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Art Review: “Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist”

by Editors

THE ARTS

Review:  “Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist”

Herman Trunk and the Modernist Still Life is on view at Endicott College, Beverly, MA from October 15-December 18, 2009. For opening times and directions see the Endicott webpage.

The catalogue, Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist (Emmanuel College, 2009), is available at Lulu.com.

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

320_7668852Crucifix 08-41-19

Crucifix (ca. 1930); Pencil with wax on paper; 10 x 14 in.; Collection of the family of Herman Trunk, Jr.

With the advent of the modern world came an accompanying theory of secularization.[1] Enlightenment philosophers held that a developmental model of civilization demands that with modernization (read: rationalization) religion would necessarily decline.

Religion, of course, (in its broadest sense, including individual spirituality) has never left art or culture, and in a post-9/11 world I would suggest that even the most cynical critics would agree that life continues to be saturated with religious sentiment—spoken or unspoken.

In the visual arts, the period known as “Modernism” (the period from the turn of the last century until the 1960s) has been long associated with a firm commitment to individualism, iconoclasm and break with traditional institutions. This perspective became the mainstream means by which art critics and art historians came to measure successful art of the period.

In part, this perhaps explains why artists such as Herman Trunk, Jr. (1894-1963), a devout Roman Catholic who often imbued his paintings with overt symbolism, was exiled to the margins of American art history. This seemingly blind disregard for his work has recently impelled two Boston-area art historians, Cynthia Fowler and Dena Gilby, to reassess his religious and still-life works as masterful pieces in the Cubist and near-Surrealist styles. Fowler serendipitously discovered the artist in the process of researching her forthcoming book on hooked rugs designed by American modernists during the 20s and 30s.

The two scholars put together companion shows of Trunk’s work this Fall at their respective colleges: Fowler’s at Emmanuel in Boston (from 9/8-10/22) and Gilby’s at Endicott in Beverly (from 10/15-12/18). Fowler also organized and hosted a day-long symposium dedicated to the artist (“Religion and Modernism in American Art of the 1920s and 30s”
 on 10/3) and produced a handsome catalogue, Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist (Emmanuel College, 2009).

The catalogue contains essays by Fowler and Gilby, and also by Trunk’s nephew, Joseph (“Greg”) Smith. Smith grew up with the artist and his article sheds valuable light upon the man and anecdotes from his personal life, much of which was lived in Brooklyn, NY. Smith’s family photos and stories help to flesh out the biographical and iconographic picture painted by Fowler in her introductory and main essays. Fowler’s essays and show loosely cover Trunk’s figurative and landscape works, while Gilby’s are focused upon his still-lifes and flower pieces.

The artist that emerges from the well-illustrated catalogue is a complex and—at times—contradictory figure. Contradictory, perhaps, because of our own (aforementioned) inherited bias about what constitutes a Modern painter in the abstract style. We do not usually imagine, for example, a dedicated family man who sentimentally paints his wife’s Valentine’s chocolates, or the interlocking “Sacred Hearts” of Jesus and Mary in order to grieve the loss of his mother in visual terms.[2]

SacredHearts

Sacred Hearts (1930); Watercolor and gouache on board; 20 1/2 x 17 1/2 in.; Collection of the family of Herman Trunk, Jr.

It is Trunk’s return, perhaps, to tried-and-true symbols of traditional Christianity that sets him apart from his contemporaries such as Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe: artists with whom he was shown side by side at the Biennials of the Whitney Museum of American Art and Venice in his heyday.

Viewed in-person, the works are astounding for their rich color-sensibility and harmonies of geometry. Many are in either watercolor or gouache media, with only a couple in oil. According to Gilby,[3] during the Depression and war years the artist worked full-time in his family’s print shop, and often painted after-hours. Thus, this choice may have been due to monetary constraints, reasons of convenience, or both.

luckys

Luckies (1925); Oil on board; 10 x 8 in.; Collection of the family of Herman Trunk, Jr.

Indeed, the watercolors and gouache seem to be more adroitly handled than the oils, but the oil medium seems to have allowed the artist to work up thick impasto in order to gain sculptural effect and depth that challenge the two-dimensionality of the surface. The same insistence on delving into space is found in his beaverboard piece, “Artist’s Palette” (n.d.; Oil on board), where the artist incises geometric shapes into the surface, outlining his color passages and allowing the wood grain to show through. This treatment is reminiscent of Picasso and Braque’s experiments with Synthetic Cubism and work-a-day materials, and may have been learned during Trunk’s time at the Art Students League.

Interestingly, Gilby has also included a long vitrine in the Endicott show housing one of Trunk’s notebooks as well as some personal correspondence and family photographs. This archival material is an advantageous corollary to the still-lifes and landscapes. Further testament to continued strong family-ties among the Trunks, it was also brought to my attention that the frames for many of the works were hand-fashioned for the exhibitions by the artist’s nephew, including the attractive multi-layered bronze-colored frame surrounding “Black-Eyed Susan.”[4]

Far and away the greatest contribution made by the catalogue essays is that they frame Trunk’s work not according to his experimental style—as was done in a Hirschl and Adler Galleries retrospective in 1989[5]—but, rather through the lens of his Catholic faith. This faith is expressed in his use of traditional symbolism as well as his imagery redolent of nature as God’s creation.

The authors take great pains to explain how devout Trunk, his wife Irene, and indeed the whole Trunk family were. There are images of the local parish, stories about faithful trips to morning mass, and accumulated evidence of attention paid to traditional Biblical narrative, Catholic iconography as well as the imbuing of everyday objects with personal, devotional significance.

True, there are passages in the writing where one might wish for more in-depth analysis of the iconography of the works: for example, greater discussion of the floral and fruit symbols like roses and oranges most often associated with Mary, mother of Christ; or the use of jewel tones and thick outlines reminiscent of stained glass; or the use of metallic paint which calls to mind a long history of gilt panel altarpieces. However, the description of “Trees” (Cat. 6, c. 1930-35, watercolor and pencil on paper) as cathedral-like is enticing, as is the likening of the oft-mentioned tenets of mysticism in the vein of Kandinsky to those of “conventional faith.”[6] Overall the essays serve as an even-handed, valuable introduction to the artist and his unique milieu.

The catalogue and exhibition are highly recommended to those interested in Modern art, religious iconography, or a reconsideration of how the two might be considered more fruitfully in tandem.

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Addendum:

Since the original publication of this article, Dr. Gilby has brought to my attention that the title of the Endicott Show differs from the one I first listed here, the one published on the catalogue overleaf, in fact.  I have fixed this above, correcting the title to read “Herman Trunk and the Modernist Still Life,” instead of “Modernist Specters in the Still Life Paintings of Herman Trunk, Jr.” as previously stated.

Furthermore, (in personal correspondence) Dr. Gilby takes slight issue with my assertions that her catalogue essay and the Endicott show “are specifically focused on Trunk’s Catholicism.”  Though I may not have expressed with enough clarity Trunk’s many-layered connections to the worlds of Modern Art and the New York scene, I would maintain that the thread of Catholicism is readily interwoven into Gilby’s show and essay.

Agreeing whole-heartedly with Dr. Gilby, I would simply state that Trunk is a versatile, talented artist whose art is well-worth experiencing on any of a number of levels.

-Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, November 21, 2009


[1] Sally M. Promey, “The ‘Return’ of Religion in the Scholarship of American Art,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 85, no. 3 (Sept., 2003): 584.

[2] Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist (Emmanuel College, 2009), pp. 28-29.

[3] In a personal conversation on 11/6/2009.

[4] Again, personal conversation with Dena Gilby on 11/6/2009.

[5] See the exhibition catalogue, Herman Trunk (New York: Hirschl and Adler Galleries, 1989.)

[6] Herman Trunk, Jr.: Catholic Modernist, pp. 23, 25.

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Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an editor of Bread and Circus Magazine and an Independent Scholar of Art History, specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

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Freedom Paintings

by Editors

NEW VOICES / JOURNEYS

Freedom Paintings

By Jessica Miles

While studying abroad this past June in Prague, Czech Republic, I traveled outside the city to gain a better understanding of the effects of Nazism on the country. I arrived in Terezín on a hazy Saturday afternoon and toured the Small Fortress of the Terezín Ghetto where thousands of prisoners were held against their will during the Holocaust.

“It mustn’t be forgotten,” she said.

This is why Mrs. Helga Weissová-Hošková visited that day; this is why she spoke. Mrs. Weissová-Hošková had come to share her story as a Holocaust survivor from Prague who was sent to the Terezín Ghetto on December 17, 1941. She was twelve when she arrived at Terezín.

“It mustn’t be forgotten,” she boldly stated.

She toddled into the room that day in a taupe pant suit and a clunky gold necklace holding a purse that was half her size on her forearm. She was no more than five feet tall with a slight arch in her back, salt and pepper hair, and crystal blue eyes. She gently placed her bag down on the chair and paused.

“I am here…to tell you…my story,” she said in broken English.

Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s nightmare began in Prague in 1941, when the Nazi regime expanded to the Eastern Block. She did not know her fate that day when her family was forced into a crowded truck and blindly relocated one hour away to Terezín, a small town in northwest Czechoslovakia. The Nazis had transformed Terezín into a labor camp where Czech Jews would work before being transferred to a concentration camp.

In December 1941, Mrs. Weissová-Hošková and her parents arrived at the Small Fortress of Terezín. Arbeit Macht Frei, read the message over the entranceway. Work Brings Freedom. The brick fortification surrounded by sprawling green hills was secluded and bare. Barbed wire lined the fortress walls, which were adorned with barred windows and doors.

J Miles 2Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s home was in the barracks of the Small Fortress isolated from the outside world. She was housed with several other Czech Jews. Yet, even in the dismal conditions, together they created normality however they could.

“We kept our traditions. We were always together,” Mrs. Weissová-Hošková said as she recalled lighting the Chanukkah menorah in a dark loft within the fortress. She remembered gathering around the menorah with the other children, their eyes brighter than the burning flames.

However, the desolation overshadowed the mere moments of contentment. The smell of rotting bodies, the threat of typhoid, and the lasting despair lingered around every corner of the ghetto, but she never lost hope.

By night Mrs. Weissová-Hošková was crammed into the rickety wooden bunks overcrowded with emaciated figures yearning for sustenance as bugs crept across their frail bodies. By day she was one of thousands of Jews identified by the yellow Star of David on her sleeve, which she still carries with her.

Mrs. Weissová-Hošková considered herself quite lucky, as she was never separated from her mother during the selection process. Her father was not so fortunate.

“We were told we were going to another ghetto. My father went ahead of us. I did not know I would not see him again,” she said. “We never found my father’s name on the lists [of prisoners registered at Auschwitz]. He was probably gassed before arriving at Auschwitz.”

Days later in October of 1944, Mrs. Weissová-Hošková and her mother were loaded into crowded trucks and once again blindly transferred from Terezín to Auschwitz. Sixteen days later, along with thousands of other Czech prisoners, Mrs. Weissová-Hošková and her mother were liberated by the Soviet army in 1945.

* * *

Aside from her words Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s story is also told through her artwork. With her paints and brushes, Mrs. Weissová-Hošková painted the truth behind the walls of the Small Fortress and was eager to share her work that day.

painting 1

Violinists in the barracks. This painting of three prisoners providing entertainment in the barracks of the Small Fortress represents an escape from Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s surroundings. It is a symbol of unity; a man wraps his arm around a woman, while a young girl holds her knees to her chest as she listens to the violinists draw their bows along the strings of the violins.

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Terezín’s children. This painting symbolizes the children of Terezín who banded together and celebrated the traditions closest to their hearts. Lighting the Chanukkah menorah was one such tradition that took place within the walls of the barracks.

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Vanished hope. A man falls against the jagged wall of barbed wire surrounding the Small Fortress. “This man had no more hope. He did not want to live anymore,” said Mrs. Weissová-Hošková. His gaunt figure falls to the ground, his hands still grasping the piercing barrier.

Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s drawings were later recovered following the termination of the Nazi regime and represent a cultural commemoration to the battle millions of prisoners fought for survival. Today, she is recognized internationally for her artwork and as an outspoken survivor of the Holocaust. Mrs. Weissová-Hošková’s pieces have been featured in several exhibitions, including A Child Artist in Terezín: Witness to the Holocaust. She has also been spotlighted in various publications for sharing her voice and her art with those who believe in her message, for those who believe it mustn’t be forgotten.

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Jessica Miles is a Bread and Circus Magazine contributing writer.

Text and photographs © 2009 Jessica Miles.
Paintings © 2009 Helga Weissová-Hošková. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of the Artist.
Thanks to Milan Polák of CIEE, Council on International Educational Exchange, for assistance in the preparation of this article.

NEW VOICES is a Bread and Circus Magazine feature in which emerging writers share their views on aspects of contemporary culture.

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Gallery

by Editors

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Image from Teensy Weensy Book
4.25″x4.25″
Kristine Williams, 2009

“This is a book project I’m working on. Almost every piece has a cutout, or what I’m calling cliffhangers in this series.” –K. Williams

For more, visit the artist’s blog here.


© 2009 Kristine Williams. All Rights Reserved.  Used with Permission.

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Navigating “The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes”

by Editors

THE ARTS

Navigating “The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes”

On view at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA from June 13 to September 7, 2009

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes show at the PEM is a captivating tour through the Seventeenth Century through the lens of the Dutch self-image as a sea-faring people.

As with Dutch genre paintings, it has been known for decades that seascape paintings are not just records of daily life, nor purely aesthetic objects, but that they are nuanced vehicles for deeper meanings.  Walking through the five well-lit and well-ordered galleries of this exhibition gives the viewer a developing sense of the Dutch as explorers, merchants, divinely sanctioned pilgrims, travelers and heroes.

The first three galleries (The Sea-A New Subject; Vistas of the Netherlands; and A Sea of Symbols) are painted in calming blue tones, calling to mind the panoramic vista of sea and sky so innately interwoven with the Dutch consciousness.  Most of the early paintings are highly detailed, sometimes capturing individualized ships in small cabinet pieces for discerning collectors, but also in larger pieces that depict nationalistic scenes for grand public venues.

Walking through these rooms, the styles in the pieces range over time from honey-rich, tonalist pieces of the first decades of the century by artists like Jan Porcellis to more brightly colored, spot lit works by artists like Jan van Goyen.  In the Vistas of the Netherlands gallery, a singular printed map of the world by Justus Danckers is particularly eye-catching: a reminder of the grand aspirations of this tiny, but enterprising nation.

In the Sea of Symbols gallery, it is a Flemish, rather than a Dutch picture, which seduces the eye.  The unattributed work, The Wreck of the Amsterdam, ca. 1630, is ambitious in its size, as well as its subject.  Indicative of its Flemish origin (and perhaps its facture by the elusive Andries van Eertvelt?), the piece is made up of strong local colors and has telltale rhetorical flair, including stylized swirling eddies.  Its Baroque theatricality plays out in the drama of six ships, three foundering in the foreground in dramatic, diagonal thrusts.  The slanting shafts of divine light that break through ominous cloud formations echo the position of these vessels, highlighting the prayerful survivors on the left-hand promontory.  These apocalyptic and redemptive qualities, in conjunction with paired end panels of the Virgin Mary and the seal of the City of Amsterdam on the two foreground ships may portend religious discord, begging the interpretation of the viewer.

The fourth gallery [Far Horizons] switches tone with its ambient Dijon yellow walls; intimating to the viewer that we’ve changed time, place and atmosphere.  This room is dedicated to the Dutch as travelers, and—on the buttery backdrop—the largely cerulean image of The Darsna delle Galere and Castello Nuovo at Naples by Caspar van Wittel, steals the limelight. Upon closer inspection, its clear Mediterranean light and lack of atmospheric envelope indicate a radical shift in locale, taste and artistic sensibility.  Indeed, the painting dates to the waning of the Dutch Golden Age during the Eighteenth Century.  This was a time when the Dutch Seaborne Empire was fading fast in the midst of competition from France and England: and, not just on the seas and trading lanes, but also on the cultural front.  The elite classes among the Dutch bourgeoisie of this period fell under the siren sway of the Grand Tour and followed the Rococo trend towards gentrification and classicism in both subject and tone.

The final gallery [Patronage, Battles and the Exotic] is a cinnabar color, again drawing our attention to a thematic sea change.  This gallery is dominated by nationalist odes—great ocean victories and colonial ports—including a few monochromatic ink-paintings that jump off the dark wall in their ivory-color and scrimshaw-sensibility. Holding court at one end of the room, Ferdinand Bol’s portrait of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter demands our attention.  Posed in a formulaic, if perfectly-pitched pose, the Admiral wears a modish uniform, framed by an enveloping crimson curtain which connects the open harbor view to his left with the globe under his right elbow.  His commanding persona is mostly due to his girth and his tremendously moustachioed visage; Bol understandably falls short of his master, Rembrandt’s, gift for deftly transcribing personality into paint-strokes.

Though the show of seventy compelling works is admirable in its scope and its masterful dedication to the subject of seascape, one might be left wondering about a couple of issues: Why the curators did not intersperse vitrines containing examples of the material culture of mercantile trade and colonial expansion raised by the show (two obvious strengths of the Peabody Essex’s collection); and why more depictions of non-European distant shores and wall text explicating the colonialist drive behind the Dutch East- and West India Companies are missing from the show.  Perhaps this is a function of the available loans from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK, and/or a conscious choice by the curators to focus on the paintings’ iconographic rather than cultural context.

That said, in its intense focus on one multifaceted genre and (virtually) one medium of Dutch art, this show is at once illuminating and enthralling for the connoisseur and amateur art enthusiast alike.

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Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is a senior contributing writer & contributing editor of Bread and Circus and an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

Image (above): The Wreck of the Amsterdam, c.1630, Anonymous, Oil on canvas, 1257 x 1778mm, © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK.

Art and Ecumenicity

by Editors

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

Yesterday I participated in “Faith in Art”: An Ecumenical Art Retreat.  The retreat was envisioned with the express purpose of bringing together people of diverse faith backgrounds to explore how art channels spirituality in all its forms.

We had four speakers with various professions and backgrounds speak on a range of topics: a female icon-painting Lutheran minister, a “spiritually open” female gallery curator/art historian and two male artists-one a Muslim from Cairo and the other an agnostic college professor.  They spoke on subjects varying from traditional icon making to contemporary secular spiritualism to personal visions of God as found in beauty and inner truth to the importance of comedy in spirituality as a means of transcending human hubris and dogmatism from the ancient Greeks forward.

While the topics ranged from East to West and back East and West again, from the sacred image to the outwardly secular installation, from the sacred written word to the satyr play, all the interstitial spaces between seemed to fill with the same aching for knowledge of the inner-self and its foundation in something larger and selfless.

Each speaker vocalized how art formed a means to connect with the transcendent, either as prayer, as a means of emptying the ego, a way to find wonder and mystery in the seemingly well-mapped world or to question the tragic as the sole purveyor of divinity.

The group that gathered was not large-fewer than twenty-but the ambience was intimate, the talks provocative and the energy overwhelmingly positive and radiant.  There were folks of all ages, walks of life, and levels of artistic proficiency.

After a lunch break, our afternoon was consumed by art making, trying desperately to channel some of the positive focus and lessons learned from intellectual exercises into a physical form-a record for others to see and imbibe.

The works will hang collectively at the nearby Montserrat Gallery in short stead. Those  visitors who walk the hall and see them hanging side by side will see just how diverse the participants were, and just how singular the beautiful light that shone through our facture.

I think we all left thinking to ourselves that it’s amazing what the human mind and spirit can accomplish in an atmosphere of open exploration, fellowship and tolerance.

Every global movement starts somewhere, and I hope the spark of ecumenical spirituality kindled today spreads outward in an ever-widening circle of embrace.  The aching world is ready and waiting.

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This item originally appeared in the blog Percyflage.

Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is a senior contributing writer & contributing editor of Bread and Circus Magazine and an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

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

by Editors

THE ART WORLD

Cindy Sherman: Her “History Portrait” Series as Post-Modern Parody Book cover-Cindy Sherman History Portraits -- buy from Amazon.com

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

M
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 »