Exhibition | Art about Art: Contemporary Photographers Look at Old Master Paintings

Color photograph of a still life of a flower arrangement against a black background.The history of art is a history of grappling with tradition. Artists continually build upon and reinterpret ideas of the past for the times in which they live. This exhibition features contemporary artists who use photography and video to reimagine paintings by the early modern European artists who are often called old masters by art historians.

For some artists, such as Nina Katchadourian, old master paintings offer a productive avenue for exploring self-fashioning. On a flight in 2011—as part of her ongoing series Seat Assignment—Katchadourian spontaneously bedecked herself with bath tissue from the airplane’s lavatory to mimic the clothing and hairstyle of a prosperous fifteenth-century Flemish woman. She repeated the act on other flights, documenting the results with her cell phone, to create the group of photographs Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style. Katchadourian’s use of the diptych, a format in which two paintings (here, photographs) are joined by hinges, is both humorous and quietly subversive. In early Netherlandish painting, this portable format generally featured religious scenes intended for private devotion or portrayed a husband and wife from the burgeoning middle class, but Katchadourian makes herself the sole subject.

Exploring the nature of illusion is another common thread between artists of the early modern period and many working today. The photographer Bas Meeuws follows the rich tradition of flower painting that emerged in Northern Europe in the early seventeenth century.

A diptych with two color photograph portraits of a person in costume.These paintings were durable depictions of otherwise fragile and costly specimens that could be appreciated even in the long winter months. Seventeenth-century artists frequently portrayed elaborate bouquets as though they had been painted from life; in reality, the flowers depicted bloom in different seasons. In a similar vein, Meeuws maintains a database of thousands of photographs that he uses to create composite images with subtle adjustments to light and color. For Meeuws, the possibilities offered by digital technology can heighten our appreciation of nature’s transient beauty.

These are just two artists in the exhibition who explore different aspects of art making, interrogating the nature of artistic influence, the function of artistic genres across time, and the impact of reproductions and digital images on contemporary encounters with older artworks. As we eagerly await the return of the Museum’s collections to public view, Art about Art invites viewers to make new discoveries about familiar images in the history of Western art.

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.