“…Sherman highlights the creation of a world where formal invention, fantasy and satire reign supreme.” Jean-Pierre Criqui
“In the History Portraits, created in 1989-1990 on the theme of Old Master paintings, Sherman unleashes the full blast of her iconoclastic verve...” Jean-Pierre Criqui
Career girl, starlet, or ingénue, Cindy Sherman has explored all aspects and archetypes of femininity, femaleness, and womanhood in performative works that upturn the expectations of portraiture. Rather than offer access to the interiority of the sitter through an image of their exterior presence, Sherman has turned the camera on herself to explore a range of roles and personas projected upon and expected from women in contemporary society. In 1989, a decade after the artist made her debut in a member of the Pictures Generation in New York, Sherman was living in Rome and surrounded by the glories of classical architecture, painting, and sculpture, the grandeur of the Renaissance and the dynamism of Futurism, Arte Povera, and other mainstays of modern and contemporary Italian art. Despite her proximity to the treasures of the modern and ancient worlds, Sherman recalls, “When I was doing those history pictures I was living in Rome but never went to the churches and museums there. I worked out of books, with reproductions. It’s an aspect of photography I appreciate conceptually: the idea that images can be reproduced and seen anytime, anywhere, by anyone” (C. Sherman quoted in M. Kimmelman, “At the Met with Cindy Sherman: Portraitist in the Halls with Her Artistic Ancestors, New York Times, May 19, 1995, p. C7). Such profound study of the documentation of these masterpieces of Western art gave way to her series of History Portraits, in which she occupied the historical and fictional personages represented in paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque.
For Untitled (#209), Sherman appears as a version of Renaissance noblewoman, cut from the same cloth as Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermin (Wawel Royal Castle National Art Collection, Krakow) and the Mona Lisa (Musée du Louvre, Paris). A dark velvet gown with ballooning sleeves overlays a white undergarment visible at the top of the square cut bodice. With her hair pulled back with two crisscrossing black ribbons, her face conveys a look of placid serenity. Most of the details are in order, such as the dark background and the cabochon cut jewels on her fingers, yet Sherman’s reinterpretation of a Renaissance painting revels in its artifice as much as its accuracy. Some details are amiss, such as her badly fitting wig, and art historian and critic, Jean-Pierre Criqui explains, “In the History Portraits, created in 1989-1990 on the theme of Old Master paintings, Sherman unleashes the full blast of her iconoclastic verve. False noses, false breasts, cheap costume jewelry, everyday fabrics, and thickly plastered makeup are assembled under dazzling, bright light: the joke shop takes its revenge on the museum…the references are precise in some cases, and more fragmented in others…The overall impression is of an unsavory cultural minestrone, floating with bits of Fouquet, Raphael, Rubens, Fragonard, and Ingres…Sherman highlights the creation of a world where formal invention, fantasy and satire reign supreme” (J.P. Criqui, “The Lady Vanishes,” Paris, 2006, pp. 279, 281) Sherman recalled in an interview for Art21 that her inspiration for the History Portraits began with an invitation from Limoges, a famous French porcelain house that has been in operation since the late eighteenth-century. Given the long history of the company, Sherman found herself amongst objects of equal age, some belonging to Madame de Pompadour, the controversial mistress and advisor of King Louis XV. Sherman would go on to conjure the Madame, a woman of great beauty and fashion, in portraits #183 and #193, and the figure would kick off an investigation into the poses, fashions, and iconography of other portraits of the same time period. For this work, Sherman turned to the streets of Rome for materials that would transform her into a gracious lady of the Renaissance. Scouring its flea markets for discarded clothes and objects that could be repurposed to fill out her vision for recreating another time. She recalls, “…I would go to the flea markets…because I didn’t bring that many costumes and props with me. I expected to buy things there. The sleeves in [Untitled (#209)] were ripped off of a dress and added to the bodice of something else. And the white part is just a shirt that I sort of tucked in. I probably saw some painting with a crisscross thing on the head somewhere and threw that in too. I wasn’t copying anything in particular” (Ibid.).
Once she had established the time period that she wished to consider she surrounded herself with images, absorbing their information intuitively and leisurely. She recalls, “I usually buy a lot of books and rip pages out and stick them on the wall. I refer to them in more encyclopedic ways and it just sort of all gets absorbed. Then, when I’m ready to shoot, I’ll see what I have available” (C. Sherman quoted in interview with S. Sollins, “Cindy Sherman: It Began with Madam de Pompadour,” Art 21, https://art21.org/read/cindy-sherman-it-began-with-madame-de-pompadour/).
Sherman’s modesty belies the intuitive and associative curiosity that drives her endlessly creative process. Since the 1970s Sherman’s chosen way of working—pulling from the encyclopedic catalogue of images that she has collected in her mind’s eye and inserting herself—has played into those scenes. Such a method speaks to the inundation of mediated images from the worlds of advertising, film and television that bombard us every day. The artist drew inspiration from these images, and the ways in which they go on to mediate history. Approaching this history with a mission to question its assumptions, Sherman’s History Portraits seek a complete reorientation of the accepted sense of hierarchical order.