Gérard Bertrand's work brims with rich, intellectual references. Writers, philosophers, artists, jazz musicians and film directors are all gathered together in his digital collages. It's as if these meticulous sepia photographs are a visual manifestation of his imaginary, ideal dinner party, bringing together the cultural luminaries whom he most admires.
Affable and softly spoken, Bertrand is dressed head-to-toe in black, with a discreet pair of glasses framing his eyes, when I arrive at his flat with adjoined atelier in Anjou, one of France's wine-growing regions. As he shows me his various portfolios, it's evident that his artistic journey has been a colourful one. He enrolled at the Beaux-Arts of Angers in 1980 to study engraving, nurturing an interest in assembling figures such as Max Ernst and Roland Topor in fanciful situations. One of his exquisite engravings shows Vassili Kandinsky painting an abstract picture of his model, a giant fish, in his atelier. Years later, Bertrand scanned the engraving onto his computer, followed by a photograph of Kafka, for his most recent series, entitled 'The Album of Mr K.'
Eager to extend his scope, Bertrand assisted artists' in their studios to observe painting techniques. His subsequent approach focused on producing watercolours and oil paintings that incorporated photographic portraits. "Fantographies"', dating from 1994-1995, features acrylic paintings blending collages of stuck-on pictures of Kafka, projected photographs, and inky traces from pulled-off photocopies. While another series, 'The Spider in the Boiler', dating from 1998-2001, comprises copper watercolour collages.
Once Bertrand felt that he had mastered painted collages, he decided to experiment further. This time he turned to the computer to try his hand at digital collages. It is the possibility of achieving a seamless collage on Photoshop that motivates him. "After doing the paper collages, I've now arrived at a point where I can produce something that could be real," he says.
Having retired from teaching French literature two years ago, Bertrand can now devote plenty of time to his passion. "I finally have the time to realise a complete project. I'm doing what I should have been doing all my life, even if I enjoyed what I was doing previously as well."
Featuring 16 images, 'The Album of Mr K.' is like a personal, photographic rendition of Jules Vernes' "Around the World in 80 Days" as Bertrand takes Kafka - his favourite author - from his native Prague to the moon, with stopovers in Anjou, London, Paris, the US and other destinations en route.
The starting point for each image was doing substantial research in books, the encyclopaedia and magazines to find the right characters and background. After cutting out the pictures, Bertrand scanned them onto his computer. He prefers this method to downloading images from the Internet, finding these scissored-out pictures to be of a higher quality. His photos of Kafka derive from a bibliography. "There are only some 50 photos of Kafka in the world," he says affectionately. A bit like a film director, Bertrand then created a mise-en-scène, in which he assembled various figures in fictitious settings on his computer screen. The next step was retouching the different elements, so they would share the same colours, contrasts and lighting. Each image would take two or three weeks to perfect and require between 30 and 50 test printouts before Bertrand was satisfied with the result.
"It's about reuniting in a single frame people who never met each other, who could never have met each other, since they were not living in the same eras or the same countries, but had the same spirit, and the same creative genius," he explains. "They're artificial constructions. It's like a surrealist mind, meeting people who actually share no common relationship. They're my universes. They're cultural friendships. They're people who I like and I like finding them put together. It's true that my work is a very intellectual game."
The images dazzle with intrigue, while belying the complicated production process. One of the trickiest to orchestrate was "Mr K. On The Moon", which shows Thelonious Monk playing the piano and Charlie Parker playing the saxophone, while the entranced Kafka gazes into space. The idea was inspired by Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon". "The photograph of Kafka was very contrasted, because it was taken before 1920. The photo of Thelonious Monk was on a disc, so it was studio lighting. The one of Charlie Parker came from a book that I had, while the colour photo of the moon came from an old advert that I had to rework considerably with filters. So they were very unequal." The challenge was making the light emanate from the same direction so that the image would be harmonious. "All too often in surrealist collages you can practically see the cut of the scissors and the work," Bertrand adds.
As with several of the images, its caption - "When the Monk and the Bird started singing "Fly Me To The Moon", Kafka "the Jackdaw" also took flight' - contains a humorous pun. 'Kafka' translates into French as 'le choucas', or jackdaw, the idea being that Mr K. was swept away by the beautiful music. "As Charlie Parker's nickname was 'The Bird', I thought it all came together quite well," Bertrand quips, laughing.
There's often a twist to Bertrand's digital collages. "Mr K. in America", based on Kafka's unfinished novel "America" about a young German innocent called Karl Rossmann who is banished to America by his father, shows Mr K. standing on an umpire's chair scanning the crowds of sunbathers for his protagonist. Then there are the skyscrapers of the 1900s that would have been sighted by immigrants arriving in New York, the debris of the collapsed Twin Towers, a Japanese swimming pool resembling a chalked athletic field, and Japanese bridges bearing, bizarrely enough, American flags.
Similarly,"'Mr K. and Gregor" pays tribute to "Metamorphosis", Kafka's short story in which the central character, Gregor Samsa, awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect - much to the horror of his family. Bertrand made a cameo appearance here by adding photos of his face and hands to the body of the cockroach lying on the bed. There's a baby cockroach in a cot, and a happy-looking K. surveying the scene. In the caption, Mr K. beseeches Ottla - Kafka's beloved sister - to accommodate Gregor Samsa's new family. "I had fun with this because it reminded me of the cameos of Alfred Hitchcock," Bertrand says.
Alluding to Kafka's personal life, another shows Mr K. on the streets of Anjou, with a photo of his girlfriend, Milena, on the wall of a building, implying that he was thinking about her during his trip. Equally, a blown-up image of Kafka's face in front of Prague Castle, with a letter in his handwriting super-posed, suggests that Mr K. would reminisce about the Castle in homesick moments.
In Bertrand's hands, Kafka even gets counselling from Sigmund Freud to better cope with his fraught relationship with his father. He is reclining on Freud's sofa, his body resting on the mountain of his Diary, with faces of his father staring down at him. The photo of Freud in his cabinet was taken after the First World War. Bertrand put a framed multiple-photo of Kafka's father, Hermann, above the sofa. "Kafka knew Freud's work," Bertrand says. "Even if Freud was a scientist and Kafka was a literary, they shared the same level of depth and crossed each other in the same direction."
Bertrand also chose to insert K. - who is always cast as the outsider or onlooker - in well-known works of art. We see him standing on the edge of the terrace in Edward Hopper's painting, 'People in the Sun' (1960), with the caption stating that although he had been invited, Mr K. had the disagreeable feeling of not being welcome at the Hopper home. We glimpse him again visiting Gérard Garouste's installation 'Ellipse' at Fondation Cartier in Paris, 2001, which featured disturbing paintings of mutants. "I thought it corresponded well with Kafka's tormented world. The environment seems nightmarish."
Yet the photograph that Bertrand regards as the most crucial is that of Mr K. naively asking directions from a policeman at Beaune-la-Rolande in France. Dominating the background is "pétainiste" concentration camp - the fact that these camps existed remains an embarrassment to the French today. The image featured in Alain Resnais' documentary film 'Night and Fog' (1955), but was edited following censorship. "When I did this series I wanted to include this photo and couldn't find it on the Internet. Two months after I had finished my series, and just before my exhibition, I went to the Fnac bookstore in Les Halles [a shopping centre in central Paris] and found this photo in book on Jewish occupation in France," Bertrand explains. Mr K.'s enquiry has a double significance. Kafka's family was exterminated in the Second World War, so it's almost as if Kafka, who died in 1924, has come to ask about the whereabouts of his Jewish relatives.
Other film references crop up in the image inspired by Jacques Tati's film 'Playtime' (1967). It shows multiple office cubicles, multiple posters of Mr K. on the walls, and multiple men - all supposed to be Tati's character Mr Hulot - peering up at the ceiling in the aisles, bumping into each other, smoking a pipe and surveying the scene. Recalling the unhappy years that Kafka spent working in a private insurance company, the image indicates that his memory pervaded the premises after his departure.
But is Bertrand concerned about the copyright of his appropriated images? "No, I'm of the opinion that it's just a starting-point, that they're assembled with so many other things that you can't recognise the original photo. For Garouste I asked authorisation, but he didn't reply."
Although Bertrand produced his sepia photos on A3 format for his private exhibition last year, he is considering using black-and-white next time to see what contrasting result this might offer. Referring to how professional printing impacted on the colour, he says, "To begin with they were in sepia and then they turned slightly green. It wasn't bad. It gives a different effect. I like chance in photography and art because it's interesting."
Bertrand's future projects include making a similar series to that of 'The Album of Mr K.' using Marcel Proust as the hero. "It will be the same sort of work and perhaps Mr K. will make an appearance." If his series on Proust lives up to the same standard, it will be a delight to behold.