While it has long been traditional to show artists together when they belong to the same art movement, such as fauvists or expressionists, exhibitions with fairly unrelated artists seem to be the latest rage with curators. Monet, Hodler, and Munch, who were featured in a joint exhibition at the Marmottan Monet Museum in Paris earlier this year, overlapped chronologically over one century (1840-1944), but are classified respectively with impressionism, postimpressionism and symbolism. The Musée d’Art Moderne is currently showing together Derain, a fauvist, Balthus a neoclassicist, and Giacometti, usually classified as an existentialist sculptor. The work of Mapplethorpe was recently displayed on the walls surrounding Rodin’s sculptures at the Rodin Museum.
Such juxtapositions question the categorization of artists by bringing to light what they have in common. The dialogue between the works creates a dynamic in which the viewer becomes an engaged participant rather than a passive consumer of art. Such is the case with Proof: Francisco Goya, Sergei Eisenstein, Robert Longo at the Brooklyn Art Museum. Exhibiting together three artists spanning several centuries and continents across different media could be perceived as pushing the envelope over the edge. What could Goya, a Spanish painter and printmaker from the 1800s, Eisenstein, a Russian film director from the 1900s, and Longo, the American artist from the 2000s, possibly have in common?
At the threshold of the exhibit is an installation in the shape of a heptagon, which the Brooklyn Museum has been favoring as a gateway to its shows, inviting the visitor in with its spatial embrace. The work of Eisenstein, projected on 6 very large panels, is slowed down to the point of resembling a slideshow of black and white photographs dreamily dissolving into each other. Thanks to the drama of Eisenstein’s compositions and the pathos of the images, the spectacular installation vibrates with emotion and idealistic passion. The opulent images of Alexander Nevsky and Ivan The Terrible contrast with poor workers from Strike and October.
A young sailor with his legs cut off protests alongside an elegant woman in spool heels on the famous steps of Odessa from The Battleship Potemkin. We are spared the iconic pram hurtling down the stairs. After the Eisenstein installation comes the first room of the exhibition proper, which hosts Goya prints from four series: The Caprices, The Disasters of War, The Art of Bullfighting, The Proverbs. Goya etched these visions, — sexual fantasies, political and social satires, violent scenes from war, — in his spare time as official court painter. He produced these elaborate engravings obsessively, as if freeing himself from these visions by laying them down on paper, with little hope of selling them as they were either too political or risqué. Some plates are easy to read, but others, their titles ambiguous, are enigmatic as the modern viewer lacks the adequate clues. Some have been interpreted as allegories criticizing the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy and the subsequent loss of political freedom. Humans are portrayed as monsters; monsters look like humans. While men are savage, cruel, greedy, irrational, violent, women are characterized with more sympathy, particularly the “majas,” the Spanish working class women. Goya shows them either as victims of violence or as fighting off evil forces. The print “No se puede mirar” 1810-20 comes across as a version or a preparatory sketch for his most famous painting, The Third of May 1814, but the main victim dressed in the white of innocence, with arms in the position of a crucified Christ, is a woman in the print instead of a man. The area of the image where the victims fear for their lives is cast in darkness; the other area, representing power, is brightly lit with an asymmetrical composition in which the soldiers are daringly represented only by the barrels of their guns. The etchings, sourced locally from Wesleyan and Princeton, are of uneven quality and not all relevant to the show, but the tauromachy series fits right in, as the bull alone has dignity when faced with men’s violence and hubris.
Goya’s work would seem an unlikely segue from the grandiosity of Eisenstein’s images, but they share a common thread: the drama of the compositions, the wild imagination, the stunning use of black and white. Some of Goya’s etchings, such as Y son fieras (And They Are Fierce) 1863, also look eerily like photographs thanks to their use of aquatint for tone, as if he had prefigured the medium.
Both Goya and Eisenstein have been an inspiration for Robert Longo who co-curated the show with Kate Fowle, a curator at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow. The first room of Longo’s work gathers drawings where the pictorial quality plays a larger role than in the rest of the exhibition, bringing attention to the fact that while they look just like photographs, they’re not. Projecting the original photo on a paper canvas, Longo and his team use charcoal, graphite and ink, sometimes in powder form, to produce his version. The careful layering of pigments can take weeks, unlike a still photograph, in a process which Longo claims is closer to the time consuming art of filmmaking. Untitled (After Mitchell, Ladybug) 1957, a black and white study in tones, pays homage to abstract expressionism through a woman artist who has not gotten adequate recognition in that rather macho, gestural art movement. Untitled (Juliette) 2017 and Untitled (Justine) 2017, named after Marquis de Sade’s victimized characters, depict icebergs, which have a complexity unmatchable by humans artifacts. The rape of nature can be read in the scars in the ice’s surface, which has been painstakingly detailed. If these icebergs are drawn from photographs, as most of the show’s pieces are, it is neither apparent nor indicated in the accompanying notes.
On the largest wall in the room reigns a single, monumental piece entitled: Untitled (Destroyed Head of Lamassu, Nineveh) 2017. It is the only drawing in the room that does not directly honor women. A very large fallen head of a statue is shown from an angle that stresses its destruction. Human hubris. The drawing is a representation of a photographic image of a sculptural representation from a fallen political system that favored large pieces of work. The use of scale in art to impress is inherent to most of Longo’s art, though he can’t be suspected of self irony, which would require more modesty than is in his nature. In this work, the use of powder is more evident than in others, its blurring surfaces resembling a watercolor, a beautiful effect that stresses the demise of that power. It can also be interpreted as a reference to the fact that artifacts originating from the same area of Iraq have been destroyed by ISIS, another instance of hubris from a phallocratic organization.
The last piece in the room is more in keeping with Robert Longo’s current work. Untitled (Black Pussy Hat in Women’s March) 2017 reproduces a photograph taken at a Women’s March protesting the election of Trump. While some of his work is so monumental and low angle that it distances the viewer, the point of view in this piece stands squarely with the protesters, marching toward the bright light to escape the oppressing walls bordering the street. It honors the woman wearing her protesting hat, the pink turned black coming across as a reference to the black in Black Panthers or to the black gloves at the Mexico Olympic games 1968.
Théodore Géricault’s painting, “The Raft of the Medusa,” informs the whole next room, which could be named “our civilization at drift.” On one wall hangs Longo’s miniaturized version, Untitled (After Géricault, The Raft of Medusa 1818-1819) 2016, for which he has reduced the size of a large painting that was dramatic, handcrafted and unique, in opposite symmetry to his usual approach of enlarging highly reproducible media images. Next to it, Untitled (Shipwreck, Redux) 2016, imitates the blur of a photograph taken in motion. Was it the waves or emotion that shook the hand of the artist? Opposite is the climactic work of the exhibition: Untitled (Raft at Sea), 2017. A monumental triptych, it aims at literally taking the breath away with a huge swell in the foreground threatening to drown the viewer. Standing in front of this huge mural piece with its tenuous human beings huddled together on the frail raft, threatened from all sides, one feels as helpless as when reading about their experience of the Mediterranean refugees, knowing about their plight without being able to redress it.
Another large room and its anteroom feature representations of power: A huge iconic eagle points to the flaws of the American nation. A large tree trunks displays a more acceptable form of power, the force of nature – again a homage to Joan Mitchell. Most strikingly, a low angle shot by New York Times photographer Doug Mills catches Barack Obama walking, surrounded by Secret Service agents, against a threatening sky. A bird’s-eye view of Mecca transforms the millions of pilgrims into an abstract pattern (detail of Untitled (Mecca) 2010), questioning whether these are still individuals with an independent will. Untitled (Vatican Bishops) 2015-2016 presents a similar view of religion as the bishops are reduced to a geometric pattern, the folds perfectly arranged, a hood figuring an inverted Klu Klux Klan hat. This piece, shown separately, has a more abstract, stylized quality to it, the lack here of Longo’s signature black hue creating a more even, fabric-like visual.
Andrew Medichini, the Italian author of the nearly abstract image of the bishops used in Untitled (Vatican Bishops), 2015-2016 , was not aware that his work was featured by Longo. Although his photo was most likely licensed through Associated Press, an agency that requires crediting in its leases, Medichini says: “I haven’t been contacted by him and knew nothing about his use of my photo (…) I have no idea if he mentions anywhere the origin and the author of the photo, in this case me, but I think he should.” Will Rose, who took the stunning image of the Syrian raft, is not concerned about this lack of acknowledgment, as his goal is to bring as much attention as possible to the plight of refugees rather than to his own artistry.
While both Rose and Medichini expressed their respect and deep appreciation for Longo’s technique and the scale of his work, the use of a photograph for an art piece rather than for mass media communications implies a different responsibility to the original content, particularly when it might be sold for a steep fee and end up in a public museum. The photos he chooses are not generic media fodder. For example, the bishops were shot by many photographers, but only Medichini had the visual acumen to capture that painterly geometry. The same goes for the raft or for the photo of Obama at airport. The stunning effect of the work is to be attributed to some extent to the original photographs, and this ambiguity is objectionable in an exhibition entitled “Proof” that claims to address issues of truth and fake news. This is what Sarah Softness, Assistant Curator at the Brooklyn Museum, had as comment on the issue: “Longo’s drawings are typically composites: they have elements that are sourced from other photographer’s images, elements that are abstract, elements from Longo’s own photographs. They are rarely, if ever, 1 to 1 copies or translations. For this reason it would not be appropriate to credit others’ works as sources among several — artists draw on all kinds of images, archives, and ideas all the time that are not ‘original’. Furthermore, his drawing practice problematizes our relationship to images in a mass media culture, asking us to look at imagery in a different way and through a different medium; we think it would be highly unconventional to credit someone else for that effort.”
It would seem an act of basic respect to credit the authors of the photographs at the source of Longo’s drawings. But only painters, in this show Joan Mitchell, are referred to in the titles of the pieces of Longo’s work. Egotism might be necessary for some artists to produce work and self promote. Eisenstein, with his grandiose tableaux , probably fits that category. But not Goya. Goya belongs to the lesser group of artists, such as Rembrandt or Mondrian, whose work thrived in humility.
In one of the smaller rooms (these spaces at the Brooklyn Museum so perfectly designed for exhibiting small works as they alternate with full size rooms), a slideshow is projected, combining visually works from each artist. Goya’s is always on the left, Eisenstein’s in the middle, and Longo’s on the right, with each of the images varying in size. The rationale behind each grouping is not thematic, nor obviously aesthetic; it’s about the works conversing with one another across time, space and history. The juxtapositions are stunningly effective, confirming that the exhibition’s concept works. Black and white gives a uniform tone to the exhibition. It is the color of printing, of reproduction. Mass media has gone beyond that restriction, it allows now for color images to be distributed widely. In Goya’s time, black and white prints were the only images that could be reproduced and distributed. So too with Eisenstein’s films, of which a number of copies were made from the negative. Longo is the only one of the three who has deliberately chosen black and white for his work, the elimination of color producing a starkness and asceticism which reach to the spiritual. He’s also commenting on the use of images, on semantics, a modern approach that was of no concern to the artists from the 1800s and the 1900s.
The works by the three artists share not only form but also content. All address societal and political issues, and it is both striking and saddening to see the recurrence of similar images over time. All three artists criticize the clergy: despite over a century of humanism, capitalism, atheism, Marxism, and materialism, the hold of religion on the world is back with a vengeance, inciting again to violence and intolerance. Innocent people are still victimized in wars and economic or political crises. Political powers still shake around their emblems and inflict their outrages. A few heroes, in every period, resist, such as Obama as depicted by Longo, the revolutionary sailors shot by Eisenstein, and the rebellious majas in Goya’s work.
The artists’ relation to power, whether political or financial or both, was quite different. Eisenstein worked on behalf of a political system that he had fought to bring about. Marxism influenced his style as he explored “montage,” a dialectical juxtaposition of images aiming at stirring a reaction in the viewer. Later directors have used editing to create the illusion of a four dimensional world and the drama taking place in it, instead of organizing sequences of shots according to the meaning of the images as Eisenstein did. His work was financed and supported by the government, as he tried to raise the audience’s consciousness of class struggle and the necessity of revolution. However, he quickly ran into problems with the authorities as his style didn’t fit within the dictates of socialist realism, which hampered his career and film production.
Goya is represented in the exhibition only by his prints. They differ from his court portraits, which are striking in their own right. His livelihood came from working as the official court painter with a regular salary attached, allowing him to create his political and social critiques on the side . The court portraits, which are absent from the show as they would not belong in form or content, come across as representing aristocracy in its pomp and glory, but a closer look reveals a sly critique. Whether the aristocrats were unaware of being represented in an unflattering light, or somehow tolerated it, remains a mystery, but Goya got well remunerated by them. The prints on show were produced painstakingly without expectation of remuneration.
Robert Longo is the only one of the three artists whose work is made for direct sale to the public, rather than sponsored. The fees for each of his drawings have skyrocketed, from several 100s of thousands of dollars to over a million. While he is a hot selling commodity, it is hard for the contemporary viewer to have a perspective on Longo’s work and its importance in the history of art. Clearly the three artists share form and content, but Longo is the only one alive now in our world. The exhibition consists of one small room for Goya, one larger room for Eisenstein, and, as if a natural follow up to these giants of Western Art, four and a half rooms for Longo. Should the exhibition have been entitled something different? Longo and Predecessors?
Though the organization of the show, the lack of crediting of originating photographers, and the size of the pieces point to self aggrandizement (and anyway, would the Sistine chapel or his David even exist without Michelangelo’s tendency to megalomania?), there is humility in Longo’s process. He transforms reproducible mass media images into unique works of art that are painstakingly hand made. Visual content that saturates everyday life in the media to the point of numbness is turned into pieces that stress the humanity and singularity of their subjects. Their larger than life size brings an Olympian awe to images that might have been consumed on a computer’s screen or a mobile phone. The black of the charcoal is spectacular, adding to the drama of the compositions and of the subjects by going beyond photographic reproduction. This is a human being’s interpretation of machine-produced work through the use of the simplest technology: the hand.
A benign ghost wanders throughout the whole exhibition. It is that of Walter Benjamin, the author of the seminal text Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. He approves.
Arabella Hutter von Arx is a writer with a background in film and TV production. While producing for the BBC, Channel 4, Gaumont, Bravo (Inside the Actors’ Studio) then working as the executive director of IQ, an international organization of producers, she contributed regularly articles for magazines and European newspapers. She devotes now all her time to writing, with a particular focus on the arts and on women’s issues.