The simple fact of the matter is that, far more often than not, art has an agenda. There's more to the piece than a trite plaque, a fancy frame, and a meagre descriptive blurb. Those meticulously detailed portraits? Someone commissioned them and someone requested that the subject be depicted in a very specific and highly idealized way. Those heavily romanticized landscapes? Someone wants you to think that they're claiming dominion over that territory. Those noble scenes of grand victory and conquest? Is war ever that simple and glamourous?
On display until May 21 at the Doris McCarthy Gallery in UTSC, Purloined Stories aims to have viewers look beyond the deceptive aesthetics of art and reexamine what any given work might be attempting to convey. Curated by Sandy Saad, a Masters of Visual Studies student at the St. George campus, each of the featured pieces adapts famous artworks as a statement meant to expose the hidden secrets of the original.
“Purloined Stories is an exhibition that revisits the idea of image theft with a group of artists who highlight the fabrication of narratives throughout history by recreating existing historical masterpieces,” says Saad. “[The pieces] emphasize the fiction of the original, and at times use the existing images for their own strategies, illustrating that the narrative is servile to power.”
Unlike many other art exhibits which are stodgy strolls through the classics of centuries passed, Purloined Stories is fairly unique in that there's a distinct sense of urgency in its purpose. In fact one feature, Liberty Lost (G20 Toronto) by Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge, criticizes the repressive police presence in the city during the still fresh in the mind G20 summit by reworking Liberty Leading the People, created in 1830 by Eugene Delacroix.
Not only is retooling older works for contemporary commentary common and ongoing, but practices of manipulating art and media for particular interests are also still happening to this day. On September 14 of last year, an Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, was discovered to have published a photograph of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak preceding President Obama and other world leaders walking through the White House. As it turned out, the photograph was a fabrication of what originally showed President Obama in front, so manipulated by the Egyptian press to demonstrate Egypt's leading role in the Mideast peace talks, as the editor-in-chief of the publishing paper later revealed.
Quite appropriately, then, brushes and paints can be viewed as the archaic form of Photoshop and all of the software's various connotations. David Buchan's Always inserts a box of feminine hygiene products into the famous Portrait of Josephine de Beauharnais, an 1805 painting by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon. The immediate result is that the viewer is struck by femininity in both its glorious and unglamourous aspects simultaneously, with an amusing bit of historical irony just below the surface.
A riff on masculine naivety also seems to be played in Jakub Dolejš Tribune, which removes the male patrons from the 1770s original, The Tribuna of Uffizi by Johann Zoffany, and washes out certain details. Thus the gallery in which wealthy men received an art education turns into a space where accounts of history are made cloudy, spurious, and inconsistent.
The remaining still pieces, Adad Hannah's The Raft of the Medusa (100 Mile House) and Kent Monkman's Sunday in the Park, both have their own fascinating statements and contexts worth exploring, namely the trials of a suffering British Columbia community in the former and the juxtaposition of one piece free of humans with another full of them in the latter.
Finally, there is also a 42 minute film by Ho Tzu Nyen, Earth, on offer. Whereas the other artworks are appealing, idealized, and attractive products, Earth servers as an antithesis which makes no attempts to dress up the realities that inspired its creation. Even in drawing attention to the inherent ugliness of greed in the themes of conquest and colonialism in their originals, the other features are still pleasing and glamourized re-appropriations. Ho Tzu Nyen, however, demonstrates the deceptive, destructive and catastrophic results of such pursuits with no effort to mask its grimness.
“I hope that this exhibition speaks to our nature as humans,” says Saad. “All of the famous works referenced are about times of revolution, change, or conquest, and all of these moments were fictionalized in certain ways at the time. I think that says a lot about human nature and the desire to turn to fiction in times of change or turbulence.”
Much in the same way that art isn't created in a vacuum, art shouldn't be interpreted in a vacuum either. Visit Purloined Stories to discover how some familiar pictures may have been deceiving you all along.
Who are you? What are you doing?
My name is Sandy Saad, I did my undergraduate studies in Arts Management at U of T Scarborough with a major in art history and I decided to pursue a Masters of Visual Studies, specializing in Curatorial Studies at U of T. This exhibition was the program requirement for my Masters degree.
Why Purloined Stories? What caused you to produce such an exhibit?
I initially entered the curatorial studies program with an interest in portraiture. I was interested in the ways artists added attributes to their subjects in order to idealize them. This element of fiction in art history fascinated me and when I began to research this topic, I realized that artists did this to many things; especially portraits and historical accounts. What was striking is that so many people walk through museums and prestigious educational institutes, sometimes taking these works of art as literal depictions of history while they are highly fictionalized.
What caused you to select the artworks you did?
All of the artworks in the exhibition do either two things: They highlight the fictional element of art or they use an existing art historical narrative that was created by famous artists centuries ago to give a new or urgent contemporary perspective.
Were there any additional pieces you'd like to have seen included?
There were a few works that I tried to secure for the exhibition that fell through. However, in hindsight I am very glad this happened. Having to continue to search and relaunch the process of finding works for the exhibition allowed me to continue to tailor it and think critically about the exhibition and how I wanted to present it.
Is an exhibit like Purloined Stories seen often?
The notion of re-appropriating existing images is not a new practice amongst artists. In 1982 Image Scavengers was held at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, and in 1983 The Stolen Image and its Uses was held at the Light Work Gallery in Syracuse; both presenting artists who took images from the fine arts of media and re-presented them in visual quotation marks. In the same year, Mary Kelly curated Beyond The Purloined Image at the Riverside Studios in London. The exhibition aimed at extending the notion of appropriation while dispelling the aura of genius, madness and originality, and masculinity that surrounds the historical connotations of the artist-auteur.
However, Purloined Stories is an exhibition that revisits the idea of image theft with a group of artists who highlight the fabrication of narratives throughout history by recreating existing historical masterpieces, emphasizing the fiction of the original, and at times using the existing images for their own strategies illustrating that the narrative is servile to power. Another differentiating quality in Purloined Stories is that it presents artists who seem to be interested in politics and power. Many of the works reference paintings relating to the French Revolution or colonialism.
Are such works of art featured in Purloined Stories commonly produced?
All the art historical references in Purloined Stories are of famous art historical masterpieces. I don't know of any, but I would not be surprised if many of these works were appropriated for various tactics because of their fame and meaning. I think the most popular referenced piece in the show is Eugene Delacroix’s famous painting Liberty Leading the People (1830). This is the piece Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge reference. The original painting personified liberty in a goddess figure leading fighters of all social classes in an idealized commemoration of the July Revolution of 1830. Liberty is a political philosophy that identifies the condition in which human beings are able to govern themselves, according to their own free will, and take responsibility for their actions. In Delacroix’s painting, Liberty holds France’s tri-coloured flag in a triumphant victory. The allegorical goddess-figure has become a symbol of freedom, popularized by the Statue of Liberty in New York City which was given to the United States as a gift from the French fifty years after Delacroix’s painting was created.
What do you hope for people to take away from the exhibit?
I hope this exhibition will prompt people to question the ways stories and images are presented to them. Many of the works referenced by the artists in Purloined Stories are famous gems of art history and are at times perceived as visual accounts of history. However, historical documentation lead back to either patrons or artists and present a particular perspective.
I also hope that this exhibition speaks to our nature as humans. All of the famous works referenced are about times of revolution, change, or conquest, all of these moments were fictionalized in certain ways at the time. I think that says a lot about human nature and the desire to turn to fiction in times of change or turbulence.