Eye of the Beholder

We’re in Basel, Switzerland for the annual Art Basel exhibition, specifically to see the works of three, female photographers who are showing at La Prairie’s Pavilion in the Collector’s Lounge. Daniela Droz, Namsa Leuba and Senta Simond, are all Swiss, and all three happen to be graduates of Switzerland’s prestigious Lausanne University of Art and Design (ECAL). The three women have been chosen to interpret the theme of “Eyes in Focus” for this year’s showcase. “In making the deliberate choice to work with female artists, we also pay homage to the inimitable quality of the female gaze, interpreted by the perspective of women themselves,” says Greg Prodromides, the chief marketing officer of La Prairie.

But how did a luxury skincare brand come to be involved with art in the first place? For that, you have to look further back at La Prairie’s history emerging as a brand that sprang forth from the famous Clinique La Prairie in Montreux, Switzerland, and fast became one of the leaders in skin science research, thanks to its pioneering founder Dr Paul Niehans. “La Prairie is about the use of Swiss proprietary science and our research in precious ingredients. It is also about the duality of art and science,” says Prodromides.

The La Prairie Pavilion at Art Basel in Basel 2019, featured the works of three, female photographers Daniela Droz, Namsa Leuba and Senta Simond. Image courtesy of La Prairie.

For example, the signature cobalt blue of La Prairie, seen in its packaging of its cult Skin Caviar range, was inspired by the bold hue often used in the sculptures of artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Patrick Rasquinet, the CEO of La Prairie, sees the brand’s involvement in art as a natural extension. “From the start there was some inspiration for art. The design of La Prairie’s packaging is inspired by the Bauhaus movement. And it’s also very Swiss, in terms of its purity and precision. We also use a special font, Helvetica, that is very artistic, as it gives focus to the content. Back in the late ’80s we were the first skin brand to launch [our products] in blue and in glass,” says Rasquinet. In fact de Saint Phalle worked together with the La Prairie team at the time to create the brand’s signature colour. Coincidentally the luxurious Dolder Grand hotel that we are interviewing Rasquinet in has a de Saint Phalle statue displayed in a courtyard — something that is likely not a coincidence. La Prairie’s decisions seem very considered and everything, from its packaging to its formulation, is an art. “We call it the art of formulation, because there is a perfect fusion between science and art, in the sense that we provide to the clients the most exquisite sensorial experience,” explains Rasquinet.

The decision to partner with Art Basel was also a natural one, again due to the shared Swiss heritage, and the discerning crowd both brands tended to attract. “We found the most, natural fit would be Art Basel because they are Swiss like us, and as the largest contemporary art fair they also share the quality of audacity,” says Rasquinet. He points us to the Art Basel’s jaw-dropping Unlimited exhibition, which we toured the day prior to our interview, that showcases some of the most daring, innovative and thought-provoking modern art in one location.

Photographers Senta Simond, Daniela Droz and Namsa Leuba at the La Prairie Pavilion in Art Basel in Basel 2019. Image courtesy of La Prairie.

La Prairie is collaborating for the third time with Art Basel, and though in the past they have worked with known names like Swiss architect Mario Botta and South Korean artist Chul-Hyun Ahn, the emerging artists chosen by the brand this year all happened to be from ECAL. Though this was somewhat a coincidence, the brand does looks at specific criteria when selecting an artist. “The most important criteria is to have an artist who understands the values of La Prairie, and where there is some kind of fit between the theme selected and the art they produced,” says Rasquinet. “We give them carte blanche. We believe when they have total creative freedom they are at their best,” he says.

This year the works produced by each artist are strikingly different, with each artist possessing their own unique style and visual language. In fact the three artists don’t find all that many similarities between their work and their respective approaches. “Each work is totally different. We were given the same theme but we have a different approach and different sensitivity as well,” says Leuba.

The half-Swiss and half-Guinean artist, who is based in Tahiti, presented black and white portraits of a female subject, framed in coloured frames, that reference La Prairie’s signature cobalt blue. “The starting point of my work was what persists in us, in time, and in life. I wanted to evoke through my pictures, emotion, time and experience. I was inspired by the blue of La Prairie and the graphic element is the same colours that we see. It was also inspired by my double heritage as I am Swiss and Guinean,” explains Leuba. “With the coloured frames, I wanted to show what remains in our mind when we close our eyes and we still see what we saw before… the colours that we are reliving,” she adds.

The work “Hitiata” by photographer Namsa Leuba in the “Eyes in Focus” exhibition by La Prairie at Art Basel in Basel 2019. Image courtesy of La Prairie.

For Simond, the casting of non-professional subjects in her naturalistic, raw portraits takes time as she describes herself as being rather obsessive about the process. “It was interesting that La Prairie chose me for this project as I’m a photographer focussing on natural beauty. It’s part of my practice to do a semi-documentary type image of women with no artifice in it,” she says. “I want to show a form of realness. I want to avoid the artificial processes of beautifying a person, and what seems to be an increasingly narrow idea of what a beautiful woman looks like. I want to make ‘raw’ images of people more normal. The fact that viewers think my images are something different illustrates how affected the images we normally produce have become — or possibly always were,” says Simond, who by her own admission embraces the awkwardness of working with non-professional subjects who sometimes have to be shot several times before she gets the right images.

Senta Simond’s portrait “Emma”, part of La Prairie’s “Eyes in Focus” exhibition at Art Basel in Basel 2019. Image courtesy of La Prairie.

And while the first two photographers chose to take portraits of human subjects, the third photographer, Droz, went in her own direction. “I was trying to find the idea that would allow me to convey the message that La Prairie wanted me to convey without losing the nature of my work which was more abstracted and figurative. And so I came up with the idea of the mirror in order to incorporate the idea of the eye and the gaze,” says Droz.

The work “”Resonances 2” by photographer Daniela Droz in the “Eyes in Focus” exhibition by La Prairie at Art Basel in Basel 2019 used mirrors to reflect the gaze back onto the artwork. Image courtesy of La Prairie.

Her work is a laborious process. “I did more technical experimentation this time because I used a mirror. It was not about printing something on the mirror, but rather the pictures were printed on very thin film and the film was applied on the mirror and this overlapping gave more depth to the picture,” says Droz, whose work invited the gaze of the viewers themselves to be reflected in it and thus become part of the artwork. “I did not want to introduce the actual face of the person so that was the challenge: To use the eyes to actually reflect the eyes of the people looking at my work,” says Droz.

And from the rich and diverse perspectives of the three artists, one thing was abundantly clear. There is no such thing as one interpretation of the female gaze. Artist Droz sums it up best. “They always speak about the woman’s gaze. We are three different artists and we interpreted the woman’s gaze in three, different ways. So there is no one woman’s gaze, but there are as many women’s gazes as there are women (or men),” she quips.