PARIS (AP) — Pierre et Gilles may have timid smiles.
But there's nothing timid about the famed French photographer duo's latest work: a blowup of Algerian-born former prostitute Zahia Dehar made over as Marie Antoinette, provocatively clutching her stomach and holding a virginal rose.
She's the self-described escort who made headlines after accusing a top French footballer of flying her to Munich as a birthday present to himself in 2009 when she was under 18. (The soccer player in question, Franck Ribery, has since been acquitted of soliciting sex with an underage prostitute.)
Pushing the boundaries is typical of the French partners in love and art, Pierre Commoy and Gilles Blanchard. They have established a worldwide reputation for shock ever since their stylized, hand-painted homoerotic photos first appeared nearly 40 years ago.
They call the provocation "a bit unconscious."
"We're like this naturally. It can disturb, but artists are made for that. Shaking things up to make people reflect," Blanchard, the more talkative of the two, told The Associated Press in an interview.
Today, their iconic images of stars such as Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Mick Jagger and Catherine Deneuve appear alongside images of naked gay porn stars in glittering and fantastical scenes on coffee tables around the world.
But their art goes beyond famous faces.
As with the Dehar photo, they always try to challenge prejudice over racial and social minorities — here, by using the former sex-worker-turned-fashion designer from a former French colony as the legendary French queen.
Their takes on racism, religion and sexuality include an illustration of a loin-clothed Jesus writhing on the cross and Adam and Eve in a pornographic pose.
Yet in person they are painfully introverted and rarely do interviews — a fitting paradox for artists who love contradiction.
Most recently, the pair drew attention on the day France's parliament legalized gay marriage in 2013, when their self-portrait as newlyweds, below a photo of a camp and grinning President Francois Hollande, covered the front page of France's leading leftwing daily "Liberation."
The cover, which is now a collectors' item, was seen to lighten the atmosphere — with a much-needed touch of irony — of the angry debate over gay marriage that bruised and divided France and saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets in protest.
"It was ever so incredibly serious in France. The level of debate became so heavy, troublesome, disturbing, that we said we need to puncture the atmosphere — bring it to a place that's more humorous, entertaining," says Blanchard.
"In other countries like England, (gay marriage) passed a lot more quickly, and simply. It shocked and surprised me. But it means something. It means that something that was hidden inside people came out. It's for this that we're even more radical."
While less well-known in the U.S. than the British art duo Gilbert and George, who are also gay lovers, Pierre et Gilles found fame in America with their major retrospective exhibition in New York's New gallery in 2000, and went on to reach a new level of notoriety in 2012 with their international exhibit "Vive la France."
The exhibit poster, a homoerotic photo of a nude black, Arab and white footballer — meant to mirror diversity in French society and evoke the tricolor flag — caused an outcry in socially conservative Austria when it was plastered around Vienna.
Eventually the models' genitals were censored out.
"In Vienna they are fairly open about nudity and the body," says Blanchard, reflectively. "If it had been a beautiful naked blond young man next to a blue sky it perhaps might not have caused problems."
Thomas Adamson can be followed at http://Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP