Costume drama

Yonka Shonibare, Diary of a Victorian Dandy: 11.00 Hours, 1998

For Yinka Shonibare, Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress was a starting point for an exploration of art history and the representation of black people rather than something to be reworked for a new time. And with a fascination with the Victorian era, Shonibare chose to change both the narrative and the period in which it’s set, creating a series of photographs called Diary of a Victorian Dandy, made over a period of three days at a stately home in Herefordshire. And though Hogarth’s series is a clear inspiration, the story of Shonibare’s dandy is told in five scenes seemingly taking place in a 24 hour period and each titled with just the time of day. The dandy – played by the artist – rises late. He is attended by many servants; contrary to the narrative we see played out across the history of Western painting, it is the dandy who is black rather than one of the servants who seem to dote on him.

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Progress retold

David Hockney, A Rake’s Progress, Plate No. 1 – The Arrival, 1961-63

If Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress was a morality tale for its time then it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s a tale that’s been retold by others for different times and changed moral imperatives. Over time inevitably, things change. There are few – if any – moral absolutes. Interpretation is key. Produced over two centuries after Hogarth’s series, David Hockney’s  A Rake’s Progress tells the familiar tale of inheritance leading to a dissolute life and, ultimately, the mad house in a series of 16 prints: twice as many as the original, but fewer than the 24 plates apparently originally suggested to Hockney. Started while Hockney was still studying at the Royal College of Art, the series was largely made in London but is set in New York, where Hockney spent the summer of 1961. The rake here is Hockney himself, though he is drawing on his own experiences and twisting them to broadly fit Hogarth’s narrative, so that rather than receiving an inheritance from his father, Hockney’s rake gets money from a collector, though he is beaten down from $20 to $18 for his print.

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The progress of progress

William Hogarth, The Heir from A Rake’s Progress, 1732-33

While I’m thinking about artists reworking the work of others it seems pertinent to look at William Hogarth’s series of paintings A Rake’s Progress which has not only been reworked by other artists – not to mention being turned into an opera – but was reworked by Hogarth himself as a series of engravings a couple of years after he made the paintings. The series tells the story of Tom Rakewell who inherits a fortune, spends it on good living, gambling and debauchery before being imprisoned and ultimately ending up in Bedlam. It’s a story told succinctly in a series of eight images, first paintings then etchings. Hogarth saw this as an exploration of ‘modern morals’.

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I wanted to love you more

Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin, Deep inside my heart, 2009-10

Artists collaborating is hardly unusual. And, as the last few posts have shown, artists copy what’s gone before on a regular basis. And occasionally they go so far as to take someone else’s work and change it, like the Chapman brothers did when making Insult to Injury or like Robert Rauschenberg did, albeit with Willem de Kooning’s permission, when he rubbed out a drawing to make Erased de Kooning (1953). When Tracey Emin worked on top of a series of paintings by Louise Bouregois, she did so at Bourgeois’s behest, the two artists having met some years earlier and been in regular contact since; though Bourgeois wasn’t generally interested in collaborations, the two artists had shared preoccupations giving the idea of a joint work a certain appeal. As a collaboration what perhaps made this unusual was that Emin had the paintings for more than a year before deciding how to proceed. Do Not Abandon Me, the series of prints made from these images, was to be one of Bourgeois’s last works; although Bourgeois saw Emin’s additions – and was delighted with them – the work was not shown until after her death.

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Smoothing the surface

Frank Auerbach, Head of J.Y.M., 1981

For Frank Auerbach painting is an obsessive process. He paints the same people over and over again – J.Y.M., or Juliet Yardley Mills to give her her full name, is one of Auerbach’s favourite models; he’s painted her regularly for decades – often painting layer upon layer until he’s happy with the result. As a consequence both of his style of painting and the way the image is built up over a period of weeks or months – and who know, possibly years in some cases – the surfaces become almost sculptural. Even in reproduction – which, let’s face it, is how we often see art – the texture of the paint is apparent. Or so it seems.

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Remakes and revisions

Jake and Dinos Chapman, Great Deeds Against the Dead, 1994

I’m sure there are other examples out there, but it seems to me it’s comparatively rare for reworkings of existing art to involve the move from two to three dimensions. Painting to photography, yes; printmaking to sculpture, no so much. But with a long-standing fascination with Goya’s portfolio of etchings The Disasters of War, that’s the approach Jake and Dinos Chapman took when making their sculpture Great Deeds Against the Dead.

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Simplifying the iconic

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665

There are some images that stick in the mind. Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring is surely one such. There is something haunting about the way the girl looks out at the viewer; it’s mostly about the eyes, but the slightly open mouth adds to the mood of the piece. The girl is caught in the moment rather than formally posing for a portrait. Though the girl is painted with beautiful detail, the painting as a whole is quite simple. The background is dark and lacking in detail, so it’s all about the girl and that earring that catches the light.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that a painting that has inspired first a novel and then a film should also have become the subject for another painting.

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Remaking the readymade

Alfred Stieglitz, Fountain by R. Mutt, 1917

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp bought a urinal, signed it in an assumed name of R. Mutt – the urinal had been bought from the J L Mott Ironworks – and submitted, with the title Fountain, it to the Society of Independent Artists in New York for inclusion in their annual exhibition. The rules stated that work by any artist who paid the fee would be accepted but the committee rejected Fountain. Much debate ensued. Eventually the board of the Society of Independent Artists – of which Duchamp was a member, but who in the main didn’t know he had submitted the work – decided that the work would be hidden from view for the show. Duchamp resigned in protest.

Fountain was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz but was subsequently lost. I think the prevailing view is that Stieglitz threw it out after making the picture.

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Remaking history

Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai), 1993

Although referencing other artworks is perhaps most closely associated with the post-modern practices of the 1970s – think Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince in particular – it’s  a practice widely used in contemporary art. Jeff Wall’s large-scale photographic tableaux, many made in the 1980s and ’90s, could perhaps be seen as a kind of bridge between work that uses appropriation as a way to explore ideas about authorship – a key concern in post-modernism – and work that draws on art history and reworks it, perhaps in an attempt to understand the present by looking at the past. These works – shown as large light-boxes, a form that references advertising but also feels related as closely to cinema as to still photography without actually taking on the expected form of any of these – are both visually stunning and fascinating to look at; the detail is extraordinary and the scale – A Sudden Gust of Wind is roughly 2.5m by 4x – makes it possible to examine even the tiniest details. Though Wall continues to make engaging work, in my view his more recent work – which was one of the first things I wrote about here – isn’t as interesting as the earlier tableaux.

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