Sonnabend Gallery, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2001
"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." (In: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Sugimoto: Portraits, New York 2000, p. 27)
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s entire photographic output evinces a profound and enduring interest in the notion of time, however it is in the Portraits series, of which Catherine Howard is an intriguing example, that 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 gelatine on paper – that his photographs enshrine.
Championing the verisimilitude of artificiality, the present series manifests the same fascination with veristic simulation, which is at the very core of portraiture, be it in oils, wax or on photographic paper. In each image in the series, Sugimoto photographs a wax effigy chosen from among the many historical displays of the infamous Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London, an institution that has specialised in making elaborate and meticulous three-dimensional facsimiles of pivotal historical (and fictional) figures since the eighteenth century, preserving for perpetuity their physical likeness in wax.
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 of these historical figureheads. 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.
There is a further conceptual paradox that derives from the fact that the wax effigy is itself based on an oil painting. There is, therefore, a further remove, a further layer of mediation and further frame of reference 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.
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. Sugimoto strives to capture the same degree of refined detail in his photographs:
"For this project, my technical exercise was to get as much details 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)
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