By PAUL LASTER Feb. 14, 2014
A conceptualist who utilizes a variety of mediums, Laurence Aëgerter cleverly employed photography to appropriate and revitalize iconic paintings on view at the Hermitage Amsterdam during the 2010 exhibition Matisse to Malevich: Pioneers of Modern Art from the Hermitage. The French-born, Amsterdam-based artist positioned people and objects in front of modernist masterpieces and then snapped pictures of the resulting tableaux. Coming full circle, her colorful images are now being shown in the exhibition The Modernists and More, which is on view at the Hermitage Amsterdam through February 20th. Whitehot contributor Paul Laster recently connected with the artist to discuss the ideas and process behind this engaging series of images.
Paul Laster: What was the idea for the making of your photographic series Hermitage, The Modernists, which is currently on view at the Hermitage Amsterdam?
Laurence Aëgerter: I wanted to investigate our individual relation to art and our perception of iconic artworks. The more the icon is alive in our mind—by means of reproductions and stories around it—the higher is the intensity of the expectation to be confronted with its reality. But what can we really experience of it? When our vision of a work of art is altered, it becomes a reversed mirror—anchored in our present time. By layering the images, I seek the in-between spaces and bits of time that occur in the process of looking.
Laster: Were the photographs staged or taken by chance?
Aëgerter: They were all staged. For privacy and security reasons, I wasn't allowed to photograph during opening hours. I had to get permission. I know the marketing director, who already knew about my work, and he gave me a carte blanche.
Laster: You had done similar series at the Louvre in Paris and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, right?
Aëgerter: Indeed, a few years ago I worked at the Louvre on a day that the museum was closed. In order to prepare for that body of work, I practiced at the Rijksmuseum with a lighter camera, which allowed me to take candid shots of visitors obstructing the views of other people.
Laster: How were those projects different from these pictures?
Aëgerter: The photographs of the visitors from the series Le Louvre and Het Apparaat (The Apparatus), which were also taken at the Rijksmuseum, are actually quite similar to the ones that I made at the Hermitage. Even in paintings where the laws of perspective were not applied, you can experience the phenomenon of absorption of the viewer occurring in a number of ways. At the Hermitage, however, I experimented with objects—plastic curtains, ladders, and a hanging ham—intervening with the paintings. The curtains are an ironical reference to the idea of a painting being a window on to life (a philosophical concept first expressed by the Italian Leon Battista Alberti during the Renaissance). The curtains also refer to Baroque painting with curtains on the foreground, which suggested painting is an interpretation of life as a stage.
Laster: Who are the people in front of the paintings?
Aëgerter: They are people that I met at the museum and asked to model. They agreed to come back two weeks later for the shoot. I also photographed friends and friends of friends.
Laster: Did you choose their clothing or style their hair?
Aëgerter: They are wearing are their own clothes. I met most of the subjects in advance with a bag of clothes that they brought to my studio, where I made test shots. Some others sent me pictures of themselves in different outfits. The hair is totally natural.
Laster: The interaction is amusing—with it sometimes being psychological in nature and at other times seeming to be in dialogue, as though the subject belongs in the painting. Did you think about these things in advance or was it trial and error during the shoot?
Aëgerter: I encountered the models before the shoot and made test photographs with their different clothing on so I could anticipate the scope of interactions between the viewers and the paintings. Of course, the real moment of confrontation always has it's own voice. I shot some 1300 images over the course of two evenings and then narrowed it down to 28 images for the final series.
Laster: Did you shoot multiple poses or settle on one and go with it?
Aëgerter: Most of the time it would be one pose, sometimes two, with different paintings and different clothes. It was difficult to keep the focal point of both the backs of the subjects and the surface of the paintings sharp.
Laster: Were you shooting with film or digitally? Did you bring in lights or just use natural light?
Aëgerter: It was photographed digitally, but I didn’t use any Photoshop in post-production. I hired a professional photographer to take care of the technical aspects so that I could concentrate on the people and their interactions with the paintings. We only used existing light. My mission was to stay as close to a real museum situation as possible.
Laster: There don’t seem to be any shadows, thus enhancing the relationship between the figure and ground. How did you achieve this effect?
Aëgerter: The lighting of the museum was coming straight down from the ceiling. There weren’t any shadows created for the majority of works. If we had used lateral lights, that would have been impossible to achieve.
Laurence Aëgerter, GE 7705-100906-193316 (Picasso, woman with fan), 2011 © Laurence Aëgerter, Amsterdam
Laster: What inspired the move beyond people in front of the paintings to objects, such as the curtains, which veil the image, and the ladders and ham that block our view of the canvases?
Aëgerter: I like to think of the museum as a stage and the artworks as backdrops. Also I love the idea that so many paintings are reproduced as posters that hang in domestic situations, where all kinds of visual obstruction naturally takes place. The colored plastic curtains are a wink to my youth. I come from Marseille, where one often encounters them. They are used to keep flies from entering spaces.
Regarding, the ladders, I asked the museum staff if I could borrow some ladders in advance. By chance, one of them had colored stickers on it that matched the orange and blue tones of the Kandinsky painting.
The Spanish ham in the red fabric was a spontaneous insight from the night before at a local tapas bar. It’s a formal game.
Laster: How were you able to bring the series full circle and have it shown in the Hermitage Amsterdam?
Aëgerter: I showed the finished prints to the person who gave me permission to photograph at the museum and he proposed a show.
Laster: What were you thinking about when layering the old with the new?
Aëgerter: I was working from the point of view that no artwork is ever finished. It’s always evolving. People take selfies or photograph their friends in front of my pictures when they are hanging in galleries and museums, and then post the photos to online social media sites. In Holland, we call it the Droste effect, which refers to the repeated imagery on the packaging for Droste cocoa powder. It’s about appropriation, but I’m more or less led by intuition. I was taken by how the new revitalized the old, while the old gave context to the new. WM
Matisse to Malevich: Pioneers of Modern Art from the Hermitage
The Modernists and More
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist, and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editorat FLATT Magazine and ArtBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com; started The Daily Beast's art section;and was art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons OneWorld magazine. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, Art in America, Modern Painters, ArtPulse, Flash Art, Newsweek, Bomb Magazine, ArtInfo.com, TheDailyBeast.com.view all articles from this author