The characters and scenes depicted in the 35 works in the History Portraits series are largely fictionalized, showing Sherman posed with prosthetics and make-up, often cross-dressing as a man, and draped in period-style clothing. Like the fictional characters from Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills or Centerfolds series, Untitled #212 does not refer to any specific historical figure, but rather depicts a caricature, a woman seemingly from the Renaissance period, posed in front of a marble column or adjacent to a statue of the Virgin Mary. Her heavy make-up is unevenly applied and a protruding prosthetic nose betrays the deliberate manipulation of the image.
From a cursory glance, this picture, in a replicated gilded frame, could be in any portrait hall in a museum; yet under closer inspection, this illusion comes apart. Indeed, these visible, artificial disguises mirror the artifice of the constructed identities in Sherman’s History Portraits. The crude details that Sherman deliberately and painstakingly applies seem to echo the meticulous, labored, and detail-oriented process of Old Master painting. In the art historical tradition, it is standard practice for young artists to copy Old Master works in their training, yet Sherman undermines this classical practice by assuming the conventionally male-dominated role of artist. Both in subject and execution, Sherman draws parallels and distinctions between her work and the work of her artistic precedents, exonerating and satirizing the canon of art history. As MoMA curator Eva Respini asserts, “Even where her pictures offer a gleam of art historical recognition, Sherman has inserted her own interpretation of these ossified paintings, turning them into contemporary artifacts of a bygone era.” (Respini, Cindy Sherman, p. 43-44)
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