Originally painted to be displayed in the private study of King Philip IV of Spain, this take on a royal portrait reflects that relative familiarity and informality. Many art historians suppose that the “viewers” in this painting are the king and queen themselves, since their reflections are in the mirror behind the figures. At the time this was painted, Spain was one of the richest and most powerful kingdoms on the planet because of their ventures in the New World. The imposing presence of the king and queen, though their figures are not actually visible, is nevertheless felt in the outward attention from the central figures of the princess, some of her attendants, and the artist on the left. The artist Velázquez has included a self-portrait, painting on a canvas which is turned away from the viewers. He may be emphasizing his importance to the royal court. He stands surrounded by the king, the queen, and the princess, as much a part of their lives as the ladies in waiting. In a time when portrait artists were regarded more like craftsmen, this painting emphasizes Velázquez’s individuality as an artist and his place as a member of this world of power.
Though nearly four centuries following Velazquez’s painting, this work by Kehinde Wiley also contemplates the individual as they compare to systems of power. Wiley quite obviously references the early 19th century work by Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps. His method of “street casting” for portraits places ordinary African Americans in a position traditionally held only by powerful white men. By appropriating imagery from a masterpiece of art created two hundred years prior, Wiley further questions portraiture tradition. He includes elements of hip hop fashion blended seamlessly with the French style from the reference painting. Wiley as the artist has accomplished something with this work that artists continue to do in modern art. He applies multiple aesthetics, even obviously re-using imagery, to draw upon the connotations of each while creating his own meaning. Wiley makes us question the ways that African Americans have been depicted in art historically at the same time as he puns on the connection between larger-than-life hip hop culture and the overblown masculinity and power displayed in traditional military portraits. As an artist, he draws from historical traditions of art and mixes it with styles and aesthetics that are, for reasons of prejudice and power, not considered in the same league as “fine art.” This work makes us questions what is considered art and who has the authority to decide that.
Materials: recyclable materials from Jardim Gramacho landfill
This recreation of The Death of Marat (Jacques-Louis David, 1793) is composed of recyclable materials gathered by Brazilian catadores, or pickers. They live in extreme poverty and make their living by collecting salvageable materials from the landfills to sell. Muniz accomplishes something similar to Wiley, as the original painting lends the connotations of martyrdom and calls for social change that art from revolutionary France is charged with. Proceeds from the sale of this work, as well as from the documentary made about Muniz’s art with the catadores, go to buying better technology and training opportunities for them. Because this work is a collaborative effort, one of the catadores was even photographed posing as Marat, one could question who the artist is. Is it Muniz, who orchestrated the endeavor and had the idea for the initial concept? Is it the catadores, who laid out the recyclables to match the image and who were the first ones to recognize the value in the materials they used? Or is it David, who painted the image that inspired this project? The fact that a masterpiece of art was recreated with what most people would just call garbage pokes at the definition of fine art. We are left to questions whether the materials make it art, or the idea that an artist puts them to. If that is the case, then artists can transform trash into something much more.
These ivory spoons do not look like typical European-style spoons, but they were originally made for trade with Portuguese explorers by members of the Edo people who populate parts of West Africa. They are made with traditional Benin ivory carving techniques and include symbols important to Edo culture. The fish probably represents a connection to the sea god, an important figure in mythology across West Africa who was to be feared but who also brought wealth. The bird on the other example is thought to symbolize the power of the oba, or king, as a similar bird figure has also been seen on the tops of palaces and on ceremonial gongs. Hundreds of similar spoons were made around this time to trade with Europeans, making them an early form of tourist art. This begs the question of ownership. These spoons were commissioned en masse by the Portuguese. Even though they were made with traditional techniques by artists of the Edo people, they were made for completely commercial reasons. Once in Europe, there would be little to link them to the beliefs and ideas that inspire the symbols of birds and fish. Do artists need special reasons to make their art, or are things made only to sell just as legitimate? Who is the artist if someone else had the idea for it?
Amaral’s work inspired the Brazilian modernist art movement, initially described by her husband Oswald de Andrade in his revolutionary essay, “The Cannibalist Manifesto.” Anthropophagy, literally meaning “cannibalism,” is an example of a movement that involved Brazilian artists absorbing, or cannibalizing, artistic techniques, styles, and ideas from all sources; foreign or native, ancient or modern, popular or obscure. Maria Castro of Smarthistory writes, “After a process of digestion, or synthesis, this consumption would yield new cultural products, both original and genuinely Brazilian.” One idea commonly cannibalized in a lot of modern, surrealist art was Freud’s conception of the battle between the id (base instinct, sensuality) and the superego (logic, rules, society) that exists in all people. In the early 20th century, these ideas were applied to non-European cultures and many thought “natives” were more in-tune to nature and instinct. Amaral reflects these ideas intentionally in her abstracted portraits of indigenous Brazilians, who she depicts with enlarged feet, breasts, and bodies with small heads. As she was not a part of the ethnic groups she portrayed, it may be asked on what authority she could make this commentary in her art. Amaral joins a long tradition of European artists portraying the cultures of the rest of the world, often in inaccurate and degrading ways.
Insulted and criticized when first released, Olympia challenges assumptions about what makes fine art and what our motivations are for wanting to look at certain imagery. While drawing on the visual vocabulary of the classical, idealized woman, she is shorter than the traditional nude. Her face is asymmetrical, and her eyes, instead of turned away, flirty, or coy, are direct and intelligent. Her body is not rendered in the traditional manner; brush strokes are visible as if to remind us that what we are looking at is only paint and not a real woman. Her hands are the most detailed part of her body aside from her face. One hand, while in the traditional position of covering her genitals, seems to block. She is stern, closed off. Manet, a male artist, seems to be questioning why women are always portrayed a certain way in art. This painting reminds the viewer that the tradition of the female nude, far from being about the purity of form as art scholars have long claimed, has an inherently sexual motive. Most traditional nude paintings are made by men of beautiful women who are idealized, sometimes to the point of impossibility. Like Amaral’s pieces, those depicted are subject to the ideas and opinions of a disinterested group with power looking in on them. Olympia asks us to question why men portray women this way, and on what authority they do so.
Walker Evans was a photographer of the Great Depression, capturing moments of poverty and human strength in the 1930s. His photos were a government-requested attempt to preserve the past for future generations. In 1981, Sherrie Levine took photos of the Walker Evans’s photos and displayed them as art unto themselves. Her art show calls into question copyright law and forces the viewer to ask if a work really belongs to the artist. It may be argued that, in re-photographing an existing photograph, Levine is commenting on our inability to recapture the past and the fact that nothing is truly original. If this is true and the meaning of this 1936 photo of a migrant woman has been changed by Levine’s process, viewers must also wonder if art is determined by the idea behind it. Is this the same as Wiley and Muniz using images from artwork created by others in the past to add meaning, or is it too close of a copy to be called anything other than that? Levine adds new interpretations to these photographs that were not there before, but does that make her an artist? Is this idea not truly hers either? There is a history of the artistic quality of photography being questioned, since it is thought to capture reality rather than require any artistic skill. Does creativity or originality make someone an artist?
Title: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
Artist: Damien Hirst
Place of Origin: USA
Dimensions: 85 1/2” x 213 2/5” x 70 9/10”
Materials: Glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, shark and formaldehyde solution
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is literally a taxidermy shark in formaldehyde. It seems like the meaning of this artwork is entirely tied up in the title. The blue substance that surrounds the shark almost like water, and the shark’s pose with its jaws open, gives it the illusion of being alive, but clearly it is a dead, unmoving shark in a glass box in an art gallery. Once again, this work can make us question who the artist is here, or what makes this art. Hirst did not make the shark. Does that make God or nature the artist of this piece? Hirst’s title makes us contemplate the physical condition of death, emphasized by the dead shark that in life, would have had the power to kill a human. Like Levine’s photos, is the idea what makes this worth putting in an art gallery, and what makes Hirst the artist? Viewer response is also important to this piece, as it is intended to make one think about mortality in a new way. Is the viewer then an artist, adding their own interpretations to a piece with little explanation? This work, like the others, makes us wonder about the nature of art and contemplate the network of associations and ideas that go into interpreting even the strangest works.