Art about Art: Contemporary Photographers Look at Old Master Paintings

This fall an exhibition at Art on Hulfish presents modern meditations on canonical paintings from early modern Europe. Organized around the genres of portraiture and still life, the exhibition probes the relationship between art and image. By turns reverential, humorous, and subversive, the works on view use the old masters as a basis for explorations of contemporary concerns.

Vik Muniz, Double Mona Lisa (Peanut Butter and Jelly), 1999, from the series After Warhol. Collection of the artist. © Vik MunizThe Mona Lisa (1503–6) initially earned renown for Leonardo da Vinci’s innovation in portraiture. He adopted a three-quarter pose rather than a profile of his subject, the Florentine noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, whose likeness he captured with remarkable gradations of light and shadow. Her ambiguous smile, unusual for the time, later caught the attention of nineteenth-century critics through numerous prints and copies. The painting’s spectacular theft from the Musée du Louvre in Paris in 1911 launched a torrent of press coverage; by the time it was recovered two years later, the Mona Lisa had been transformed into a global icon.

The artist Vik Muniz mines the celebrity of Leonardo’s painting in his Double Mona Lisa (Peanut Butter and Jelly). The “double” reference is to the Pop artist Andy Warhol, who in the 1960s created screenprints of the Mona Lisa alongside prints of figures from popular culture, such as Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. Like Warhol, Muniz embedded the Mona Lisa in American consumer culture, using the industrially produced sandwich ingredients smooth peanut butter and jelly to create a “painting” that he subsequently photographed. Muniz used texture and negative space to accentuate Gherardini’s silhouette, rendering the image immediately recognizable. The vivid colors of a childhood lunch staple cheekily nudge Gherardini’s smile from the mysterious to the familiar.

Eve Sussman, 89 Seconds at Alcázar, 2004. Collection of Howard and Patty Silverstein © Eve Sussman. Photo: Joseph HuDiego Velázquez’s monumental Las Meninas (1656) weds exquisite detail with potent ambiguity. What first appears to be a conventional portrait of the Spanish royal family—the titular ladies-in-waiting fawning over the infanta Margarita Teresa, the five-year-old daughter of King Philip IV—quickly gives way to something more. The complex arrangement of the figures, including the king and queen reflected in a mirror on the wall and Velázquez himself on the left before a large canvas, inspires several questions: Who is looking at whom? What is real and what is illusory? Scholars, critics, and artists have seen Las Meninas as a prime example of how painting can create worlds and, consequently, alter viewers’ perceptions of lived experience. The artist Eve Sussman engages these contrasting points of view by understanding Las Meninas as a proto-cinematic work of art, one that captures a single moment from a longer scene that unfolds beyond the frame. To create her video 89 Seconds at Alcázar, named for the royal residence in Madrid, Sussman assembled a group of performers to enact moments that precede and immediately follow the scene depicted in Velázquez’s painting. In the still from the video above, the participants have not yet adopted their final poses, and their glances are, for the most part, turned inward.

Diego Velázques, Las Meninas, 1656. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Image © Museo Nacional del PradoRelating the highly regimented nature of courtly life to modern times is a key aspect of the photograph Princess A by Yasumasa Morimura. The artist used makeup, stage design, and period costume to inhabit Velázquez’s portrait of the infanta from Las Meninas.

However, the illusion doesn’t hold: Morimura’s exposed hands and face present a jarring contrast to the infanta’s delicate porcelain features. Appearing more like an enormous doll than a recognizable person, Morimura leaves the dichotomies of age, gender, and ethnicity palpably unreconciled. By describing himself as a subordinate “daughter” to the domineering “father” of Western art history, Morimura confronts his love-hate relationship with European painting and its perennial popularity in modern Japan.

Jeanette May, Dot Matrix, 2018, from the series Tech Vanitas, 2015–18. Collection of the artist. © Jeanette MayThe material wealth and prosperity provided by international trade made seventeenth-century northern Europe fertile ground for the development of still life painting. In Dot Matrix, a photograph from her series Tech Vanitas, the artist Jeanette May extends the concerns of the still-life genre to the present day and the increasing presence of outmoded technology. The name refers to the Dutch tradition of vanitas painting, still lifes that underscored the transience of earthly life and the insignificance of worldly possessions. May arranges the objects to emphasize elements of color and texture: a roll of 35mm film unspools in the foreground like the peel of a lemon, and a stack of continuous-form paper piles up next to the dot matrix printer. She invites viewers to consider the beauty of these objects and to ask what gets lost when we so quickly jettison them for new tools of communication.

Ori Gersht, Still from Pomegranate (Off Balance), 2006. Collection of the artist. © Ori GershtThe artist Ori Gersht is fascinated by darker aspects of the creative process, which links his work to the old master paintings he so admires. His video Pomegranate (Off Balance) begins as a restaging of Juan Sánchez Cotán’s enigmatic Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber (ca. 1602), an early example of an independent still life painting. In lieu of Cotán’s quince, however, Gersht substituted a pomegranate, and the scene’s harmony is quickly interrupted by a bullet piercing the flesh of the fruit, spewing juice and seeds across the visual field. The English word grenade comes from the French word for pomegranate, and in Gersht’s native Hebrew the same word is used for both the explosive weapon and the fruit. “Violence can be grotesque, but also incredibly, intensely attractive,” Gersht has said. “I wanted this image to be similarly hypnotic. Destruction is painful, but it can be very cathartic.”

From Muniz’s wry humor and May’s ambivalent nostalgia to the unresolved tensions in Morimura’s photographs and Gersht’s choreographed destruction, these artists make the legacy of the old masters contemporary.

Peter H. Fox
Curatorial Associate

Art about Art: Contemporary Photographers Look at Old Master Paintings is curated by Ronni Baer, Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Distinguished Curator and Lecturer of European Art, with Peter H. Fox, curatorial associate.

Lead funding for Art about Art: Contemporary Photographers Look at Old Master Paintings is provided by the Len & Laura Berlik Foundation.

Art on Hulfish is made possible by the leadership support of Annette Merle-Smith and Princeton University. Generous support is also provided by William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher; J. Bryan King, Class of 1993; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; John Diekman, Class of 1965, and Susan Diekman; Annie Robinson Woods, Class of 1988; Barbara and Gerald Essig; Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin; the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation; Tom Tuttle, Class of 1988, and Mila Tuttle; Nancy A. Nasher, Class of 1976, and David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976; Gene Locks, Class of 1959, and Sueyun Locks; and Palmer Square Management.