My Fayum…

Sandra Kontos moved to Athens in 1993 to pursue her studies in archaeology and photography. Photography and archaeology share many qualities, namely they both record or archive the past. It was during this time she discovered the Fayum portraits (first and second centuries A.D.) They fascinated her, “Here I found myself gazing directly into the eyes of people from the ancient world.” Captivated by their melancholic beauty and the mystery surrounding their ancient faces, dress and jewellery, Kontos intensely studied these exquisite portraits. The portraits accompany mummified bodies and were painted on wooden panels by anonymous artists. Euphrosyne C. Doxiadis writes, “Of these two strands [the Greek painting tradition and Egyptian funerary beliefs], the sophistication of the first and the intensity of the second combined to produce moments of breathtaking beauty and unsettling presence.” [1]

Almost a decade later, whilst studying at UNSW COFA, Sandra Kontos experimented with Polaroid transfers. This photographic image transfer process was time consuming and produced fragile unpredictable images. The materiality of the results was a stark reminder of the textured surfaces of the Fayum portraits. Kontos paired the portraits with tea stained replicated maps of the Fayum region. The Fayum “… as it appeared c.1800, when it was surveyed by Napoleon’s Commission. This map, from the Descriptionde l’Egypte, vividly suggests the lush cultivated land, with its small fields, surrounded by rocky escarpments.” [2] This was a definite nod to her Athens days and the magnificent lessons of her archaeological teacher Aggeliki Papadopoulou. Pairing the portraits with the map was also a way of memorializing the dead; of establishing a sense of place for those depicted. An act of making the absent present.

With the discontinuation of Polaroid, this series of portraits now sit precariously in the digital age. The colours of Polaroid 669 film and the tea stained paper stock are unreproducible. These portraits are what Kontos loves about analogue photography. “The process is slow and vivid, random elements are revealed and they are unique objects imbued with the hand of the artist.” Geoffrey Batchen talks about rediscovering photography in the digital age. Sandra Kontos’ photographs are chemical events, actions that occur directly onto the paper stock. [3] The images are made not taken.

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Sandra Kontos, Fayum Portrait, 2004

References

[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt, accessed 22 December 2015, http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/press-room/exhibitions/2000/ancient-faces-mummy-portraits-from-roman-egypt

[2] Doxiadis, Euphrosyne, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits Faces from Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, 1995, p. 228.

[3] Batchen, Geoffrey. Blindness and Insight: Photography and/as Ruin, Symposium – The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg, SCA Auditorium, Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, 5 December 2015, Keynote Address.

 

The Pictorialists – Photographer as Artist.

Pictorialism was an international style and aesthetic movement that legitimized photography as a fine art in the late C19th. (1) The rapid increase in travel and commerce easily transported books and publications around the globe. This facilitated the exchange of aesthetic ideas, artistic techniques and most notably actual photographic prints. (2)

For the first 40 years of photography only those dedicated to science, mechanics and art practiced it. In 1888 things dramatically changed when Kodak introduced the first hand held box camera. Kodak’s slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” (3)

The Kodak camera was preloaded with film that produced about 100 pictures. When the whole roll of film was exposed, the camera was returned to Kodak in Rochester, New York. The film was developed and prints were made. The prints and the camera with a new roll of film inside where returned to the customer. Now anyone could take a photograph. “No knowledge of photography is necessary,” read the Kodak advertisement. (4)

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Kodak Advertisement, 1888.

Photography collector Michael Wilson observed, “Thousands of commercial photographers and a hundred times as many amateurs were producing millions of photographs annually… The decline in the quality of professional work and the deluge of snapshots (a term borrowed from hunting, meaning to get off a quick shot without taking the time to aim) resulted in a world awash with technically good but aesthetically indifferent photographs.” (5) Naturally with the advent of the Kodak camera, debates about photography as an art form or a mechanical medium ensued.

The Pictorialists denounced the point-and-shoot Kodak approach to photography and emphasized the role of the photographer as an artist or craftsman. They preferred “labor-intensive processes such as gum bichromate printing, which involved hand-coating artist papers with homemade emulsions and pigments, or they made platinum prints, which yielded rich, tonally subtle images.” (6)

In terms of style, Pictorialists would manipulate or “create” a photograph rather than just recording a scene. Pictorialists veered away from documentation of everyday life and composed images imbued with a sense of drama and fantasy. Generally, a Pictorialist photograph lacks sharp focus and due to the hand coated papers, brush strokes appear on the surface creating a painterly quality to the image.

Stieglitz-SpringShowersAlfred Stieglitz, Spring Flowers, The Coach, 1902.

Steichen_flatironEdward Steichen, Flatrion Building, 1904.

Alvin_Langdon_Coburn-Spiderwebs

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Spiderwebs, 1908.

White_and_Stieglitz-Torso

Clarence H. White and Alfred Stieglitz, Torso, 1907.

Clarence_H_White-Nude_1908

Clarence H. White, Nude, 1908.

Clarence_H_White-RaindropsClarence H. White, Raindrops, 1903.

References

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictorialism

2. ibid.

3. ibid.

4. ibid.

5. Wilson, Michael and Reed, Dennis. Pictorialism in California: Photographs 1900–1940. Malibu: Getty Museum, 1994, p.1.

6. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pict/hd_pict.htm#slideshow7

All Images

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictorialism

Kiki Smith – “Uncommon Beauty.”

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Kiki Smith, Born, 2002, Bronze.

Kiki Smith investigates the human experience and draws from a variety of artistic expressions. “Since she emerged in the early 1980s, Smith has been a fascinating and inventive presence. Her provocative meditations on the human body and the realms of myth, spirituality, nature, and narrative have resulted in works of extraordinary power and uncommon beauty.” (1) Smith’s practice also references her extensive knowledge of art history but instead of using the female form as the subject of her art, she uses the feminine as the object. The body is a “receptacle for knowledge, belief, and storytelling.” (2) In the 1990s Smith began engaging with feminine archetypes, from the biblical through to cultural mythology and fairy tales. (3) Unlike her predecessors, Smith weaves these stories together and invites new narratives & interpretations. (4)

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Kiki Smith, Lilith, 1994, Bronze with glass eyes, 80 cm x 68 cm x 44 cm

6613911795_4f2007f542_zAt The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Smith’s bronze sculpture, Lilith 1994, was cast from a live model that crouched on the floor. Lilith was Adam’s first wife, but she infamously abandoned him and ran away to the Garden of Eden. Lilith refused to submit to a subordinate role and is therefore considered a symbol of feminine strength. (5) But according to Hebrew lore, Lilith is depicted as a night demon. Smith converges these narratives and displays the sculpture upside down clinging to the wall, her glass eyes eerily peer down at the viewer. (6)

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Glass Eyes.

images-1Kiki Smith, Pietà, 1999, Printer’s ink, ink and graphite on joined paper, 140 cm × 77 cm

Smith’s Pieta drawings depict the grieving artist cradling her dead cat. The intimate self-portraits mimic the history and traditions of the Pieta in both title and composition. (7) The drawings further explore Smith’s resounding themes of human experience: death and the fragility of life.

pieta4

Michelangelo, Pietà, 1498–1499, Marble, 174 cm X 195 cm

Smith uses fairy tales like, Little Red Riding Hood, as a metaphor to express her perturbed feelings about the feminist experience in patriarchal culture. (8) Smith’s monumental sculpture, Rapture 2001 depicts the macabre scene when the woodcutter saves the grandmother and the young girl from the wolf. Yet, a life-sized woman steps out of the stomach of a dead wolf that is lying on its back in Smith’s bronze sculpture. Smith explores the idea that the tale is inherently violent and that critics have interpreted it as a symbolic parable of rape. (9) On Smith’s work Langer writes, “The challenge here is not to make bad literary picture but rather to create counter-narratives that are dramatic, sometimes reckless, many times vulgar, and above all strange. These images are self-consciously primitive with their swelling contours, violent, intensely personal touches of color, and successive layers of strokes and lines cutting into the surface.” (10)

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Kiki Smith, Rapture, 2001, Bronze,

References

1. Walker Art Center, Collections > Kiki Smith, accessed 15 March 2013 <http://www.walkerart.org/collections/artists/kiki-smith>

2. PBS, Art in the Twenty-First Century, accessed 15 March 2013, <http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/smith/index.html>

3. Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., 2005, Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005, accessed 15 March 2013, <http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/6aa/6aa177.htm>

4. ibid., p. 8.

5. ibid., p. 4 & 7.

6. ibid., p. 7.

7. ibid., p. 9.

8. C Langer, review of W Weitzman’s ‘Kiki Smith: Prints, Books & Things’, Woman Art Journal Vol. 26, No.2 (Autumn, 2005 – Winter, 2006)

9. Bonner S, Visualising Little Red Riding Hood, London’s Global University, 2009.

10. Langer, op. cit., p. 56.

Images

Born <http://art160sxu.blogspot.com.au/2010/04/kiki-smiths-born.html>

Lilith <http://blog.sfmoma.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/lilithone.jpg>

Lilith <http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7156/6613911795_4f2007f542_z.jpg>

Lilith <http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2176/2445591969_952ec4974a.jpg>

Pieta <http://whitney.org/image_columns/0004/8838/2001.151_smith_imageprimacy_compressed_600.jpg>

Rapture <http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ly9a5fTvxW1qbo39mo1_1280.jpg>