Born in Romania in 1930, acclaimed French photographer Irina Ionesco’s extraordinary work has often been overshadowed by the controversial falling out she had with her daughter, actress and movie director Eva Ionesco. The conflict resulted in her estrangement and an eventual lawsuit for control of her pictures featuring Eva as a model.
Since her first solo exhibition at the Nikon Gallery in Paris in 1974, Irina’s visionary work has been featured in fashion magazines and photography books printed around the world. Her pictures are in the permanent collections of the Tucson Museum of Art, the Bates Museum of Art and the Hood Museum of Art (Dartmouth). They have also been exhibited at art museums in France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland.
Two of Irina’s rare portfolios, Liliacées Langoureuses aux Parfums d’Arabie, a portfolio of 25 photogravures from 1974 and Elle-Même a collection of 36 duotone photographs printed in 1996 (1 of 120) are a part of The Michael Aaron Gallagher Fine Art Collection, as well as a limited edition (1 of 5) silver gelatin print of her daughter Eva, signed by the artist.
Ionesco’s work is characterized as dark and often somber, with rich black tones and areas of high contrast. Yet, her creative vision for composing a scene and the resulting moody images she created are worthy of the highest praise. Though some art critics have dismissed her images as “trashy” and “distasteful,” her pictures reveal a fierce dedication to her craft and a unique and original perspective of the world that is authentic and unteachable.
In her artist statement, she described what inspired her work.
“Decadent poetry, symbolist paintings, Hollywood films, Greek tragedies, kitsch sublimated or the sublime consecrated,” Ionesco wrote. “I like artificial paradises, the magic of false luxury, that which one invents, which one creates through the play of multiple imaginary looking glasses. Thus, I have been baptized ‘The Rag Queen,’ maker of good and bad adventures. In my imaginary caravan, there is a cupboard full of decorations, tissues, trinkets, feathers and birds, lace and silk fragments of yore, found through countless [bargaining] in the flea markets of Paris, London or New York; objects precious and illusory, which, reinvented, become the supreme luxuries of a Thousand and One Nights.”
Though times have changed since the height of her career, Irina’s work remains underappreciated, yet no less controversial, in the art market. Still, there is no questioning the profound impact her daughter had on her overall success during her peak as a photographer.
As a model and artist’s muse, actress Eva Ionesco was as good as any other high fashion model of her day. Making her acting debut in the Roman Polanski film “The Tenant,” Eva continued to bring attention to her mother’s work. She arguably propelled her mother’s success to the point where many people questioned whether Irina was exploiting her daughter. This topic was explored in the French film “My Little Princess,” starring Isabelle Huppert and Anamaria Vartolomei, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie was directed by Eva and based on the turbulent relationship she had with her mother.
Sadly, the family’s personal battles have long detracted from Irina’s extraordinary talent, her personal reputation and her legacy in the world of contemporary photography.
In time, with healing and forgiveness, her family will hopefully be able to one day celebrate the achievements Irina did make in the world of photography and champion some of her remaining work for her lasting contributions to the art world. In the end, great art outlives the burdens of its creation, no matter how onerous they may be.