I like appropriation in the visual arts. For me it’s an amusing way into contemporary art when artists of our day reflect on old masters. I know something about old masters so for me it’s like a puzzle to be solved as to what it could all mean when a composition is duplicated in another medium. Because that’s when I am especially thrilled – when the medium changes. This is what I am talking about:
In this case Cindy Sherman obviously plays on gender – a woman posing as a man, but the gender issue also refers to Caravaggio’s homosexuality since the Bacchus is a self-portrait. Sherman might even be referring to the rising AIDS epidemic at the time by choosing to appropriate the sick Bacchus and not Caravaggio’s other and healthier Bacchus from c. 1597 as one writer suggests. And you could go on.
It is not unusual to see political aspects in appropriation. One of my favorite examples is British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s photographic series reflecting on Francisco Goya’s famous print The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters from c. 1797, which is an emblem of the Enlightenment with its sleeping artist who dreams up creatures of the night when his reason isn’t looking. Terrible and also terribly interesting.
Shonibare made five photos based on this image each of them referring to a continent such as this:
Obviously he changed the meaning by adding “Africa” and a question mark to the sentence and thus concretizes the words. Will the sleep of reason produce monsters in Africa? Or has it already? For centuries perhaps? When you add that the sleeping person is wearing a suit made out of typically African fabrics while being himself a white man questions of race, colonialism and globalism become urgent. By using an icon of European art Shonibare brings together different ages and underscores a very sad point about the world not learning from history. Wars, hatred, unreason, greed, fear will always overwhelm us when we let our reason rest too long.
One last example also deals with the state of our world while also being just fascinating. Here you have French artist Bernard Pras’s take on the famous Hokusai print of the great wave off Kanagawa:
And the original from the 1820s:
Pras builds up a three dimensional installation out of modern objects like rubber gloves, plastic spoons and plugs and let them form a devastating wave of consumerism. Political – oh yes, but as I said also just simply fascinating when you take a closer look at the craft it took to make this art work.
So yes, I am a fan of quotes, appropriations and comments on the art of the old masters when done as intelligently as Sherman, Shonibare and Pras do it. It definitely has something – and more than just being parodic though I also enjoy the tongue in cheek-ness of many appropriational art works.