The National Gallery is about to house its first major exhibition of photography, entitled ‘Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present.’ It is a collection of photographs that have used old masters, most of which are from the Gallery’s collection, to inspire their work. Undoubtably, it is an exhibition to get excited about. Not only will it be a delightful game to draw connections and make patterns, but it should also help us relate to old paintings that are now somewhat removed from society.
For example, Richard Learoyd, the London based photographer, makes a beautiful reference to ‘The Small Bather’ by Ingres. Learoyd chooses a heavily tattooed man as his subject but keeps the iconic pose of Ingres’ nude. The viewer immediately spots the similarities of light and form, but also the differences as our detective eye considers the harem of women surrounding Ingres’ nude but not Learoyd’s.
The opening of the exhibition has encouraged me to share my project called “Bad Artists Copy, Good Artists Steal’ which I did for my final piece at Art School. I used this quote, thought to be said by Picasso, to show how throughout time artists have always stolen ideas from each other. Sometimes they steal an exact composition but paint it in their own style. For example, Picasso spent four months on a series based entirely on Velazquez’s ‘Las Meninas.’
I began researching my favourite portraits and thought of aspects of the piece I could steal in order to make my own image. I found out all I could about the sitter in the portraits and then I would get into character by dressing up like them and trying to act like them. I realised as a viewer we only ever consider the sitter in that exact pose. What about a few seconds before of after the image? Surely they would be fidgeting or maybe talking to the artist, perhaps complaining of a sore back, or asking when the next break would be?
I wanted to take famous images, steal the key composition but change the subject to myself. One day I would be Frida Kahlo with flowers in my hair, the next I would be Van Gogh with a cigarette and bandaged ear. My flat in Edinburgh was converted into a kind of theatre. One that saw a different famous artist each day. I would sit in front of my tripod for hours, firstly trying to capture the image that had exactly the same composition, secondly trying to capture supporting images that went with the theme and mood of the image.
The first portrait I stole from was one by Chuck Close. I have always loved the boldness of this piece and wanted to steal his lazy, colourless gaze. I drew facial hair on my face with eyeliner and covered my hair in gel to emulate his scruffy look.
Days later, when I was satisfied with this image, I began to act around this pose. I imagined what other positions Chuck Close may have tried before he decided on this one.
In this way we are reminded that the sitter was once a living, moving person, not just the 2D representation from one fixed angle that we are now familiar with.
Watch out for further blogposts by Caroline St Quinton along this theme…