same goes for her image. A tweak here, a nip there, and Goude catapults his muses into the realm of almost alien perfection.
"I'm still enthralled by women," Goude said. "I don't want to change them. I want to make it so they are loved by others."
"Goudemalion" runs at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs through March 18.