One of the most celebrated photographs from her acclaimed series of History Portraits, Untitled #223 encapsulates in a single iconic self-image the principle tenets that underpin Cindy Sherman’s entire oeuvre. Taking as her source image the Madonna Litta attributed to the School of Leonardo, Sherman appropriates this infamous and instantly recognisable image by casting herself in the lead role, thereby contesting the very notion of originality and authenticity in art while simultaneously raising complex questions about the representation of the self.
While her earlier black and white Film Stills in the 1970s sought to expropriate the generic and hackneyed commonplaces from popular film culture, the present series looks to mine the canon of art history, culling the image of the Madonna and Child – the stock motif par excellence of Renaissance religious iconography – which is embedded in our shared consciousness. Sherman alchemises the subject from its classical genre of History Painting to her own reconfigured genre of photography, a genre-type she coins as History Portrait. The changed nuance of her title is important here, because each work is indeed a portrait, a self-image of the artist. Re-enacting the scene, Sherman assumes the countenance, dress and attributes of the Madonna, translating the source image through her own aesthetic, complete with dramatic stage make-up and prosthetic breast. The picture takes on the characteristics of performance art and the imperfections of the disguise force us to focus on the artifice of the scene and serve to remind us that we are not looking at the Madonna but at the artist herself. This is accentuated in the present work through the composition which is the mirror-image of the original, as if Sherman is scrutinizing herself in her reflective camera lens.
Through portraying exclusively female protagonists, Sherman highlights female representation in art and the stereotypes that it engenders. Until the Twentieth century, women were almost exclusively the subjects rather than the practitioners of fine art; by appropriating the personas of these sitters, Sherman becomes both subject-matter and artist, encouraging in the modern viewer a critical reappraisal of the role and significance of women in art history. Unlike Leonardo’s male-gendered image of femininity, the emphasis in Sherman’s image shifts towards a less idealised image of motherhood.
With its complex layers of meaning, Untitled #223 is a work that confronts the possibilities of re-presentation of the ready-made. One of her most accomplished compositions, it enshrines in a stunning image Sherman’s groundbreaking contribution to the discourse on contemporary art photography.
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