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'Artistic Impositions in the Photographic Portrait ' opens at the University of Michigan Museum of Art
Ansel Adams, Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona. Gelatin silver print. University of Michigan Museum of Art.
ANN ARBOR, MI .- In 1908 Auguste Rodin invited American photographer Edward Steichen to Meudon, France, to photograph his sculpture of the great French writer Honoré de Balzac. Rodin was commissioned to create the sculpture of Balzac in 1891. The work was publicly unveiled in 1898 in Paris to mixed, though generally unfavorable, reviews. The work was described as “a block of salt caught in a shower” and “a snowman in a bathrobe whose empty sleeve suggests a strait jacket.” The commissioners ultimately rejected the work and Rodin took it home with him to Meudon. Despite the criticism, Rodin proclaimed that Balzac was “the result of a lifetime, the pivot of my aesthetic.” When Steichen presented his finished photographs of the sculpture to Rodin, which included Balzac, The Silhouette—4 a.m., Rodin declared, “you will make the world understand my Balzac through these pictures.”

Of the sixteen photographs assembled from UMMA’s collection for this exhibition, Steichen’s photograph of Balzac is the only one that does not feature a portrait of a then-living artist. Nevertheless, the photographer’s image of the sculptor’s portrait of the great writer illustrates the layers of complexity that arise when an artist is faced with the task of representing another artist. This exhibition explores ways in which photographic portraiture has engaged this longstanding tradition.

Susan Sontag claimed that photographs “owe their existence to a loose cooperation (quasi-magical, quasi-accidental) between photographer and subject.” Any photographic portrait marks an encounter between the person executing the image and the person posing for it. When a photographer is faced with a subject who is as thoroughly invested in artistic representation as another artist, how might this especially charged collaboration between photographer and model impact his or her own aesthetic?

In this suite of remarkable photographs we witness different manifestations of this phenomenon at work. The encounter between photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Frida Kahlo took place in Bravo’s studio, yet Kahlo is depicted seated frontally and staring fixedly out at the viewer as she does in her many painted self-portraits. Arnold Newman, on the other hand, regularly photographed his subjects in their own environments and indeed Newman’s portrait of Piet Mondrian was executed in the painter’s studio. In the photograph, Mondrian is positioned within a grid-like composition of vertical and horizontal lines reminiscent of the artist’s own abstract paintings. This effect was not accidental. When Newman first met Mondrian in this space he remarked upon its resemblance to Mondrian’s canvases, claiming, “My God, his environment is his own painting.” While appearing magical, the photographic collaboration between Philippe Halsman and Salvador Dalí was elaborately staged and laboriously produced. Inspired by Dalí’s painting, Leda Atomica, which appears in the right of the image, the photograph plays with the notion of surreal suspension. It took Halsman and Dalí—and unfortunately for the three cats in the image—no fewer than twenty-eight attempts before they achieved a composition that satisfied them. This cooperation resulted in one of the most iconic portraits of Dalí ever produced.

Artistic Impositions invites viewers to explore the complex representational dynamics that can be discerned in these portraits as they play with multiple collaborative, compelling, and potentially competing influences—such as the vision of the photographer, the figure of the artist, and the presence of the artist’s work.

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