Figure 5.4
Viewing the Mona Lisa at Home

art.history

Indeed, in a moment of revulsion against the efflorescence of meaning generated around widely touted masterpieces such as this [Mona Lisa], we might be impelled to take extreme counter-measures, such as inserting a countersign in the form of a mustache to wipe the smile off the face, or dismissing all these baroque outgrowths as mere products of the work's status in our museum culture as a clichéd exemplar of great art and artistic genius—in which case the so-called smile would pale into insignificance by comparison with other more telling attributes such as the bulletproof glass shielding the painting in the Louvre.(20-21)

Although this great spray of words is Alex Potts' own countermeasure to the ocean of art history discourse around La Giaconda, it glancingly alludes to Marcel Duchamp's famous desecration entitled "L.H.O.O.Q." ("elle a chaud au cul") (1919). Duchamp's painting has itself attained the status of a masterwork and has been itself parodied and reiterated. A few years earlier, Kazimir Malevich also treated La Giaconda as a cheap toss-off, including a small reproduction with a couple of red X's over it in a collage called Partial Eclipse with Mona Lisa (1914). We may speak of these paintings as parodies, since they answer the definition of alluding to the original work and taking an attitude toward it, usually diminishing. In this case, the target of the satire is the reverence and veneration bestowed upon the painting, the mystique and the art talk that attaches itself to it. And this is almost a century ago—long before it was carried from museum to museum like a holy relic and displayed with a security befitting the Crown jewels.

Artists have been making allusions to and remakes of classic works as long as there have been classics, which is to say a body of works well-enough known and commented upon to be recognized, at least by fairly knowledgable viewers as the target of the allusion or source of the remake. The range of purposes and meanings that a remake can have is certainly wider than demystifying or debunking desecration and the intended meaning has to be worked out case by case. The main common thread is a measuring of distance and difference from the original to the remake; the incongruity can be funny and it can probe deeper waters as well. Remaking and parody can be done with individual or period styles (e.g. rendering a subject "in the style of Van Gogh" or Seurat or Picasso) or even of modes of visual signifying, as when Martha Rosler alludes to the documentary style of Walker Evans. The great majority, however, allude to or remake a particular work. Some artists become quite fascinated with it as a way of working out their relation to "the tradition," and in this section, we will look at a sample of each of three "remakers", namely Barry Kite, Yasumasa Morimura, and Joel Peter Witkin.


Barry Kite: Luncheon of the Trucking Party (click for Renoir)

Figure 5.5
Barry Kite: Luncheon of the Trucking Party

Barry Kite specializes in photocollage which pastes parts of classic paintings into settings of "modern life." A typical one, which provides both title and cover illustration for one of his books of images is Sunday Afternoon Looking for the Car in which figures from Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jatte (see Figure 4.1) are placed in what looks like a Volkswagon dealer's parking lot—row after row of very similar Beetles, and the figures strolling, gazing or propped up against the cars. Kite raids the classical repertoire with great abandon and has produced many composite images which he sells in books, on posters, and postcards. Much of the time, he does not remake a particular painting so much as he creates a photocollage pastiche of familiar pieces and elements of a classic painting or paintings. The image at the left, Luncheon of the Trucking Party (which is taken from a jigsaw puzzle company's site) is based on Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881). Into the scene two modern truckers have been pasted, and our friend ("Suzon") from the Folies Bergères has apparently gotten a job as a waitress slinging plates with scrambled eggs and catsup—the death of haute cuisine (a handy squeeze bottle of which has been added to the table setting). In addition, the lovely Impressionist background of bushes and boats on the water has been replaced with the textures of a modern truck stop, complete with the cab of a big rig visible through the window. The effect is not just to desecrate the Renoir painting; through this juxtaposition of place, era, and class, we make a connection from the the life of working truckers to the life of the Parisian leisured class (represented by the Boating Party and, by allusion, by our friend from the bar) and the ready deference granted to money. Yes Impressionism is all about light and the way things look, but the shimmer of light and atmosphere so mercilessly stripped from the picture are also part of the glamor of Paree. It is Paris, France meeting Paris, Texas.


Yasumasa Morimura: Portrait (Futago) (1990)

Figure 5.6
Yasumaso Morimura: Futago

Yasumasa Morimura has been remaking classic works with himself inserted in place of the central figure, who is often female and often partially or wholly naked—or nude since we are talking about gallery art, since 1990, producing large Cibachrome photographic or IRIS inkjet prints. Figure 5.6 is a thumbnail of Portrait (Futago) (futago means "twin") which hangs, gold frame and all, in the SFMOMA. It is typical of his earlier remakes in its seamless insertion of his own body and visage into the original painting and insistent that he is to be the only human in the scene. Writing of this work in the context of a traveling exhibition called "Self-Portrait as Art History", Monti DiPietro says,

It is easy to dismiss Morimura’s work as little more than a punch line delivered to the point of overkill. How can the viewer seriously consider a work such as "Portrait (Futago)" (1988-1990) as much more than a visual gag seeking a cheap laugh? Fortunately, the artist is intelligent enough to realize this, and as novelty begins to wear thin halfway through the show, the artist wows us with a couple of clever video loops that parody Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol’s work. Morimura is a great showman.


I assume the answer is, "we can't," but I think there is a bit more to be seen and said here that might suggest reasons why the SFMOMA spent its (or the Logan's) money and space on this work. Asy we have just noted, there are no truck drivers to be found in the whole body of Impressionist work, and likewise there are very few Japanese represented in the whole body covered by Art History. Further, nothing lies closer to the heart of Art History than the nude female form. And yet further—if critics are to be believed— Manet's painting engages us by drawing us in through Olympia's gaze to the point of imagining ourselves to be her. 2 So Morimura simply plays out this role for himself and, vicariously, for us. (To be sure, he is also the Black servant, so we can try on that role too.) Morimura appropriates other cultural markers as well: he is lying on a bridal kimono, and the cat has become maneki, the porcelain "welcome" cat common in Japanese stores.

I must admit that not all of Morimura's work resonates for me in interesting ways, and that viewed in large doses, one falls back on admiring the ingenuity, virtuosity, and impudence. The same might be said of looking straight through Cindy Sherman's History Portraits (1989-90), which work in a somewhat similar way to try on different life forms (Morimura recently remade one of Sherman's pieces with himself in place of her and dedicated it "To my little sister: for Cindy Sherman" —www.assemblylanguage.com/ images/Morimura1.html). ["yes class, that is s-i-m-i-l-a-c-r-u-m"]


Yasumasa Morimura: Daughter of Art History: Theatre B (1998)

Figure 5.7
Yasumasa Morimura: Daughter of Art History: Theatre B (1998)

Here once again we revisit the Bar of the Folies Bergères and the figure of Suzon, who does not fit into her surroundings nearly so well without clothing. Morimura has had to decouple the figure from her reflection and center the vase with flowers to conceal her sex. Morimura has abandoned the seamless paste-in strategy and instead calls attention to a rupture involved in the substitution by means of the cut-off arms. But they are not human flesh; they are the wire-mesh-cored plaster casting of a mannequin. "Art History," we might say, freezes Suzon just in that so-much-commented-upon position and gives her the solidity of a sculpted artifact. To displace her causes a violent tearing of mesh and plaster. And the new "she" is naked, not nude, and covers her breasts (such as they are). The fit into Manet's Folies Bergères in 1882 is not smooth or effortless; the appropriation is a misprison.


Joel-Peter Witkin: John Herring, P.W.A., Posed as Flora with Lover and Mother (1992)

Figure 5.8
Joel-Peter Witkin: John Herring, P.W.A., Posed as Flora with Lover and Mother (1992)

Rembrandt: Saskia as Flora (1635)

Figure 5.9
Rembrandt: Saskia as Flora (1635)



The remake of classical images, especially of nudes, is a recurrent theme in Joel-Peter Witkin's photography. In the last couple of decades, he has staged and photographed Canova's Venus and his The Graces, Ruben's Helene Fourment, Seurat's The Bathers, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, as well as pieces by Goya, Velázquez, and Courbet. Though not Japanese, most of the nude models in these pictures have male organs; some have developed breasts, others do not, so that the perfection of form celebrated in these pictures takes on distinctly varied inflections. Working through the pages of Germano Celant's collection, for example, will make it very clear how the "normal" is constructed in the History of Art and how gender roles are inscribed on canvas and in marble.

The image at the left is likely to strike one at first as bizarre rather than scandalous. Why a moustached man in this elaborate dress with mythological appurtenances with light suggestions of Botticelli? The title gives us some clue John Herring, P.W.A., Posed as Flora with Lover and Mother but it also helps to know Herring was a florist and that this is a kind of memorializing portrait, as his death from AIDS was fairly near. In the context of Witkin's work, the masks are ways of allowing the true being of the models to emerge. And Germano Celant quotes Witkin on the posing of the lover's and mother's arms and the icons of innocence in the work. (Witkin, p. 29)

The original piece is Rembrandt's Saskia Posed as Flora (or words to that effect), which is one of several works using his young wife as a model for various mythological and Biblical scenes. She is quite recognizable in most of them, and his painting of her in these various roles was probably his own way of appropriating or inserting himself into the most universal and signifying scenes of his culture. I should say it was one of his ways: he also painted himself in as the Prodigal Son with Saskia on his lap as one of the party girls that drained the Son of his patrimony. "Flora" is a kind and innocent image—nothing here to debunk, really, and Witkin is trying to establish connections with this work of (now) Classic art across the great discontinuities in the intervening 350 years.


Kim Stringfellow: Photographic Constructions, Untitled II - - 39 x 44 x 4 in.

Figure 5.10
Kim Stringfellow: Photographic Constructions, Untitled II

Kim Stringfellow has remade a number of the classics, sometime using herself as the model (Self-Portraits). In one series called Photographic Constructions, she makes rather large Cornell boxes with allusive photographs and various talismanic objects. These come with substantial explanatory texts which among other things identify features and their significances that are too small to be seen in the reproduction. She calls the one reproduced at the left a reinterpretation of the School of Fontainebleu painting in terms of the relation of the sisters (here presented as twins). Various objects are identified and explained. In another in this series Transformation of Ceres into a Madonna she out-Dalis Dali by posing the central figure with a loaf of bread on her head in a blue tinted box reminiscent of Cornell's Medici series. This image too requires considerable explanation which is provided. This suite of boxes was featured in a 1997 issue of Urban Desires (3.1, an on-line 'zine) with a little rotating key along side each image linking to the explanations, and keys they very much are. The one for our sisters even quotes an Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols on her image of the spider nursing from the breast as representing "the Great Mother in her terrible aspect." These keys do threaten to overwhelm the pictures at times, which is too bad for they are utterly lacking in the fine humor that shine through all this inventiveness.


Kim Stringfellow: Center portion of Salton Sea Brochure

Figure 5.11
"Kim Stringfellow: Center portion of Salton Sea Brochure

Stringfellow does like to allude to other images, even when she works outside of the History of Art. The image at the left is the central panel of a "map" of Salton Sea done up in the standard Tourism Bureau style. The little high point images (with colored push pins) are links, but the links do not take you to attractive images and descriptions but either to images of ruin (dead fish, flooded and trashed motels, abandoned golf course) or to pages of rather severe text detailing the problems facing the area and the sources of its pollution and decay. Here the allusion is not so much to a particular image as to a certain very recognizable style of tourist bureau map, and the effect is to satirize that style. This site is an original Web work (though it was exhibited at Washington State University in 2001).


Harwood du Mongrel: My Skin and the Du Cane Family Group, 1734-2000

Figure 5.12
Harwood du Mongrel: My Skin and the Du Cane Family Group, 1734-2000

In June of 2000, the new Tate Gallery opened in the converted Millbank Power Station, for which event the Tate commissioned two pieces of Web art to be shown on the Web as part of the new site page. One of these is a parody of the main suite of pages (www.tate.org.uk/webart). It has many images montaging pieces of Tate famous canvases with pictures of family members and the artist's own body. The artist is harwood@mongrel (Graham Harwood), a member of a London digital art collective, and the theme of the commentary is Harwood's own ambivalence about participating in the celebration of a new Tate. This ambivalence has to do with the function of museum art in maintaining the class hierarchy in British society which he lays out in hard-hitting text which fairly out-Berger's John Berger. Here, for example, is the caption to the image that follows Figure 5.11:

Emerging social elites seem to find it necessary to justify their "natural" right to wealth and privilege. This is done in many ways. The one that interests the reader here is the use of aesthetics to negotiate the social positions of new economic forces. Tate himself directly convinced Harcourt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to help out with funds to build the Tate in order to circumvent the established aesthetic orthodoxy of the time. From its beginning, the Tate has supported the taste values of whichever social elite is emerging at the time.

In fact, it is reminiscent of Hans Haacke's insistence on the ugly history of slavery and exploitation behind the accumulation of wealth donated to museums. (See his AnsichtsSachen/Viewing Matters (1999) recording his guest-curated exhibit at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.) This joining of Art and Anti-Art is extremely tense and produces many bifurcated images in which venerable old classics and closeups of skin and slime and sores are jammed against each other and into each other like hideous upwellings of the repressed. In these he out Serrano's Andreas Serrano. When Harwood's parody site was a month late in being mounted, the lists were all a-twitter about the Tate backing away from what Harwood was showing them, but in the end it did come out pretty much, it would seem, as Harwood intended it. What Harwood adds to the discussion in the context of this work is the reminder that making contact with a painting from the past is not just a contact with the painter and model—persons long dead—but with an extremely valuable artifact housed in a public temple.

In December of 2000, Harwood was awarded the Leonardo/ISAST New Horizons Award for Innovation in New Media for an earlier work on cdrom called Rehearsal of Memory. The page announcing the award, however, features the lead image from the Tate project. which another Leonardo page refers to as his latest work.

In a similar fashion but with different result, the famous anti-corporate commando RTMark was invited to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial 2000 when it announced that it was embracing net.art as a new medium. RTMark gave them a polite note acknowledging the honor of the invitation and turned their space over to the public, so that (it is claimed) any URL you enter will be exhibited on the Whitney space for a few hours. RTMark live a provocative and high risk existence, but at least they will not fall into the hands of New York art critics.

Let us give voice to some objections. The first might be that we have many of in these remakings the start of a Karaoke of visual representation, or, perhaps even closer to the mark, we have an elaboration of the common boardwalk poster of beautiful bodies in swimsuits with empty circles for heads where people can look through and be photographed. Or again, a reproduction of a dollar bill with (pick a villain) Bill Gates' image in place of George Washington's—all worth a smile at the incongruity if well done, but hardly works to enmesh the eye and mind. With some of Kite's busier photomontages, Peter Schickele's PDQ Bach comes to mind. The last is apposite because fans of classical music do have some associations and meanings attached to the themes that Schickele strings together—more than we do, say, with a dollar bill. It is certainly well not to pull too long a face over these remakings, which do derive some of their gaiety from carnivalesque transgressions and minglings of high and low. And after all, we are not really arguing aesthetic value here but semiotic practices.

"They may be semiotic processes all right," goes a second objection, "but they are not visual but narrative and historical meanings, meanings that are not available from what one sees but from what one reads from Art History and other assistances, much as many of the meanings and meaning making processes discussed in the previous chapter are based on the notion of making, modeling, and viewing as performances and are dramatic rather than visual in nature. These remakings require specific cultural knowledge to be understood: this knowledge goes well beyond knowledge of visual language."

To which we may reply: it is true that visual language considered as a code mapping shapes, colors, and shading into meanings will not get us very far with remakings and allusions. It would seem we require the notion of visual literacy to understand and enjoy these works, where by "visual literacy" we do not mean a set of rules assigning significances to visual elements, but some knowledge and experience making and viewing art. There are various names for that body of knowledge and interpretive practice that enables us to "get" the meanings of these remakes, and one of them, as suffocating and limiting as it sometimes seems, is Art History.