To say that Grace Jones was a head-turner is an understatement akin to Captain Lawrence Oates announcing, “I am just going outside and may be some time,” before embarking on an ill-fated Antarctic expedition. In fact, throughout the 1980s, Grace Jones was responsible for head-turns of such severity that she has her own section on ‘whiplashes’ Wikipedia page. However, of all her striking poses, the cover to Island Life is one that lives longest in the memory of any youth stirred up by her superhuman aesthetic.
The image first appeared in New York Magazine back in 1977 before earning its place as the most gawped at sleeve in record store history. Along with her appearance in James Bond’s A View to Kill, the compilation record from 1985 helped to propel Jones from the clutches of cult acclaim to the status of the weirdest household icon of the eighties. Now the image resides among pop cultures most vaulted, but as ever with Jones, not everything is as it meets the eye.
The cover featuring the oiled Goddess in a statuesque pose was created by the illustrator, photographer and graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude. The construction of the composition would set off a partnership that went well beyond the reach of a creative collaboration.
As Jean-Paul Goude recalls in his memoir, Amazing Grace: “Out of all these extraordinary characters there was one who was to have a profound effect on my career and life. Grace Jones was one of the most visible black fashion models of the moment. And from one day to the next she had crossed over from fashion runaways to pop music. One night she invited Toukie and me to hear her sing at a gay disco called Les Mouches.”
He continues: “Tall, skinny, verv dark, her hair cropped like a boy’s, she wore a romantic tutu that was too small for her and every once in a while her bosom would pop out whenever she raised her arms. The power of the image she projected came from this constant duality: one the one hand looking at her, she was like a caricature, almost grotesque, but on the other, she embodied the most classical African beauty.”
Naturally, captivated by her stirring on-stage performance, Goude and Jones decided that a shoot was in order. It was from one of their very first meetings that the Island Life cover was alchemically crafted. “I photographed her in a variety of positions,” Goude writes, “Which I combined into a montage that made it possible to show her simultaneously full frontal and in profile, like an Egyptian bas-relief. Then, having transferred the montage to photographic paper, I used it as the preliminary sketch for a painting meant to give the photographic illusion that she alone, like a contortionist, could assume the pose, though on closer look you can see that from a strictly anatomical point of view the pose is impossible to achieve.“
Thus, the cover is not actually a single image, but a series of shots cut together to give the appearance of acrobatic impossibility and absolute grace. As Goude goes on to explain: “My picture tried to look at how a flexed foot could make a classical arabesque more interesting – beautiful and grotesque at the same time, just like Grace. It was with this picture of her that my life took a new turn. Up to then, I had always ranked work over pleasure. Now I wanted the opposite. My wish was soon to come true, as I was about to live yet another rhythm – namely, hers! – for months our nights were exclusively devoted to drinking, smoking, dancing and fornicating. Her reputation for fast living was no fraud. I was having a wonderful time.”
While that wonderful time may have resulted in a noteworthy collaboration and a whirlwind romance, it is a memory lane now pitted with potholes. By 1979, the couple would part ways after Jones announced she was pregnant with Goude’s child. “I had no intention of staying with her,” Goude told WWD, “I wasn’t happy with it.” However, as Jones told Goude in a V Magazine Q&A between the pair, their relationship was like no other: “I still always say that you’re the only man who made me buckle at my knees… I remember how I used to climb these stairs, my heart pounding… I’d go up the elevator and as I reached the stairs that led to your studio, my legs would go weaker and weaker—a strange sensation.”
That inherent energy and artistry that the pair shared is writ-large on the cover. A thousand imitations have followed, perhaps without realising that it was impossible to achieve in the first place. As Goude said himself, the cover is both beautiful and grotesque in equal measure.