Remakes of paintings by contemporary photographers | EVI PAPADOPOULOU



Remakes of works of art, the procedure during which an artist recreates an already known oeuvre, thus attributing a new meaning to it, has been occupying the minds of the artists since the Renaissance. The case of appropriation in photography is a particularly interesting one, as it first appears with the discovery of the new technique and it continues until now, following an evolutionary course, inherent with the social concerns and the development of the technological means. If, the attempt to give a photographic form to a painting composition was the proof of the artistic dimensions of the recent discovery for the first photographers, for their contemporary fellow-craftsmen, the staged photographs can not be restricted to being just a proof of knowledge of art history. On the contrary, they criticize the way a picture is created and functions, in both the fields of photography and painting.

Since the 1970’s the photographic remakes have been characterized by a particular interest in the stereotypes/clichés attributed to certain population groups and conveyed by famous paintings, and for the preservation of those clichés in the contemporary iconography of the Press, the mass media and the advertisements that flood everyday life. The development of social movements, such as the women’s movement and the movements for equal political rights in Europe and in the United States, the concerns related to the contemporary critical theory and philosophy, as well as the increasingly important role of photography in the artistic and social life, contributed to such evolution.

More particularly, the activities of the movement for equal civil rights in the United States, the evolution of the feminist movement, with the so-called Movement for the Liberation of women1, and the increasing efforts for the emancipation of homosexuals, which took the form of a movement after the 1969 Stonewall outbreak in New York2, set the ground for an increasing sensitiveness towards subordinate social groups.

In the fields of philosophy and literature critique, the 1970’s post structuralism movement showed particular interest in the position of the creator, of his originality and of the power of his oeuvre. Authors like Roland Barthes with his essay The death of the Author (1968) and Michel Foucault with his oeuvre What is an Author? (1969) raised the point of the original creation and of the power it exercises3. The famous “auteur”, as found in the texts of the French authors, is a conveyor of the urban class’s way of thinking, an ideological construction synonym to the concepts of individuality and authority that shall be eliminated, in order for the social demands of the new progressive social groups to surface. A situation inherent to the radical quests of May 19684.

Women artists like Orlan with her tableaux vivants of the ’60s-‘70s, Cindy Sherman, with the History Portraits series (1988-1990) and Irene Pascali, with the Originality of space and time series (2002-2004), found in the painting of the past the favourable conditions for this kind of action. The idealistic presentation of the naked female body and the restriction of the female presence to the role of the model, and subsequently to a non-intellectual status, constituted an object for re-examination and for a break from the existing tradition5.

The French photographer, Dany Leriche, continues until today the tradition of the appropriation of oeuvres of the past, with a strong feminist feeling. Contrary to Orlan, or Cindy Sherman, she does not pose for her photos herself. She visualizes her compositions with models, the leading roles of which are assumed by women artists, historians of art and theoreticians. Her purpose is to provoke a different perception of the spectacle of the nude female body, the very opposite of the voyeuristic dimension of the painting of the past, of the contemporary advertising and of pornography. In her photographs, women are presented as active subjects, even when they assume the role of the model, by contributing, to some degree, to the creation of the composition, by accompanying the exhibitions’ catalogues with texts, and by giving their names to the photos of Leriche. Additionally, the natural size of her photographs enhances the air of estrangement and meditation that she aspires to achieve.

The re-approaching of the paintings is made in a symbolic frame of mind, as the artist herself claims. With the presence of well-known iconographic attributes, including animals, in her photos, she reveals the extensions that the paintings of the past implied as regards the portraying of the naked body, she outlines the portrait of the contemporary woman and she keeps a reserved position towards scientific progress. Such concerns are expressed in the two series she dedicated to the photographic remakes titled Portraits under influence (Portraits sous influence) and The daughters of Ripa (Les filles de Ripa).

At the same time, male photographers made an attempt to see the art of the past trough the prism of the contemporary concerns, by proceeding to the photographic appropriation of paintings, touching on the stereotypes that accompany the female presence and the imposition/mastery of the male gaze. The photographic remakes of Victor Burgin, especially Olympia (1982), and Office at night (1986), making a reference to the homonymous painting of Edward Hopper, as well as Jeff Wall’s Picture for women (1979), which refers to the famous painting of Manet, Bar at the Folies Bergère, belong to this category.

The intellectual inquiries of the artists who embraced the feminist theory gave the opportunity to other sensitive social groups to appropriate the oeuvres of the past. The photographic appropriations of the Canadian Evergon6, and the appropriation of the Christian iconography by the French couple Pierre et Gilles, are characterized by their intense eroticism and cause reactions because of their provocative content.

Non-European artists adopted the same critical approach. Photographers like Yasumasa Morimura, with the Daughter of Art History series (1985-), Andres Serrano, with his oeuvres Black Supper I-V (1990) and Black Rembrandt (1991), Renee Cox, with the Renaissance and The Mystic Supper of the Mother series (1996)7, Yinka Shonibare, with The Diary of a Victorian Dandy series (1998), replaced the usually white/European protagonists by people of other races, thus suggesting a different version of the history.

The artistic production of Joel Peter Witkin is a rather special case in the field of photographic remakes. His photographes portray a universe where the constituted ideas of beauty, as personified in the masterpieces of the past, and of the soundness of limb are overturned by the presence of people impersonating the physical pain and the line between life and death.

The same ironic approach is implemented by contemporary photographers such as David Buchan, David Buckland, and Domenika Gruber, who question the commercial aspect of the art of the past and its relationship with the advertisement and the trends.

Finally, the use of digital technology turns out to be a very important tool in the hands of some photographers, for it allows them to create complicated compositions of a rather lyrical character, e.g. Jeff Wall’s photograph A sudden gust of wind, making reference to a stamp of the series Thirty-six images of the mountain Fuji (c.1831) of the Japanese artist Hokusai.

In conclusion, the photographic remakes, as they have been shaped since 1970’s, serve as an effort to review the instituted history of art, to reverse such certainty and to criticize the institutions supporting it. By their oeuvre, photographers review, reexamine and recycle paintings of the past, attributing to them social speech and the contemporary dimension.

1 (Supervision) Athina Ioannou, Feminist theory and cultural critic, Nisos Publications, Athens 2006, p.14.

2 As above, p.24.

3 Charlotte Cotton, La photographie dans l’art contemporain, Thames &Hudson, Paris 2005, p.191.

4 Nikos Daskalothanasis, The artist as an historic subject from the nineteenth to the twenty first century, Agra Publications, Athens 2004, p.270-2

5 Peggy Phelan, Art and feminism, Phaidon, London 2002,p.40.

6 Shirley Madill, «Constru(ct)ing the origins of art» from the catalogue of the exhibition Quotation, Re-presenting history, Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg 1994,p.15.

7 Francesca Alfano Miglietti, Extreme bodies, the use and the abuse of the body in art, Skira- Thames & Hudson, Milan-New York 2003, p.59.