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Cindy Sherman, Untitled #228 from the History Portraits series

By Christine Zappella
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #228, from the History Portraits series, 1990, chromogenic color print, 208.4 x 122 cm (The Museum of Modern Art) © Cindy Sherman

An old master painting

Walking through a contemporary art wing in a museum, one may be surprised to come across a 7 foot high oil painting of the Biblical heroine Judith holding the head of Holofernes. How was an Old Master canvas (that is, a work of art from the revered European tradition)—seemingly created in sixteenth-century Italy—hung in such a mistaken place?
Judith looks boldly out at her audience and presents the head of Holofernes in her right hand, displaying the dagger she used to decapitate him in her left.  She is garbed in billowing red, blue, and green drapery and stands in front of a curtain made of pieces of brocaded and patterned fabric. Her head is tilted slightly to her left, much like the heroines in paintings by Botticelli; she likewise stands on a carpet of green grass speckled with flowers. But unlike Botticelli’s pristine and idealized nudes, Judith’s makeup is heavy-handed, almost tacky. The fabrics that at first seem to glimmer are, upon closer inspection, chintzy and cheap. And Holofernes’ head, which is usually frightening and powerful, looks like a used Halloween mask.
This is no Old Master painting at all. In fact, the slick surface of the picture quickly reveals that it is not even an oil painting, but actually a monumental photograph. She’s done it again. The Contemporary Master, Cindy Sherman—known for embodying and enacting images from popular media—has imagined a Renaissance interpretation of the Old Testament hero Judith, and photographed herself in the part.  And she has intentionally done this with just enough illusionism to confuse the viewer, even if only for a moment.

History portraits

Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #228 is part of her series of photographs, History Portraits.  This body of work was completed from 1988-90, while the artist was living in Rome. However, she did not go and visit the great works of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art that was all around her, but rather chose to look at them as reproductions in books. In this way, she remained a consumer of print culture, utilizing only what images were available to any person, anywhere in the world. As in her acclaimed photographic series Untitled Film Stills created a decade earlier (1977-80) in which the photographer dressed as a filmic heroine and created scenes that appeared to have come from classic movies (below), Sherman never recreated specific images, but rather used the original media as inspiration for her own art. Thus, the photographs feel both familiar and original, contemporary and classic, and create a feeling of unsettled anxiety in the audience.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21,1978, gelatin silver print, 19.1 x 24.1 cm (The Museum of Modern Art)

A dangerous heroine

In Untitled #228, Sherman has drawn upon Renaissance and Baroque images of Judith with the head of Holofernes. The Book of Judith (included In some versions of the Bible), tells of the devout widow Judith—a heroine who saves the Israelites from a conquering Assyrian general by befriending him and visiting his tent one night while he is drunk. She takes advantage of his unfit state and decapitates him. The Assyrians, shocked by the assassination of their leader, retreat. The Israelites are saved.
Cristofano Allori, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613, oil on canvas, 120.4 x 100.3 cm (Royal Collection, London)
Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa,
c. 1554, bronze (Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della
Signoria, Florence)
Because she uses her sexuality to kill Holofernes and because she is a woman who is able to murder a man, Judith has always been a heroine that engendered great anxiety. Cindy Sherman’s photograph captures that. She is dressed in red, the color of lust and seduction, as well as the color of blood. She fills the entire length of the 7’ tall photograph. While her face is resolute, “Holofernes’” is grotesque and comedic. And although Sherman’s interpretation of Judith has much in common with Cristofano Allori’s painting of the same subject (above)—both in the amount of and color saturation of the fabric and the pose of the body—it is also heavily reminiscent of Benvenuto Cellini’s Florentine Perseus with the Head of Medusa (left).  It is likely that Allori, also a Florentine, was inspired by Cellini’s sculpture, too. In Sherman's photograph, it is the woman, not the man, who is in control, a vital force.

A feminist artist?

Because of her subject matter, Sherman is often considered a feminist artist. She did indeed come of age during the Feminist Movement in America and tackles issues regarding female identity and sexuality, as well as pornography and media objectification of women. Sherman has said that she hopes that her work is understood as feminist in nature, but that she never intentionally created Feminist art. Another misconception is that her photographs are self-portraits. In the same year that she created Untitled #228, Sherman explained to The New York Times that in looking at the portraits, she often did not see herself in them at all. Rather, she thought she disappeared while creating the character.
Sherman is still an active artist and continues to inspire contemporary artists, including the likes of James Franco, who remade her Film Stills series, and Jimmy Eat World whose rock album Invented was based on Sherman’s oeuvre. It is perhaps because of this idea of self-invention that her art remains so popular. We may see her photos over and over but we are never sure of what she looks like. Her art is both a regurgitation of the past and a reimagining of it.  She asks us to look at her, but she also looks at us. She is victimized and victimizes. Her art embodies all of our own bodily and psychological insecurities, our fears about our fluid identities in an unstable world, and the angst of finding oneself in a world in which we must always perform.
Essay by Christine Zappella
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