Last fall I had to write an Art History paper on a contemporary artist. Enamoured as I am with the old masters, I wasn’t too pleased about this. “Why waste good research time on something I’m not interested in?” I fumed. We were able to choose from a list of about thirty contemporary artists; none of whom I was familiar with, nor wanted to be. I’m pretty sure in hindsight, that the prof had good reasons for the artists on her list. But at the time, I wasn’t impressed.
So rather than going with the flow, I tracked down a contemporary artist whose work I thought was more important, more interesting, more relevant. I sent my prof an argument for choosing a different artist, thinking she’d welcome my initiative. Much to my shock she refused my request and redirected me back to her list. As a fifty-five year old student, “no” was a challenging concept for me to swallow.
I’d like to show you the work of Anna Utopia Giordano, the contemporary artist I wanted to research. In her project, Venus, Giordano alters classic images of Venus to reflect our twenty-first century beauty standards. The Venus project appeals to me in its commentary, visual impact, and of course, connection to the old masters.
You might recall this Bronzino painting of Venus, Cupid, Time and Folly on the Florentine bus I posted earlier this week. Here, Bronzino’s Venus has been digitally nipped and tucked, looking considerably less voluptuous and rounded.
Botticelli’s Goddess of Love was among the first non religious themed women ever portrayed. In Allegory of Spring, Venus rises from the ocean on a seashell, looking like a classical statue. Giordano elongates her curves, making her appear as if she’d spent some serious time with a trainer and had some liposuction.
Titian’s Venus of Urbino, who represented the ideal female form of the Renaissance, has also undergone a dramatic before and after. The soft sensuality of Venus’s flesh is what Titian’s painting is renowned for. Here, Giordano has sculpted away the softness to conform her shape to our current ideal of beauty.
Is less more? Is more less? Whether your tastes run old world rubenesque or not, it’s interesting to observe how our standard of beauty has evolved. Click over to see the transformation in Bouguereau’s, Cabanet’s, Hayez’s, Ingres’s, Velasquez’s, Gentileschi’s and Richard’s Venus‘s as well. But enough on naked goddesses for now. Onto urinals and men in drag.
My rejected Venus paper led me to writing a paper on an appropriation artist. I had to begin by googling what appropriation art even was. I was still bristling from the ‘no’ on the Venus project so was prepared to dislike everything about it. What a shock to discover I loved it.
Appropriation art began in 1917 with Marcel Duchamp’s giant fuck you to the art world. He took a common, mass-produced urinal, rotated it, signed it, and titled it “Fountain”. Think for a moment how the world feels about sculpture and fountains. The famous Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy for example, has over a million visitors annually and a ‘tossed in’ coin income of over 3000 euros daily. In the fourth century, Rome was home to over 1352 fountains. Duchamp was treading on sacred ground, assaulting convention and good taste with his fountain. But what he intended as a practical joke, began a shift in modern art. No longer was art only about beauty, skill and detail, but also about ‘concept’ or ‘statement’.
Yasumasu Morimura, the appropriation artist I researched for my paper, is challenging gender bias and cultural prejudice with his work. It’s unsettling at first to see the face of a Japanese man as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, isn’t it? Through the detailed use of props, costume, makeup, set design and digital manipulation, Morimura reinvents himself as the subject of historical masterpieces, mass media and popular culture. “Why” we might ask. He explains, “Art is basically entertainment. Even Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were entertainers. In that way, I am an entertainer and want to make art that is fun.”
This little foray into contemporary art has landed me in an unexpected place. I came in determined to hold tightly to my fifteenth century mindset and have found myself growing beyond it. I can appreciate now that appropriation art gives new and varied narrative to historical pieces. And that the ‘statement and concept’ of contemporary art is as vital and relevant to our collective history as Renaissance art is.
Not a bad pay off for having to write a paper about something I thought I wasn’t interested in.