Here we are, it’s June — exam time.
A prompt from the art history final: “Discuss an example of a ‘history painting’ that depicted current events. What would ‘history painting’ look like in the present?”
You’re OK. You got this. Any student of 19th century art will recall the orgy of overproduction that was French Salon painting, in which artists trolled for inspiration in both the epic and the forgotten moments of history. Yes. Do the Théodore Géricault, “The Raft of the Medusa” (1819). Yes… yes, YES! You’re gonna ace this.
Second part of the question, “in the present”? The present? Is that, like, capital P, Present?
You’re fucked. Why are they asking me this? This is an art history class. Plus, who the hell paints history anymore?!
Don’t panic. London-based Polish artist Goshka Macuga’s first US museum show, Time as Fabric at the New Museum, takes one of the most decisive answers to the problem of painting contemporary events — Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” — and makes it the source for one of her own works. Macuga will help you out.
Macuga herself isn’t painting at all, but often her works probe how the mural scale of history painting allows for certain kinds of fantastical encounters in its fictive spaces, potentially readdressing the past in ways that create new truths. Her show features five large-scale, black-and-white tapestry works whose imagery is collaged from archival documents and photographs. In “On the Nature of the Beast” (2009), Macuga addresses the veiling in 2003 — before the US invasion of Iraq — of the to-scale fabric reproduction of “Guernica” that hangs in front of the UN Security Council chambers in New York. In her version, Macuga collaged a new vision of history from snippets of past events. Her tapestry has Prince William of England standing before a lectern addressing a crowd of well-dressed swells. The uncensored version of the Picasso is visible behind him, referencing the display of the work at Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1938–39 as a means to raise funds to support the Republican cause in Spain. Whitechapel happens to be the same site where Macuga first showed this work, in 2009, as a backdrop to an installation that included a circular conference table where local groups were invited to hold meetings. The Picasso can be neutralized as decoration when you place a celebrity in front of it, or it can become the catalytic element that triggers the formation of a heavily used social space (over 100 community meetings took place in front of Macuga’s work during her show at Whitechapel).
Macuga’s past works suggest that despite its reputation for squelching dissidence, the Communist People’s Republic of Poland’s actions seem merely part of a continuum of her countrymen’s habits of art desecration and censorship. In recent work in this vein, Macuga produced a tapestry work that compared the violence that erupted at a public performance by playwright Tadeusz Kantor in 1967 with recent moves to censor or destroy works by Maurizio Cattalan and Piotr Uklański in Poland. Time as Fabric also includes set design for a theatrical performance based on an unpublished play by art historian Aby Warburg, and tapestries inspired by the charmingly pervy Czech photographer Miroslav Tichý, the destruction of the Darul Aman Palace in Afghanistan, and one that takes up the claims to forest rights made by members of the Tea Party in the US. Though the works skip through history and touch down in wildly disparate geographies, when Macuga’s montaged sources become joined in unitary, woven compositions, surprising facets of those events and places are revealed.
Go see it — Macuga may just help you nail that Poli Sci exam, too.
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