Review

Melting Beauty

Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life
The Broad, Los Angeles
June 11–October 2, 2016
Cora Gilroy-Ware

Kitty Fisher strove to live up to her portraits. Between 1759 and 1766 she sat at least four times for Joshua Reynolds, London’s celebrated painter whose studio teemed with flattering images of England’s elite. Kitty was no pampered baroness but rather a courtesan with a knack for fame secured by beauty. It was her beauty that drew the powerful clientele, the wealthy men whose patronage made her an appropriate subject for the canvas. But Kitty’s real-life flesh could not rival the skin the artist gave her. In each of her portraits, she has an impossibly creamy complexion, created with an eccentric blend of pigment, wax, egg, oils, and binding mediums. In order to match her likeness, Kitty coated herself in layers of powder. In 1767, at the age of 26, she died of lead poisoning, one of several “victims of cosmetics” claimed by the eighteenth century.1

Reynolds did not limit this creamy effect to Kitty Fisher alone, nor even to female flesh. He would often proclaim that every “picture ought to have a richness in its texture, as if the colours had been composed of cream or cheese.”2 In the 1920s, French art critic Élie Faure noticed this tendency, putting it down to the British painter’s blind reverence for a certain Dutch master: “Reynolds was not able to see in Rembrandt, whom he pillages…anything but a creamy and triturated paste.”3  In fact, Reynolds gleaned this technique not from Rembrandt but from William Gandy, a little-known portraitist from the painter’s native Devonshire whose works he had seen as a child. When not ravaged by over-zealous cleaning or irreversible decay, the rich, fatty surfaces of Reynolds’s figures remain striking.

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled #577, 2016. Dye sublimation metal print, 48⅛  52½ inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

One of Cindy Sherman’s latest efforts—a group of sisters—contains skin as creamy as a Reynolds portrait. At once glowing and opaque, four visages cluster against a hazy garden backdrop, each wearing round-lens spectacles and hair in soft pin curls. The group is suffused with an air of primness in spite of the sisters’ makeup: eyebrows arched, cheeks rouged and conspicuously smooth, lips lined in maroon. Theirs is a flesh wholly different from beauty advertisements, in which the face is seemingly unmasked: an illusion of the “pure” and “natural.” Instead it is as if Sherman reached for the same eccentric blend Reynolds used to flatter his sitters, consciously foregrounding the creamy quality it guaranteed. The photograph is the first one encountered in the installation of Imitation of Life, a special exhibition at The Broad that charts Sherman’s over four-decades-long career. It forms part of a series made over the past two years, the rest of which emerge around the corner and usher the visitor into the space.

In her acclaimed series History Portraits (1988–90), Sherman directly channelled the eighteenth century. By contrast, the affinity between her new photographs and historic portraiture is accidental. Reynolds’s Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (1773), a large portrait of the Irish Montgomery sisters, centers on essentially the same scene as Sherman’s fiction: a group of almost identical women gazing out in various directions, their emphatically flushed, creamy skin enhanced by soft-focus flowers against an ice blue sky. Sherman’s sisters are older, however, and emit a confidence that comes with age. While the Montgomery girls perform for the viewer, fashioning roses—symbols of youth and virginity—into a long festoon, Sherman’s group confronts us head-on. The sister at the apex stares straight into our eyes with a yearning expression that closes the gap between our world and theirs, while the more authoritative sister at the helm reins in all stray emotion with her set jaw and thinner smile punctuated by the black pussy bow around her neck.

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Joshua Reynolds, Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen, 1773. Oil paint on canvas, 92 × 114 inches. ©Tate, London 2016.

Long reticent to join the “critical skirmish” surrounding her work, Sherman has been vocal on the relationship between the works in this new series and the wider representation of the “aging” female body.4 In a recent interview following the inaugural display of these photographs at New York’s Metro Pictures gallery, she confessed to the biographical impulse behind them: “I, as an older woman, am struggling with the idea of being an older woman.”5 She calls the photographs “the most sincere things I have ever done,” and admits that they stem from a desire to create complex images of women well beyond their “middle years,” women deemed “past their prime” by the mainstream media. She cites Mary Beard, the scholar of ancient Rome, for her fearless commitment to championing the visibility of older women on screen. Interviewer Blake Gopnik goes as far as to suggest that Sherman is enacting “a kind of revenge on a culture that wills women to slowly disappear as they age.” The other works in the series depict lone figures—women “of a certain age”—set against similar hazy, digitized backdrops. They are styled like typical movie stars circa 1960, female actors who blossomed in a bygone era which only they have not yet relinquished. As such they do not conjure the same painterly mood as the four sisters, though their skin is equally evocative of dairy.

Sherman’s insistence on sincerity with regard to the representation of older women threatens to undermine her decision to conceal skin with makeup, to blur the realities of a mature face with paint. But the painted flesh reminds us that these images are not intended to tell the truth of raw nature nor callously deceive. They are fantasies, or “fancy pictures,” a term coined to describe Reynolds’s portraits of imaginary people, usually female figures, that he produced alongside his portraits of actual individuals. Featuring doe-eyed personifications—Innocence, for example—placed within natural landscapes, fancy pictures set a precedent for the kind of sentimentally ideal painting popular among an emergent industrialist class. Such works were what film director Douglas Sirk had in mind when, in 1979, he observed, “In the nineteenth century, you had bourgeois art without politics, an almost frozen idea of what beauty is.”6 Sirk is, of course, the director of Imitation of Life, the 1959 film that lends its title to The Broad’s exhibition.

In the same interview, Sirk reflects upon the fact that with that film and others he was “trying to negate beauty, and negate art which was a synonym for beauty.”7 Wandering through the rooms of the Broad, one gets an immediate sense that for decades Sherman too has made this a central tenet of her work. There is little conventional beauty on display. Rather, with each immaculately presented photograph, beauty confounds our expectations with its haunting absence. In a work from 1984, a large prosthetic nose conquers a sliver of face emerging from behind a curtain of long dark hair. Lit from behind, the image must be looked at closely to notice that the fake nose is bleeding. In another, from 1993, a figure in a bottle-blonde wig sits with her legs spread defiantly, her cheap, russet stockings peeling down her thigh as she clutches three plastic calla lilies poised toward her pubic area. Like the Montgomery sisters’ festoon of roses, these flowers are symbols of youth and virginity. Any such niceties, however, are dissolved by the figure’s brazen perversion of ideal femininity: her face, her pose, her carpet of false body hair. And as Sirk suggests, the purging of beauty from art tends to be a political intervention. Now, more than ever—seen in the light of a visual culture couched in celebrity, advertising, pornography, and social media—it has become impossible to deny the deeply political nature of Sherman’s art.

In the catalog for the exhibition, guest curator Philipp Kaiser recalls that, in the early 1980s, feminist artist and theorist Martha Rosler expressed concern over Sherman’s Centerfolds series (1981, also on display at the Broad), in which Sherman engages with a variety of imagery tainted by its heterosexist objectification of the female body.8

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled #139, 1984. Chromogenic color print, 72 × 48½ inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

 This point is easily countered, points out Kaiser, by the fact that Sherman’s works “are always recognized as fakes…and therefore by no means verge into pure imitation.” But this is not enough of an explanation as to why and how the images avoid the trappings of what they appropriate. The point is a simple one but worth reiterating: a studied, glaring lack of conventional beauty in the photographs secures their revolutionary edge. What is more, the later series Society Portraits (2008)—incarnations of austere patronesses whose accumulated wealth radiates from within—do “verge into pure imitation.” They are meticulous mimicries—not simulacra but studies from life, fully worked up in color. Like Reynolds’s best portraits, they showcase the elusive bodies of elite women, rendering them allegories of a guarded high culture. And yet the Society Portraits are more coldly realistic than any Reynolds painting. They do not flatter. Skin is skin, not cream.

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled #276, 1993. Chromogenic color print, 80½ × 61 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

Kaiser is correct in that most of Sherman’s productions are more obviously constructed and that this adds to their autonomy. In conversation with director Sofia Coppola, the artist expressed her disdain for perfectly assembled period costumes.9 When she began working on the most recent series, the artist experimented with rented clothing and carefully researched hairstyles, but the resulting images looked too authentic, in her words, “too Downton Abbey.” Since the beginning of her career, her process has been founded on the magic brought forth from “cobbling something together that is not quite exact.”10

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled #193, 1989. Chromogenic color print, 54½ × 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

By the time one arrives at the Broad’s installation of the History Portraits, it is unsettling how little they resemble their sources. Sherman’s reconstruction of Madame de Pompadour looks nothing like the frothy odes to the same sitter by François Boucher, the French painter whose studio Reynolds once visited in Paris. Sherman does capture the perfumed orientalism and pastel tones of rococo painting, a color palette tied to the invention of Prussian Blue earlier on in the eighteenth century. But the postmodern Madame is tense and world-weary, unsure of her survival in the world whose gaze she meets. Artificial light bounces off her plastic décolletage, announcing the presence of the camera. All the excessive frills and frivolity that characterize ancien régime aesthetics have been reduced to a stream of thrift store lace clinched by a single orange bow. There is nothing courtly about the pale green drapes that immerse her, not a shred of gallantry in the oversized foot and knitting needles that intrude on the foreground. Like the other History Portraits, this assemblage exploits the wariness toward history expressed by practitioners of avant-garde culture. From a battered odalisque to a blasé monk, the portrayed appear dusty, neglected, withdrawn; the pictorial space is always cluttered and claustrophobic. In this series, lace cravats collide with polyester leggings; riding boots with plastic pearls and sheaves of corn.

Yet Sherman’s work remains steeped in tradition, and one must keep her early training as a painter in mind. The Broad’s exhibition underscores how little the artist has adhered to avant-garde values, particularly the myths of formal innovation that have inevitably come to embrace her work and condition its reception. Her approach is the opposite of what historian Jonah Siegel has called “a modernist sensibility at war with tradition.”11  Sherman is at peace with tradition; it is tradition that provides her with a departure point, an unhewn block to break down and reassemble into countless disruptive visions. In 1939, Clement Greenberg defined the antithesis of the avant-garde—kitsch—as an outcrop of the classical: the final destination of ideal beauty after its commodification and debasement.12 Sherman’s career-long fixation on the quintessentially kitsch fruits of mainstream American culture, cinema in particular, highlights the less obvious classicism lying warped beneath the surface of her oeuvre.

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled #397, 2000. Chromogenic color print, 36 × 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

Toward the end of the exhibition, a series of relatively small-scale works from 2000 are lined up on the wall like candidates for a job interview. One of the most striking is a portrait of a platinum blonde woman wearing a royal blue and magenta track jacket. Crowned in a tiara, she has the gaze of a former beauty queen, a woman struggling to match the idealized images that inform her own appearance. Although her skin is a bleached terracotta rather than toxic lead white, she is the real Kitty Fisher, the courtesan, had she lived to 26. She is “an almost frozen idea of what beauty is” left to melt under the lights.

Cora Gilroy-Ware is a scholar and artist currently based at the Institute for Advanced Studies, University College London. She has held fellowships in Naples, New Haven and Los Angeles and curated exhibitions at Tate Britain and the Huntington European Art Gallery.

Footnotes

  1. Anthony Synnott, “A Sociology of Beauty and the Face,” in Digging into Popular Culture: Theories and Methodologies in Archaeology, Anthropology and Other Fields, Ray B. Browne and Pat Browne, eds. (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1991), 150.
  2. James Northcote, Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Knt. (London: Henry Colburn, 1813), 16.
  3. Élie Faure, History of Art: Modern Art (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1924), 264.
  4. Morgan Falconer, “Cindy Sherman, London,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 145 (2003), 596.
  5. Blake Gopnik, “Cindy Sherman Takes on Aging (Her Own),” The New York Times, April 21, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/arts/design/cindy-sherman-takes-on-aging-her-own.html.
  6. Gary Morris and Michael Stern, “‘An Unhappy Happy End’: Douglas Sirk,” Action: Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran, Gary Morris, ed. (London: Anthem Press, 2009), 21.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Philipp Kaiser, “Imitations of Life: Appropriation, the Cinematic Impulse, and Beyond,” in Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life, Philipp Kaiser, Sofia Coppola, and Joanne Heyler, eds. (Munich, London, New York: DelMonico Books, 2016), 12.
  9. Sofia Coppola and Cindy Sherman, “A Whole Theater: Sofia Coppola and Cindy Sherman in Conversation,” in Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life, 146.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Jonah Siegel, Desire and Excess: The Nineteenth Century Culture of Art (Princeton, NJ, and Oxford, England: Princeton University Press, 2000), 8.
  12. Clement Greenberg, “The Avant-Garde and the Kitsch,” in Kitsch: An Anthology of Bad Taste, Gillo Dorfles, ed. (Milan, Italy: Gabriele Mazzotta, 1968), 116–26.