Art, Music, Books & Film

Seeing Double

I once wrote a birthday story for a friend about a girl who could jump into pictures. Like my friend, an art historian and curator, the girl in my story had a mane of unruly blond hair and a ravenous curiosity about the world, and of course about paintings. There wasn’t much art theory in the tale, since it was meant to be a children’s story, one that my friend could read to her daughter. None of the paintings in the story were named, but the reader would know from the few details I provided which painting Miranda —that was the girl’s name—was in.

Miranda first discovered she could step into paintings when on a visit with her aunt to the castle of a prince who happened to be a patron of the arts. The first painting she jumped into was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, where she asked the woman (who had hair just like Lydia’s but even longer) why she was standing naked in a shell and was scolded by a haughty lady-in-waiting who was fussing about, trying to get the woman dressed for a ball.  Later on in the story Miranda would jump into Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid and Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps and even darker paintings of battles and stories from the Bible.

Nearly all the paintings I chose for Miranda are part of the canon that makes up the aesthetic literacy of most educated readers. Even if they hadn’t been exposed to the paintings in their freshman Humanities course or seen them on their trips to Paris and London and Amsterdam, readers would have seen countless reproductions of figures from these paintings not only in art history books but also on calendars, coffee cups, coasters, refrigerator magnets and, above all, art postcards. I wanted to have my heroine jump into a Mondrian or Malevich, too, but I was unsure of how to handle her immersion in the vertiginous world of pure abstraction. I thought she’d get lost or fall or get nauseous. Not so the modern viewer, whose eye has been accustomed to abstract art through the mediation of objects de Stijl dinner plates and Suprematist fabrics.

What I hadn’t thought of was to have figures from these paintings jump into other paintings! Considering how much they had already been stripped of context and history on their way to becoming coasters, it would have been easy. Loosened from their moorings in time these images were now part of a vast diaspora of icons, ready to be re-used.

The idea of taking figures from well-known paintings and placing them in new settings is precisely what Artemis Ptamianou has done in the photomontages she has created in her brilliant exhibition, Strangeland. Like a stamp collector loosening a stamp from the envelope of a letter, she unfixes a figure from its semantic context and recombines it with figures from other paintings.  Whistler’s mother sits on a bench behind a Dégas ballerina; they both look into the waters of a Hockney pool, under a sky raining little Magritte men in bowler hats. The Infanta Margarita stands in a museum courtyard under Van Gogh’s starry night, while Manet’s firing squad shoots not at the Emperor Maximillian but at Goya’s Spanish rebels of the 3rd of May. At times she decomposes a painting into its various constituent figures and then scatters these figures into new settings. Botero’s seamstresses are in one collage, the cat from the same painting is another.

Benjamin had said in his legendary essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that mechanical reproduction destroys the aura of an artwork, the “unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be”, the symbolic fullness and singular presence of a work of art that is “here and now”. Potamianou’s images are further denatured, devoid not only of aura but also of the context and narrative that the rest of the painting gives them, in short, of vitality (just as the images would be had they been emblazoned on a magnet or a coaster). The uniqueness of the images becomes a parade of seriality: “the signature of a perception,” as Benjamin wrote, “whose ‘sense for sameness in the world’ has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique”

But Potamianou re-injects a modicum of drama into her figures by placing them on a stage. This stage is always a place of architectural significance: the Mies van de Rohe pavilion in Barcelona, the recently renovated Neues Museum, the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Falling Waters, a gallery in the Louvre. Reduced of all detail, of all shadows and spectators, guards and signage—anything that would point to the functional context and real-life existence of the place—they become minimalist settings for a drama whose story the viewer is called to construct. Their nakedness of space recalls the dreamscapes of the Surrealists or de Chirico’s deserted city squares.

One of the most intriguing of Potamianou’s re-compositions is called “Cabinets of Curiosity”, the last collage before entering the parallel installation, “You are always on my mind,” itself a Wunderkammer of the artist’s thoughts containing exhibition cases of objects which she has collected over the years surrounded by walls half covered with yellowed newspaper clippings of art thefts and descriptions of paintings, some of which figure in the photomontages themselves (yet another example of the multiple cross- and self-referencing that is an integral part of the exhibition).

The “Cabinets of Curiosity” brings together Jeff Koon’s Michael Jackson, his monkey and Antonello da Messina’s St. Sebastian in a room filled with glass exhibition cases. At Sebastian’s left foot lies the skull from a painting by Guercino. The painting depicts two young shepherds gazing at a skull that is set on a pedestal inscribed with the phrase Et in Arcadia ego (the first such reference to the phrase in painting and the title of the work). The curious thing for me about Guercino’s painting is not so much the skull, though for the exhibition it has a particular significance,or the mouse that seems to be gnawing at the skull, but rather the shepherds. Guercino used these exact same figures in another painting, Apollo Flaying Marsyas.  It’s almost as if they had been cut out from one painting and inserted into the other. What these shepherds’ eyes must have seen!

Potamianou has snuck in other recondite references to this insider’s story of re-using images, as in the witty insertion of a reproduction of Richard Hamilton’s collage, What Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing in her photomontage, “Re-view series: Watching”. It serves as a wall of a hotel lobby (Vermeer’s kitchen maid is working the reception).

If the initial reproduction of Munch’s scream or Dégas’ dancer into a postcard or calendar marks the shift from the artwork as an object to be exhibited and contemplated in the singular space of a museum to the artwork as an image to be possessed, Potamianou’s photomontages, which are of course reproductions of reproductions, illustrates our own fascination with the artwork as an image we can now ourselves reproduce and manipulate, embed in presentations, paste into digital birthday cards, and yes, adorn the posts in our blog. The Internet has already undermined concepts of originality and authorship in writing. Much of the content in tweets and blog posts, if not of a good number of college students’ essays as well, is a bricolage of chunks of text recycled from other sources on the web.

But the same could be said for the recycling of images. Googling Guercino’s Apollo Flaying Marsyas, a reproduction of which I’ve embedded in this post, brings up dozens of sites containing the image. The hieroglyphic images of the holy canon have become the visual syllabary of the masses. One could quickly assemble a virtual exhibition of the paintings from which Potamianou took the images for Strangeland. We have become not only collectors of images but curators as well. Of a sort, at least.

And I now have an idea for my next story.


Image: Guercino, Apollo Flaying Marsyas


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