‘Pictured against backdrops that strain to convey an effect of history and substance, her women pose for the camera in attitudes that strike a note of imperious, self-conscious importance… Despite their strenuous efforts at poise, affluence and confidence, like the red-lipsticked, red-eyed lady in Untitled #470, these forceful women are betrayed by neurosis, chilling self-absorption and a mask-like veneer of charm. Even the way the portraits are framed strikes a false note. Ornate, intricate and patterned their elegance is, nevertheless, ersatz’ (P. Moorhouse, Cindy Sherman, London 2014, excerpt reproduced, http:// uk.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2014/february/04/the-truth-about-cindyshermans- society-portraits/, [accessed 24 May 2014]).
‘I saw too much of myself in some of them. To me, it’s a little scary when I see myself. And it’s especially scary when I see myself in these older women’ (C. Sherman, quoted in D. Hershkovits, ‘In Your Face?’, in Papermag, 28 November 2008, http://www.papermag.com/2008/11/in_your_face.php, [accessed 24 May 2014]).
Presented in an opulent frame, an aging doyenne places herself within the hallowed walls of an ancient European palazzo, channeling her own sense of dignity and power in the directness of her gaze. With a visage maintained with 21st century capital, this newcomer takes on all the officiousness and trappings of a 17th century courtly portrait sitter to illustrate her social status. Untitled #470 forms part of Cindy Sherman’s Society Portrait series that casts herself as a character within this new social niche with captivating poignancy. A fitting conclusion to Sherman’s retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Roberta Smith identifies these works as ‘stark, monumental society portraits of heavily made up, quietly desperate matrons of a certain age’ (R. Smith, ‘Photography’s Angel Provocateur: Cindy Sherman at Museum of Modern Art’, The New York Times, 23 February 2012). Executed in 2008, the work continues Sherman’s uncanny and remarkable capacity to channel the zeitgeist that, in her making up of a character, dresses down society’s own stereotypes and preconceived notions. Sherman’s coiffed ladies of leisure mark the era of opulence which created them and that was brought to a swift, though not final demise in 2008. From this all too human plight, she makes art that exposes human folly but also identifies a kind of desperation that is at once provocative, disparaging and empathetic. Another edition of Untitled #470 was included at Sherman’s celebrated survey at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2012.
The woman of Untitled #470 holds our gaze with eyes that are framed by the unnaturally high arches of drawn in eyebrows. Her pink cheeks, slapped on with a heavy hand fail to convey the rosy glow of youth, in fact, they become almost kabuki-like when coupled with the pristinely executed glossy red lips – the perfection of which is only betrayed by the soft smudge of colour that remains on her thumb. The near-flawless visage, free from laugh lines or crow’s feet, almost passes for superior genes if not for the sagging papery turkey neck that peeks out from above the neckline of her couture gown. The choice of prop, a semiopen fan with a distinct European fair, adds further significance to the tension orchestrated here by Sherman: is the fan a coquettish object of young flirtation or the necessary tool for a woman of ‘a certain age’. As ‘a consummate manipulator of space, scale, color and pattern textiles’, Sherman further engenders her image with the dichotomies that exist as beauty ages. In Untitled #470, the soft and supple red of her satin dress counters the sun-aged and roughly-hewn masonry that comprises the architectural backdrop. In the mirroring of the staged presentation of the woman within the theatrically ambiguous background, Sherman allows us to revel in all the nuanced juxtapositions that proliferate her image through the near ‘high-definition’ quality of the work and its sheer scale. As Eva Respini notes, ‘The large scale of the pictures allows viewers to see certain key details very clearly: papery skin around the eyes and lips, the turkey neck that is the bane of older women everywhere, impossibly smooth foreheads thanks to Botox, and arm fat that won’t dissipate despite a daily Pilates regimen. The psychological weight of these pictures comes through the unrelenting honesty of the description of aging and the small details that belie the attempt to project a certain appearance’ (E. Respini, Cindy Sherman, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012, p. 47).
In her compelling engagement with the dilemma of ageing, Sherman ekes an unspoken tension from beneath the surface of her portraits. Through her ‘ability to crawl into other people’s skins’, Sherman makes these stereotypes look entirely familiar: ‘I really want a character to come through. I started to think about some of the characters – how they’re older women and if they are successful, maybe they’re not really that happy. Maybe they’ve been divorced, or they’re in an unhappy marriage, but because of the money, they’re not going to get out. That’s what I was thinking – that there’s something more below the surface that you can’t really see’ (C. Sherman, quoted in D. Hershkovits, ‘In Your Face?’, in Papermag, 28 November 2008, http://www.papermag.com/2008/11/in_your_face.php, [accessed 24 May 2014]).
Featuring these ageing women from the top echelons of polite society: politicians’ wives, old-money blue bloods, and the nouveau riche, Sherman notes that part of the inspiration for the series came from her own success. ‘Originally the posing stuff came from work I did last year for French Vogue. They were meant to look like snapshots at parties. You know, people trying to look so eager to look good for the camera. I liked these older women trying to look good and dignified and over-the-top. Just the idea of these rich ladies who pose in ball gowns in their living rooms with their toddlers – it just looks so ridiculous’ (C. Sherman, quoted in D. Hershkovits, ‘In Your Face?’, in Papermag, 28 November 2008, http://www.papermag.com/2008/11/in_your_face.php, [accessed 24 May 2014]). With this series, Sherman not only critiques ideas of glamour and standards of beauty, especially through age, but also class, portraying a certain class subset of woman who came to ascended to the heady spaces of gross consumption with the great expansion of a baby-boomer middle class in the aftermath of the bull markets witnessed in every decade since the war ended. More than any other of her career where she has consistently explored social tropes through her own presence, in this series, Sherman remarked, ‘I saw too much of myself in some of them. To me, it’s a little scary when I see myself. And it’s especially scary when I see myself in these older women’ (C. Sherman, quoted in D. Hershkovits, ‘In Your Face?’, Papermag, 28 November 2008, http://www.papermag.com/2008/11/in_your_face.php, [accessed 24 May 2014]).