For this assignment we have been asked to identify an example of re-appropriation within visual communication. I have chosen to consider a re-appropriation of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. The re-appropriation is a digital creation by Vienna based artist Dorothee Golz. In the post that follows I consider both images and collate notes ready for the assignment, a 1,00 word essay reflecting on questions from the workbook…
- Look at the original image (see below) – write a semiotic analysis. Describe the denotation and connotation as in previous exercises. Do further research into the original context of the image. Consider why, where and when it was originally placed and how audiences might have interpreted it.
Denotation: In the painting a young woman is seen against a dark painted backdrop. She appears alone, with no other objects or arrangement around her, aside from the background block colour. The young woman is wearing some kind of turban or headdress, the cloth is part brilliant blue, part soft almost luminous yellow. She appears to wearing a golden or rich ochre jacket or top. Only the top of the shoulders and head,neck of the girl are visible the image is cropped from that point. The girls head is turned towards us, her face is painted with soft flesh tones, and there appears to be a soft light falling on it. Her mouth is slightly open, with clear painted areas to indicate where the light falls and moisture on the lips. Light appears to glimmer or glint off a large, oversized drop shaped pearl which is worn as an earring by the girl.
Connotation: There is a great deal of ambiguity to this painting, the girl is nameless, we have no idea if she is known by the artist or even a real person. She is also made the sole focus of the image, there are no background settings, say a room or objects to give us other symbolic reference points. There is a romantic quality to the painting, I think created by the soft lighting, the smoothness of her features, the red of her mouth which is slightly open. The open mouth could suggest she is about to speak, again this is unclear, we are left to wonder what she may or may not be thinking or saying. There’s a suggestion of wealth in the larger than life pearl earring which hangs from the girls ear. The pearl, not traditionally found or farmed from The Netherlands (where Vermeer originated), and the rich brilliant blue, and soft yellow of her turban might suggest wealth or travel to exotic countries which were rich in colours, textile trade in that time period.
Why was it produced, where and when was it originally located and how might audiences have interpreted it?
The work was finished or produced in 1665, presumably in the city of Delft, west Netherlands where Vermeer lived and worked. According to an article by Wayne Frantis in Grove Art Online:
Despite his comparative youth, Vermeer had reached great artistic heights by the early 1660s. His colleagues elected him one of the headmen (administrative overseers) of the Guild of St Luke in the autumn of 1662 (a two-year position to which he was re-elected in 1670).
This prominence suggests that at the time of it’s production the painting would’ve been well known and received at least locally in Delft, and across the Netherlands. I haven’t found evidence to suggest where it might have been displayed or if it were produced for a private collector or wealthy family.
According to an online article, BBC Culture; Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring: Who was she? by Alastair Sooke, October 2014, in conversation with Emilie Gordenker, the director of the Mauritshuis Museum, these comments reflect what 17th century viewers may have thought seeing the painting:
17th-Century viewers would have looked at Vermeer’s painting and seen not a portrait but a type of picture known as a ‘tronie’. “A ‘tronie’ is a study of a head and shoulders dressed in exotic clothing,” she explains. The giveaway is the turban: it lends an oriental flavour to the canvas, transporting viewers to a faraway realm of the imagination. “While it is possible that someone modelled for it,” Gordenker says, “just as Rubens often painted figures who looked like his wife, it isn’t meant to be a specific person, but someone more generalised, timeless and mysterious – perhaps a sibyl or a figure from the Bible.”
- Reflect on where the original is currently located. Where did you access it? Did you see the original or have you seen a reproduction in print, online or elsewhere? What does this tell you about our modern relationship to the example you’ve chosen? Does it highlight any changes in attitudes or approaches to visual communication more broadly?
The original painting is currently located in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, The Netherlands. I accessed the image online, specifically here. I have unfortunately never seen the original in person, in fact I have only ever seen the image online. On the one hand this could be seen as evidence of our disconnect with the material, and connection to art through the medium of the internet. I wonder if this connection through the internet causes us to be more adaptable to re-interpretation or re-appropriation of the original? If we don’t see it a fixed, one of a kind piece but rather see it in it’s reproduced form (across several platforms), does it become more fluid?
Having said all this there is evidence of people making a conscious effort to engage with the original in person. The original went on a two year tour as part of an exhibition from the Mauritshuis from 2012-2014 visiting Tokyo, Kobe, San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, Bologna. Alastair Sooke explains in his article BBC Culture; Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring: Who was she? ;
Wherever she went, Vermeer’s Girl drew crowds that would turn a movie star green with envy. When she appeared in Tokyo, for instance, she attracted more visitors than any other global exhibition that year. In total, more than 2.2 million people around the world turned out to pay homage to Vermeer’s vision, who has been described as ‘the Mona Lisa of the North’.
Perhaps the real truth is that today’s engagement and consumption of visual communication is about convenience, if the painting had visited a London Museum it would’ve been convenient for me to see it. However it did not, and so my closest point of access becomes the internet.
- Now reflect on your chosen re-appropriated image. Why was it produced, how has it been shown to audiences and what do you think their interpretations are?
My chosen re-appropriated image is The Pearl Earring a digital painting by Dorothee Golz. It is one of a collection of Digital Paintings which often re-appropriate elements of renaissance portraits. In an interview with Betty Wood for Don’t Panic Online Golz outlines some of her motivation behind the series;
The fundamental question of my work is what is reality formed upon? A typical process in my work is the combination of different media of expression; reality is based upon our personal, historical and cultural background. In my digital paintings my perception of reality is confronted with the perception of reality during the Renaissance.
She expands further on the idea of perception of women as being different today than in renaissance times;
It is not my personal views I’m expressing, more the fact that I play with the stereotypes society places on women. If I take a head from a renaissance painting, I take control of a portrait which has been formed by the view that the painter had of this person. In the gaze of the renaissance painter the entire attitude of the society of his day is expressed.
In my digital paintings the women are presented the way men like to see them and the way women would like to be today. It becomes clear that today we have a much wider spectrum of possible female lives at our disposal than say, 500 years ago. We can ‘design’ ourselves but we also react to the ideas and role concepts inherent in our society.
The piece by Golz has been exhibited in galleries in Germany, as a physical print. But also exists online as a purely digital image on her website and across any other sites that have show it or commented on it. In a sense it exists in several different places and forms. I think its hard to try and comment on what or how audiences may have responded to it. Given the prevalence of design or visual culture websites commenting on it I would say there’s a level of fascination with the work. Some people seem to offended by the execution of the work, saying it could’ve been photo-shopped better, others seem to find the girl in the image easier to identify with in a more modern context.
- Make a comparison between the two images, annotate the similarities, differences and other comparisons you make. How does the new work reference the old? Does it maintain, subvert or alter the original message, if so how does it happen visually? Think about visual elements; how is image composition, typography, visual narrative or any other element used to construct meaning?
The first obvious visual similarity, is of course the head/face of the girl, seen to be clearly replicated in the re-appropriated image. However other similarities are more subtle in nature, for instance the collar of the jacket in the painting is mirrored by the positioning of a real woollen jacket in the digital painting. The dark background of the original is echoed, but not replicated,in the area of the back wall in shadow in the digital painting.
There appear to be a wealth of differences between the two visually. To begin with the girl has been taken out of her mysterious dark setting, and placed onto a modern body, in a modern context, a kitchen or home. There is the inclusion of objects, a table, fabrics, a chair, a light, a tea-pot, tea-cups, even dark Labrador, all of which are absent in the original. The room the girl is in (in the re-appropriated image), appears to have a large window, allowing for a flood of natural light to fill the room and light the girls face. We suddenly have a context or reason for some of the visuals we see in the original, whereas in the original the girls face seems strangely light by an unknown source, now we have a obvious natural source. I think in some ways it has detracted from or subverted the original, some of the mystery and charm of the original image is lost. The use of relatively modern objects; an electric light, glass table-wear, modern clothing shifts the girl from her original 17th century context straight into today. But the careful construction of, or arrangement of these objects, even the use of perspective, seems to visually remind me of the careful arrangement of scenes by Dutch painters of the 17th Century. Perhaps it even visually references Vermeer’s own, in words of Frantis, “interest in the placement of figures within solidly constructed, light-filled spaces.”
If as previously mentioned Dolz Digital painting series is concerned with the portrayal of women in today’s society, what does the re-appropriated image say about modern perception compared to Vermeer’s 17th Century ideals? In Vermeer’s painting the woman appears, an object of the male or viewers gaze, but somewhat un-definable, mysterious, perhaps even an object of the painters imagination. In Dolz’s digital painting the Girl has a context, in a home, a kitchen perhaps, is this where we think women belong? She is more distant, surrounded by belongs, is carefully dressed, has tasteful designer items. Is the modern ideal woman demure, a hostess, middle class? Such questions about modern ideas of social class, women’s status and perception are all brought to surface when considering the re-appropriated image.