signed, titled, dated 2001, numbered 2/2 AP and dedicated For Madonna on the reverse
Included in the permanent collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, Andreas Gursky's Madonna I is a masterpiece of the Twenty-first Century, a 'history painting' for our modern age which continues the 'grand genre' of the nineteenth-century masters. On the one hand a portrait of the superstar and the phenomenon of the highly-produced blockbuster music concerts which have made her name, it is also a broader portrait of a key moment in the history of our times. Photographed on September 13th 2001, on the final leg of Madonna's sell-out 'Drowned World Tour' at the Staples Center, Los Angeles, Gursky's photograph enshrines the spirit of patriotism and international camaraderie following the first defining event of the Twenty-first Century. Scheduled to take place two days earlier, the concert was postponed due to the atrocious terrorist attacks which shook New York and sent devastating shockwaves around the world, changing the way we live our lives. While on the one hand a symptom of the deep fissures which divide our world, the attacks also brought people together in a rare moment of unity. It is this unity which is the true subject of Gursky's photograph and it is carefully portrayed with all the pictorial consideration of Jacque Loius David and the emotive force of Théodore Géricault or Eugène Delacroix.
Dedicated 'for Madonna', the present example was once in the collection of the Queen of Pop, whose music and evolving styles have defined the last three decades of popular culture. Here she is seen taking to the stage, bottom left, adorned with the Stars and Stripes of the US flag tied around her waist in a patriotic show of strength and solidarity. Antlike in scale in this monumental photograph, she is nonetheless the sole focus of the twenty-thousand strong audience which stands enraptured, transfixed, euphoric and united by music. In the bottom left hand corner, a video screen shows the orange glow of the sun setting over the New York skyline as viewed from Queens, an iconic vista irrevocably altered by the week's catastrophic events, but, reflected in the East River, it is nonetheless an image of hope and reassurance. Escapism or communion, the crowd is bound together by imperceptible ties which join them as one.
One of his most complex compositions, Gursky constructs his photograph with great skill, using newly developed techniques to digitally collage together different frames in order to give one single image the power to tell the story of the whole concert. The result is breathtaking and densely packed with visual information. From afar, the image is almost galactic, capturing the heady atmosphere of the carefully orchestrated spectacle: the banks of seats rise vertiginously into the distance, dissolving into a matrix of coloured dots; in the foreground, individual revellers can be picked out, their facial expressions clearly identifiable; on stage, dancers become a blur of movement; performers hang from the lighting rigs like bats; behind them, spectators in the boxes are seen in sharp detail. All this information focuses in on the star of the show, Madonna, who stands on the podium with microphone in hand, directing the emotional response of the entire auditorium.
It is in this sense that Gursky's photograph echoes the ambitions of nineteenth-century History Painting, large scale, complex compositions designed for public consumption which often contained a morally elevating message. Like the concert it depicts, everything in Gursky's composition is carefully choreographed to create drama, theatricality and narrative. Draped in the Star-Spangled banner, Madonna reminds us of Delacroix's 1830 masterpiece Liberty Leading the People, a painting commemorating the July Revolution and which later inspired America's own symbol of freedom, the Statue of Liberty. Like Delacroix's Marianne – symbol of the French nation and the personification of liberty – Madonna becomes a symbol of not just American freedom, but world freedom, because the World Trade Center, although on American soil, was just that, a centre for international commerce which represented the interests of many nations around the world. In a pictorial analogy to Delacroix, the video screen showing the New York skyline in Gursky's work echoes the view of the Parisian landscape in the far right horizon of the French masterpiece, which shows the towers of Notre Dame still standing and flying the Tricolore despite the turbulent uprising on the city streets.
It is often noted that those living through momentous events in history do not have the benefit and distance of time to place things in true perspective. There is no question that in the weeks following 9/11 the international community was aware of seismic change, but individuals were so overwhelmed by day to day events and the minutiae of the media barrage that the global implications were beyond comprehension, even inside the corridors of power. Like Délacroix before him, Gursky's artistic eye filters the everyday, avoiding the obvious and the cliché to produce an image which distils the immediate with such acuity of vision that it will be a lasting record of our time. In doing so he captures the spirit not only of the multi-million-dollar mass spectacles that are the product of our celebrity obsessed entertainment industry, but also the broader spirit of an epoch defining moment in our history.
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