Cindy Sherman: Her “History Portrait” Series as Post-Modern Parody

by Editors


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By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Bread and Circus senior contributing writer

uch ink has been spilled over the work of American photographer Cindy Sherman. Born in New Jersey in 1954, Sherman’s artistic career began in New York City in the 1970’s; she is perhaps best known for using herself as the subject of her photographs. That said, her works are not self-portraits in the traditional sense, for she adopts diverse personae (from the Latin for the “masks” used in drama) by donning make-up, setting herself before elaborate backdrops and wearing fanciful dress. Even in childhood, Sherman’s brothers and sisters recollect her often playing dress-up. In fact, she has continued to dress in costumes as a hobby (even in public) ever since. (See note 1)

Her “History Portrait” series of thirty-five photographs is particularly interesting for its blend of Post-Modern consciousness with timeless masterpieces of European masters. She created the group during the years 1989 and 1990 while she was living in Rome with her now ex-husband, the French film-maker Michel Auder. (note 2) Though nearly twenty years old, the series remains a classic; just this summer a multi-artist show at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis included some of her “History Portraits” in their exhibition “Portrait/Homage/Embodiment.”

The images in the “History” series either relate directly to images in classical European painting (the so-called Old Masters), or relate more generally to types found during that period. Although she created the series in (arguably) Europe’s greatest living museum, La Città Eterna (the Eternal City), incredibly she claims that she derived her inspiration vicariously. She’s been quoted as saying,

When I was doing those history pictures I was living in Rome but never went to the churches and museums there. I worked out of books, with reproductions. It’s an aspect of photography I appreciate conceptually: the idea that images can be reproduced and seen anytime, anywhere, by anyone. (note 3)

That said, the photos remain original conceptions, loosely based upon—but not duplicates of—original works.

Sherman began work on the series, apparently, as a commission to create images for use on Limoges porcelain plates. Duly inspired, she continued in that vein, making images in celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution of 1789. (note 4) At the opening of her corresponding show at Metro Pictures Gallery in New York, the photos were printed on a large scale and were hung in ornate gold frames—much like classic European paintings are hung in museums.

Though primarily a photographer/film-maker now, her attraction to painting began early in her life; as a school-aged child she often created drawings and paintings. In fact, contrary to what one might assume, photography did not even come naturally to her; in the early Seventies Sherman actually failed her first undergraduate course in photography. She also has claimed that she never did well in Art History where she had problems memorizing names and dates. (note 5) Downplaying her art-historical savvy, she’s said,

I’m illiterate in the historical, classic knowledge of photography, the stuff teachers attempted to bore into my head, which I resisted. The way I’ve always tried to cull information from older art and put it into my work is that I view it all anonymously, on a visceral level. (note 6)

She really blossomed artistically after graduating and moving to Manhattan. In 1983, she recalled a pivotal, painting-related inspiration for her unique approach to photography: “I had all this make-up. I just wanted to see how transformed I could look. It was like painting in a way.” (note 7)

Most art historians like to discuss Cindy Sherman’s photos in terms of a Feminist critique of the “male gaze”. Feminist art criticism assumes that the making of art—as well as its iconography and reception by viewers—is gender-influenced. (note 8 ) As a Feminist, therefore, Sherman’s work would serve to challenge the traditional male view of women’s roles in art and society. (note 9) In part, I agree that Sherman explores the changing face of women’s roles in history. In doing research on her “History Portrait” series, however, I became inspired to follow a new tack. Read the rest of this entry »