BY MEGHAN MCGAVIN
What does a reenactment or appropriation of an Old Master painting do to the original? Does it dilute it or give it an updated context? In some instances, certain themes have retained their relevance. An updated version of a classical nude or still-life would seem completely contemporary to the undiscerning eye. There are however, certain genres of the past that disappeared with the advent of modernism. History painting, with its grandiose depictions of war and the toils of humanity was an outlet for the greatest of painterly skill. Portraiture was another platform for a master to beautify the subject while giving them a striking individuality.
Contemporary artists such as Eve Sussman (British, b. 1961), however, have chosen to revisit these scenes without so much as picking up a paintbrush. She belongs to a subsect of video artists who explore the classical subject matter found so often in the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, Nicolas Poussin, and Peter Paul Rubens. Her videos exhibit the anatomical contortions and ebullient drapery that only these masters could translate onto canvas. There is one dimension to classical painting that Sussman has found translates particularly well to new media- the dramatic moment.
Take her epic rendition of one of the most immortalized scenes in painting, “The Rape of the Sabine Women” from 2005, which was inspired by Jacques-Louis David’s climactic version from 1799. Sussman’s appropriation of the story is decidedly modern- a 90-minute long improvised enactment that has been stylized to appear to be taking place in the 1960s.
Her characters convey eternal themes of power and desire, as expressed by David through his rendering of lustful abduction. Sussman modernizes these elements of cultural plundering and sexual power struggles in an environment of 1960s affluence and leisure. This gives way to chaos caused by unchecked desire for control and possession. Sussman’s inspiration for the tale shines through so definitively, that the power of her message renders the costumes on her actors as arbitrary. They exist in an otherworldy setting, that is underscored by the lack of any dialogue between the characters, and instead replaced by a score provided by Jonathan Bepler.
Another fantastic production is “89 Seconds at Alcázar”- it’s entrancing. Watching it, you will discover a new passion for Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”, a work famous for inviting its viewer into the private scene within the canvas. You long for the moment when it all comes together- anticipating the split second when all of the subjects are as they should be- in their eternal positions as set in 1656. Sussman’s dramatization of the preparation leading up to such an iconic image in art history helps us understand the intricate aspects of process in painting, at a time when staging and subtle allegories were paramount.
Furthermore, Sussman enhances the issues of voyeurism that are the masterpiece’s trademark by inserting herself into the production. We fully assume the point of view Velazquez intended to convey for himself- the outsider looking in and yet also enveloped within the scene.
This new wave of study of Classicism and the Baroque style is symbolic in its efforts to regain these moments of exactitude in the narrative of art. Perhaps Sussman is indicating that we have entered a period for reflection, particularly amidst our myopic pop culture obsessions. Her work melds the modern period with tradition in art, re-contextualizing classical works in a present-day vernacular. Without compromising the integrity of the works from which she draws inspiration, Sussman reinvigorates discourse on themes that for centuries provided the basis for subject matter in art.
Eve Sussman was born in the UK and educated both there and in Turkey. She currently resides in Brooklyn. Her work has been exhibited internationally and has also received critical acclaim in numerous showings in theaters. ’89 Seconds to Alcázar’ was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, and Sussman’s work is included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.