- Hiroshi Sugimoto
- Henry VIII
Catherine of Aragon
Anne of Cleves
- silver-gelatin prints in artist's frames, in seven parts
White Cube, London
Exh. Cat., Berlin, Deutsche Guggenheim Museum (and traveling), Sugimoto: Portraits, 2000, illustrated on the front cover (Anne Boleyn), illustrated on the back cover (Henry VIII); p. 79, illustrated (Henry VIII); p. 81, illustrated (Catherine of Aragon); p. 83, illustrated (Anne Boleyn); p. 85, illustrated (Jane Seymour); p. 87, illustrated (Anne of Cleves); p. 89, illustrated, (Catherine Howard) and p. 91, illustrated (Catherine Parr)
Exh. Cat., Tokyo, Mori Art Museum (and traveling), Hiroshi Sugimoto: End of Time, 2005, (another example)
Sugimoto’s entire photographic output evinces an enduring interest in the notion of time, from the eternal, primal stillness of the iconic Seascapes to the Theaters whose exposures last the duration of the movie, literally capturing the passage of time in the incandescent white screens. In the Portraits series, within which Henry VIII and his six wives are arguably the most indicative of the whole, Sugimoto grapples more directly with History itself, exploring photography’s inextricable relationship to the past and delighting in the intricate web of meaning that derives not just from the historicity of his subjects but from the multiple layers of historical representation – oil painting, wax effigies, silver gelatin on paper – that his photographs enshrine. As the artist explains: “Art History turned out to be important in Portraits. My objective this time was to do wax portraits, and I became as fascinated in the history behind the figures as I was about the history of portrait painting and the history of the wax museum. The more I studied, the more interested I became.” (Exh. Cat., Berlin, Deutsche Guggenheim Museum, Sugimoto: Portraits, New York, 2000, p. 27)
The Portraits follow the Dioramas series, in which Sugimoto photographed the three-dimensional tableaux of prehistoric life found in natural history museums, recording their hallucinatory aura on film as if they were genuine views. Championing the verisimilitude of artificiality, the present series manifests the same fascination with factual simulation, which is at the very core of portraiture in any medium. In each image in the series, Sugimoto photographs a wax effigy from the displays of the infamous Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London, an institution that has specialised in making meticulous three-dimensional facsimiles of historical (and fictional) figures since the eighteenth century, preserving for perpetuity their physical likeness in wax.
With his trademark sharp and crystalline resolution, Sugimoto depicts the Renaissance King Henry VIII and his doomed harem of six wives, one of the most infamous and oft repeated chapters from British history. There is a jarring incongruity between the modernity of the medium and the subject matter traditionally associated with Old Master Paintings. This is of course deliberate: Sugimoto’s works are re-presentations in a different medium of existing representations. Ironically, the elegant black and white images appear more life-like than the wax effigies themselves, as the artist uses his dexterity behind the lens to even out any hint of artifice, playing on the widespread but fallacious perception that photography is a truthful medium. Sugimoto photographically resuscitates these wax corpses, breathing life into figures from bygone centuries. Acknowledging the correlation between the wax effigies and the processes of photographic portraiture, Sugimoto sees himself as the photographer of a bygone era: “In a way, the portrait in wax served as photography does now… It’s as if I’m a sixteenth-century photographer ready to participate in their memorialization.” (Ibid. pp. 32-33)
There is a further conceptual paradox derived from the original source of these effigies – contemporaneous painted portraits. The most famous of these are the three portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger, the Tudor court painter and Renaissance master, of Henry VIII, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves. There is, therefore, a further remove, a further layer of mediation between Sugimoto and his subject: his is a photographic image of a three-dimensional simulacrum, which in turn derives from a two-dimensional representation in oils of a living human being. While all three media - fused together in this process - strive at accurate representation, the dramatic tension arises in the present work from the antagonistic continuities and discontinuities between the centuries-old tradition of portraiture and the relatively modern photographic medium, which, ironically, is widely perceived to have caused the demise of traditional portraiture in oils.
Here, Sugimoto adapts his mechanical and technical processes in order to approximate as closely as possible the painterly technique of Holbein. In the sixteenth century, the skill of an artist was judged on his ability to feign in paint the subtle differentiations in texture between flesh, fur, fabrics of varying densities and the smooth reflective surfaces of glass and jewels. Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII is a consummate example of the painter’s deftness of touch in his painstaking forgeries of the delicately embroidered, pearl-encrusted, intricately gathered Renaissance courtly garments. Sugimoto strives to capture the same degree of refined detail in his photographs: “For this project, my technical exercise was to get as much detail as possible. Like traditional Dutch portrait painting – every jewel and gem holds a reflection… I studied many portraits, particularly by early Flemish painters of the fifteenth century. I studied how the sitters were positioned, how the shadows were treated, how a portrait was painted. In my photographs I applied the same painterly technique of using light to heighten the detail of costumes of each figure.” (Ibid., p. 33)
The present works are the exquisite embodiment of Sugimoto’s declared project. Unlike the earlier series with their elaborate backdrops, in the Portraits each historical protagonist is set before a black backdrop which focuses attention on the sitter’s features. Like the original paintings, each is subjected to a rigid formulaic structure, viewed in three-quarter profile. For the first time in Sugimoto’s oeuvre, each figure is depicted life-size, enabled by the artist’s skilled technical facility with the enlargement process. Each is dramatically lit and reproduced in high contrast to emulate the chiaroscuro of portrait painting in the grand tradition. The relentless sharpness of focus captures every minutiae of detail in their costumes and adornments, reproducing in lyrical tonal contrasts the subtle differentiations in texture of the fabrics and the glinting lustre of precious stones and metals.