Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Medium is the Message

What happens when images jump from one medium to another?

New modes of representation not only reimagine the work of art itself, but also recontextualize the work in terms of display and consumption.

In the following series of essays, I consider contemporary photojournalism's art historical references and photojournalism's influence on art.

There are a number of critical and philosophical debates that may or may not enter the conversation; I leave it to the images themselves to drive that conversation, wherever it may lead.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

We Love You Back

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Mist, 1819.

Image result for magritte great century
 René Magritte, The Great Century, 1954.

The tradition of depicting a figure from the back perhaps began with sculpture in the round.  In three-dimensional art, attention to the entire figure signals commitment to human representation.  Yet in two-dimensional art, depiction of the back of the figure invites the beholder to consider the background, a view both embodied and obscured by the presence of the rückenfigur.  

Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich frequently poses figures faced away from the beholder in contemplation of the sublime.  Surrealist painter René Magritte is another retroversion devotee, but for different reasons, saying, "everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see that which is hidden by what we see."  Above, Wanderer above the Mist and The Great Century are but two examples of these artists' rear-facing oeuvres. 

In photojournalism, it is not the photographer but the subject whose image is expressive.  Hillary Clinton is one of the most-photographed people in America, yet as a politician, her image is carefully crafted.  New York Times photographer Todd Heisler says, "Covering a campaign is like taking a photograph through a window. The challenge is to see beyond the reflected image — what the campaign is trying to project — and to capture what is really there."  The back of Clinton's hair was surprisingly oft-photographed during the 2016 election, by more than one news outlet.  The subjects in this body of work, like the paintings I have compared them to, transcend the candidate herself.  In the media glare, the crush of a crowd, or the hug of a voter, the Clinton's figure is assumed to be a known commodity, an iconographic self-representation.

In earlier artistic creations, the back of the figure suggested prioritization of the scene.  For Friedrich, the rückenfigur denoted man's place within the sublime; for Magritte, it symbolized the hidden signifier behind the signified.  Photojournalism, in absorbing the artistic practice of identifying the figure from behind, added an iconographic layer to the image: the scene contributes to the icon.

Todd Heisler, "Life in the Lights," New York Times, 4 October 2016. 

James Nachtwey, "Hillary Clinton," Time, Feb. 3, 2016.

Ruth Fremson, "Raleigh, NC," New York Times, 23 October 2016.

As former president and first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama are likewise icons.  After stepping down from eight years of service in the White House, the Obamas chose to represent themselves from the rear, embracing, facing the Washington Monument.  Online, the photo is emblazoned with the message, "We love you back."  With clever captioning, the visual message not only turns the focus away from the subjects, but also away from the setting, reflecting back to the beholder as a mirror.

Image result for obama love you back
"We Love You Back," 2017.  https://barackobama.com/

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Kidnapped Girl with a Pearl Earring

Adam Ferguson, Portrait of Rahab Ibrahim, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/04/11/world/africa/nigeria-boko-haram-girls.html

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/girl_with_a_pearl_earring.html#.Ws4Oli7waUl

Ben Enwonwu, Tutu, 1974.  https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/feb/06/tutus-return-missing-nigerian-masterpiece-found-in-london-flat-ben-enwonwu

When Dionne Searcey, West African bureau chief for the New York Times, and photographer Adam Ferguson sought to create portraits of the young women released by their Boko Haram kidnappers in Nigeria, they faced a series of obstacles from the Nigerian government.  Nevertheless, they persisted, and when the American University of Nigeria in Yola finally gave consent to photograph the students, Ferguson and Searcey took all 83 portraits in a single day.  The results are gorgeous and dignified, a study in self-representation by the young women who are no longer victims, and no longer represented as such.  

Inspired by Tutu, the recently-rediscovered portrait of a Nigerian princess, Adam Ferguson posed Rahab Ibrahim in the classic contrapposto three-quarter view of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.  The sitter's choice of attire, including pearl earrings, white collared blouse, and blue head scarf, contribute to the sense of historicity in this portrait. 

It is refreshing to see young women like Rahab Ibrahim represented as self-possessed young women and individuals; it is a welcome visual and humanistic contrast to Boko Haram's depersonalized photographic depiction of these young women. 

It is an aesthetic and editorial choice not to include the group photographs of the girls as captives when they were kidnapped and imprisoned by Boko Haram. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Shadow of a Doubt

Image result for facebook sandberg
ABC News.  March 23, 2018.  http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/News/video/sheryl-sandberg-breaks-silence-facebook-data-fallout-53961060.

Related image

Johann Liss, Judith in the Tent of Holofernes, 1622.  https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/johann-liss-judith-in-the-tent-of-holofernes

Francesco del Cairo, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1635.  http://emuseum.ringling.org/emuseum/objects/23817/judith-with-the-head-of-holofernes

Sheryl Sandberg, author Lean In and COO of Facebook, is one of the most powerful women in America.  When news that user data stored on the Facebook platform had been breached broke on March 17, 2018, Sandberg gave a press conference.  ABC News captured her image in shadowy chiaroscuro, wearing a sidelong expression.  This image, a moving picture still, captures Sandberg in a pose and lighting reminiscent of Judith, the apocryphal/deuterocanonical heroine.

Both Judith and Sheryl Sandberg are complex women who have been represented as uncomplicated heroines in the literary canon.  Judith's canon is understood as an allegory: her virtues (fortitude, temperance, prudence, justice) defeat Holofernes' vice (folly, venality, cowardice, lust).  Likewise, Sandberg's Lean In presents the author as a feminist icon.  Artistic representations of these women challenge the narratives about them.

Famously painted by Titian, Gentileschi, Caravaggio, Klimt, Wiley, et al, Judith is often depicted in a symbolic shadow, more profound than chiaroscuro.  Judith's is the shadow of paradox, for hers is the justice of the vigilante.  Brought into the tent of Holofernes, the enemy general, under a false flag of surrender, she seduces, intoxicates and murders him, beheading Holofernes with his own sword.  Yet for this act, Judith is canonized as a hero to her people.  While the suspension of habeas corpus in wartime perhaps justifies the murder of Holofernes, Judith is nevertheless a more ambiguous figure than her canon would suggest.

In an April 5, 2018 interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg apologized for the company's failure to protect user's data, saying, "safety and security is never done, it's an arms race."  Sandberg's choice of words evokes weaponry and perpetual warfare in a conversation ostensibly about privacy.  Like Judith, Sandberg is positioned as a feminist warrior.  Yet revelations about Facebook continue to paint the company, and its executives, in a shadow of doubt.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Picasso and the President

Photojournalists revel in the unexpected resonance of their work.  Journalistic ethics prevent photographers from staging, rehearsing, or otherwise influencing their subjects to look or behave in a given way.  Any artistic framing, lighting, or intention must come from the subject's movements, the photographer's timing, and relative positions of the subject and journalist as events unfold.

In the case of the American President, the press are given access within a restricted area, and are generally limited to documenting staged appearances.  Even in the limited circumstances of presidential photojournalism, pool photographers have captured images of unexpected depth.  For example, a number of formal and semantic properties in Jabin Botsford's presidential photograph for the Washington Post dated March 15, 2018 resonate with Pablo Picasso's 1907 cubist masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

On March 15, 2018, President Trump met with Leo Varadkar, the Prime Minister or Ireland, members of the American Petroleum Institute, and Bill Gates.  Jabin Botsford's photograph was taken in the East Room, where President Trump presented Irish Prime Minister Varadkar with an early St. Patrick's Day gift.  Botsford's tightly framed photograph does not reveal the President's green tie, nor the first lady's green dress, nor the presence of the Irish delegation.  The image itself, by revealing no details that would situate the it in time or space, would not be published on the day it was taken, either.  Rather, the Washington Post would use this staff photographer's image to headline two articles on March 18, 2018, one about nondisclosure agreements and the other about "fake memos."  That the date of the photograph did not match the date of the featured articles caught my attention, as did the photograph's notorious date, the Ides of March.  Perhaps the photographer had hoped to capture a Roman bust or the profile of Caesar, but on that day, at that moment, the subject wore a more interesting countenance: the oblique gaze of a cubist painter's model.

Fig. 1-Curtain-Pulling Figure (far left) detail

The two images under consideration share what I call the "oblique gaze," in which the subject looks without directly seeing.  The oblique gaze distinct from the more recognizable "side-eye," for while the side-eye communicates disapproval or contempt, the oblique gaze lacks such communicative connotations.  Rather, the oblique gaze eschews both the confrontation of eye contact and the emotion of the sidelong look.  Looking obliquely, the subject demonstrates awareness of being seen, yet neither meets nor reacts to the gaze of the beholder.

Picasso's leftmost demoiselle, known as the curtain-pulling figure, demonstrates awareness of being seen: her oblique gaze and rigid posture emphasize the arresting gaze of the beholder.  Her visage is small, out of perspective with the rest of her body, and darkly painted, again in stark contrast with the rosy tone of her nude figure.  Furthermore, the shadows and highlights on her face have been inverted from the lighting scheme of the scene.  By formally disconnecting the curtain-pulling figure's face from her own body and from the lighting scheme of the tableau, Picasso asserts the mental detachment of the figure.

Contrast the oblique gaze of the curtain-pulling figure with the direct gaze of the two Iberian figures, the negative, black hole gaze of the masked figure, or the wild-eyed gaze of the crouching figure.  The Iberians, the central nude figures posed with draperies, return the gaze of the beholder with the languid detachment of an artist's model.  The masked figure poses assertively, yet her gaze is hidden in the negative space between mask and countenance.  The cubist crouching figure turns to the beholder volte-face, one eye blue and the other white, with an unexplained form cupping her face, perhaps a hand.  Here, as with the vestigial hand of a man in the top left corner-- the men were pictured in studies for Demoiselles but were excised from the final canvas-- Picasso has perhaps hinted at the masculine hand turning the face of the crouching figure to meet the masculine gaze of the beholder.  Men, removed from view, are in control: revealing the women behind the curtain, posing them with draperies, masking, turning, unmasking their faces to suit the male gaze.

Like the curtain-pulling demoiselle, the President eyes the press corps obliquely, acknowledging not the male gaze of desire, but the blunt gaze of the free press.  With wary detachment, he neither returns the media gaze, nor reacts emotionally to their presence.  Just as the demoiselles are confined within the canvas of their brothel, the President is confined to the stage of his office.  Ostensibly one of the most powerful men in the world, he cannot escape the omnipresent media glare.

By illustrating formal connections between these two figures, the photographer draws the gaze of the beholder to the deeper semantic resonance of a sitting American president affiliated with prostitutes, pornographic actresses, and playmates, who has been accused of rape and has confessed to sexual assault.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Life-Changing Magic of Iconoclasm

In the December 2017 issue of The Art Bulletin, Jenifer Van Horn argues for iconoclasm, not vandalism, as the motivation for destruction of planters' abandoned material culture and built environment in the aftermath of the American Civil War.  "'The Dark Iconoclast':  African Americans' Artistic Resistance in the Civil War South" follows a single portrait, an oil painting, from the wall of a wealthy Charleston family home, to a repurposed use as a freedman's fire screen, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was cleaned and restored to its original condition.  I am fascinated by the argument that destructively repurposing material culture constitutes iconoclasm.  Certainly, the man who conceived of the portrait as a utilitarian object had a creative mind!  Can kunstwollen be a destructive impulse, as well as a creative one? 

Religion and war are the two usual motivations for iconoclasm.  What makes an ostensibly secular county strip the built environment of monuments in the absence of war?  Why would a secular artist, depicting a secular subject, in a secular setting, in peacetime, be called upon to destroy a work of art?  If the answers are simply some version of "politics" or "power," then why is it material culture-- and not some a more direct manifestation of political power-- that comes under fire?  What power does the graven image yet have to hold us in its thrall?

What is the purpose of icons in a 21st century secular society?  And what is the purpose for their destruction? 

Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us

Thursday, February 1, 2018


Cycloramas, also known as panoramas, were built as immersive, multisensory experiences for mass audiences in the nineteenth century.  Conceived as historical representations, cycloramas incorporated architecture, painting, and assemblage to create a theatrical experience.  In the United States, two cyclorama paintings have survived, both depicting Civil War battles.  The Battle of Gettysburg, by French painter Paul Philippoteaux, was originally displayed in Boston; it now hangs at the Gettysburg battlefield.  The Battle of Atlanta, painted by a team of German artists, has recently been restored for display at the Atlanta History Center.  When the proto-photorealistic, theatrical installations of Civil War battles were created in the 1880's, they both evoked and influenced Civil War memory.  360° immersion overwhelmed the senses of nineteenth-century beholders, transporting veterans back to unpleasant scenes of war, and civilians back to an ostensibly glorious past.  These canvases have been preserved for their historical content and unique place in material culture, now preserved and displayed in re-created rotundas behind re-imagined assemblage.

Some have anachronistically compared the cyclorama to the tradition of filmmaking.  While the mass appeal of cyclorama may have anticipated public fascination with audiovisual immersion, the filmic perspective does not follow from the cycloramic perspective.  Theatricality, Michael Fried's argument against minimalism, would prove latent in the cyclorama: viewers were not absorbed in contemplation of the visual, but immersed in a production of theater in the round.  Indeed, the cyclorama requires a specific architecture and a viewer-centric mode of hanging; the paintings are foregrounded by pastoral assemblage and the painted battle scenes augmented by the sound and smoke of replicated cannon. Installed as such, the cyclorama operates more as a detailed backdrop for a production than a painting worthy of formal contemplation.  The Battle of Atlanta in particular amplifies the way that cyclorama painting deviated from single-point perspective (the Renaissance innovation of centering the eye of the beholder within the painting's imagined horizon), instead relying on a hyperbolic hanging structure to give the illusion of three-dimensional depth.

To contrast with cyclorama, I present two cycles of art historical painting, Claude Monet's Water Lilies and Mark Bradford's Pickett's Charge.  Both cycles consist of eight monumental canvases, housed in curvilinear galleries.  The former hang as a cycle in a series of two ellipses at the Orangerie in Paris; the latter in a gallery shaped like a hollow cylinder, the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC.  In distinguishing the "cycle" from "cyclorama," my analysis seeks to include, rather then exclude, canonical examples of cyclical work.such as Cy Twombly's Battle of Lepanto, a cycle of 12 canvases hung in a custom gallery in the Prado, occupy similar art historical territory as the Monet and Bradford cycles.

Les Nymphéas : Soleil couchant Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: Setting Sun, donated to Musée de l'Orangerie 1922.  http://www.musee-orangerie.fr/en/article/set-orangerie

Image result for orangerie monet
Claude Monet, The Water Lilies [installation view], 1915-1926.  http://www.musee-orangerie.fr

When Monet set out en plein air to capture the reflections of his beloved garden pond at Giverny, he developed a perspective of his own, later dubbed "all-over" painting.  Monet's canvases reflected nature without any discernible hierarchy or perspective.  One wonders if, on a different day, in another light, a ripple may alter the surface or a reflection appear.  These canvases appear as the surface of water itself, forever tranquil and smooth.

The Orangerie contributes to the sense of tranquility.  Designed by Monet, everything about the space, from the rhythm of the paintings, to the shape of the galleries, to the use of natural light enhances the cycle of paintings.  The objects themselves are the subjects worthy of deep contemplation, and set in a space designed to enhance their absorptive properties.  Examples of Monet's Water Lilies hang in galleries all over the world; yet it is only at the Orangerie that they hang as a cycle.

Once inside the Orangerie, the eight Water Lilies are hung in two elliptical galleries, which are joined at the narrowest point.  Natural light bathes the two rooms from elliptical skylights above and floor-to-ceiling windows at the juncture of the galleries.  The paintings are not only hung rhythmically, but also oriented to nature: the image of the pond at sunrise occupies the eastern wall, sunset hangs on the west.  Benches invite contemplation of individual canvases, but movement is essential: the beholder must traverse the gallery space to activate the cycle, and the beholder's path traces the shape of infinity.  This movement of the beholder may be a nod the artist's affinity for Japanese zen gardening, the monk's rosaire, or perhaps even the urban flâneur.  The shape of the galleries invite the beholder to consider the Water Lilies in an infinite loop.

Mark Bradford, Pickett's Charge: Copse of Trees, 2017.  http://www.historynet.com/new-charge-mark-bradfords-picketts-charge.htm

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Mark Bradford, Pickett's Charge [detail], 2017.  http://hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/mark-bradford-picketts-charge/

While Monet's decentralized, "all-over" style makes the canvas into a plane, as if becoming the surface of water itself, Mark Bradford's dense layers emerge and retreat through the canvas, hinting at a space hidden from view, unseen, inaccessible.  Perhaps Bradford has plunged into Monet's pond, and, expecting water, found Ralph Ellison's space "outside of history" instead.

While Bradford explicitly claims the depiction of battle as his subject, the work itself bears little resemblance the the Gettysburg cyclorama.  The abstracted canvases, covered in a collage of paint, rope, and gigantic reproductions of Philippoteaux's Battle of Gettysburg on billboard paper, resemble a timeline or a histomap more than the raw material of the cyclorama.

The Hirshhorn gallery is likewise dissimilar to its cycloramic antecedent.  In the words of Mark Bradford, "With cycloramas, the viewer stands in the middle — you’re omniscient. In the Hirshhorn, you can’t stand in the middle —you’d fall right through."  Just as the space at the center of the Hirshhorn is inaccessible, so too is omniscience.  As much as the tableau itself, Bradford asks the beholder to consider what lies beyond the canvas.

The American Civil War remains “the most divisive and unresolved experience Americans have ever had,” according to historian David Blight.  Monet has no use for spaces "outside of history;" his Water Lilies cycle prescribes infinite absorption into the sublime.  Yet until the memory and the history of America's bloody internecine conflict reach an equilibrium of truth, narratives of the American Civil War will continue to be as layered as Mark Bradford's canvases, and omniscience as impossible as standing at the center of the Hirshhorn.

John B. Sparks, Histomap, 1931.  http://www.openculture.com/2013/10/4000-years-of-history-in-histomap-from-1931.html 


Blight, David.  Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Dingfelder, Sadie.  "Artist Mark Bradford explains his Hirshhorn remix of a Civil War painting." Washington Post.  7 November 2017.  www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2017/11/07/artist-mark-bradford-explains-his-hirshhorn-remix-of-a-civil-war-painting

Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York, NY: Random House, 1952.

Fried, Michael.  Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Greenberg, Clement.  "Modernist Painting."  Voice of America Forum Lectures.  Washington, DC: U.S. Information Agency, 1960.

Summers, David.  Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism.  London: Phaidon, 2003.

Monday, January 1, 2018

...and now for something completely different

Although I have come to be known as The Centaurian online, the original idea behind this blog's title was that horse-people formed a community, a breed apart, the Centaurian.  This community exists whether I document it or not, and any number of equestrian publications cover the "hoof beat" far better than I!

I have decided to repurpose this blog, formerly dedicated to sparkly unicorns, for some of my academic ideas concerning American History and Visual Culture.  Apologies to those who may come here expecting horses, and instead encounter my idea machine.


Friday, January 20, 2017

Colonnes de Buren (or) Les Deux Plateaux

I am so inspired by this early 90's image of Anne Kursinski and Top Seed from the Paris Grand Prix in the early 90's.

There is a black-and-white striped oxer (triple bar?) in the background that caught my attention: It was inspired by Daniel Buren!  Did the artist himself make this fence?

I have challenged myself to locate a clearer photo of the "Colonnes de Buren" or "Les Deux Plateaux" obstacle.  Any assistance will be gratefully appreciated!

Concours de saut d'obstacles
un saut
un obstacle
un oxer
un vertical
les triple-barres (f)
les chandeliers (m) - jump standards

Update:  another sighting!  Greg Best and Gem Twist at the Grand Prix de Paris in 1991. 

Photo credit: Kit Houghton