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Portraits That Melt, and Mold, Conceptions Of Reality

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 7, 2001 12:00 AM

One decent measure of any artist's work is the amount of talk it generates -- in conversations, on notepads or on the printed page. Unfortunately, this newspaper won't be able to do justice to the complexities of eminent Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who recently opened a new show at the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim Museum: The Post's editors insist that other stories need to get into today's paper, too.

In its basic premise, nothing could be simpler than Sugimoto's latest work. He trotted off to various wax museums -- especially to Madame Tussaud's in London, but also to its branch plant in Amsterdam, and to a minor waxworks in Japan -- and did black-and-white portraits of the famous figures that he found preserved there. Thirty-four oversize, luscious, velvety images line the loftlike walls of the downtown Guggenheim, presenting a photographic portrait gallery of celebrated people shown larger than life.

All of which gets things quite wrong, of course.

In the making of this show, not a single "person" actually sat for Sugimoto's camera. These are photographs of sculptures, not of living humans, even though in some cases it is almost impossible to see that this is so.

The wax likenesses of the current queen of England, and of her late former daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, were very nearly perfect, so that Sugimoto's photos of them can hardly be told from pictures he might have taken of the sitters themselves. On the surface, these photographs are actually quite dull. They are the apotheosis of the official, formal portrait, with the subject stiffly posed against a black background, and a host of studio spots vainly trying to inject some artificial drama into things. It's only after catching on to the waxworks conceit in the less well-modeled figures shot by Sugimoto -- Ben Franklin and Napoleon are obvious candle-fodder -- that the pictures of Lizzie and Di start to stand out . . . for their lifelikeness, of all things.

It's been a long time since a photograph could impress simply for how well it echoes life, but here, thanks weirdly to its being once or twice removed from life itself, the medium gets just that kind of simple-minded praise for verisimilitude. Even the most sophisticated viewer can't help commenting on how "alive" old Lizzie looks, though they would never be caught dead saying such a thing in any show of straight photographs or paintings. Sugimoto sparks a fruitful conversation between life and art, and "art" and artfulness, that keeps things buzzing.

Of course, the Sugimoto photographs, and the sculptures that we almost forget they're based on, don't really evoke life. They echo other photographs. In looking at Sugimoto's images, we don't think for a minute that we're actually in the presence of the queen of England or Fidel Castro, though that's the kind of hyperbole we're tempted to use when we encounter them. And we don't even think of these photos of world leaders, in the first place, as pictures of sculptures. We know, more or less subliminally, that the figures that Sugimoto photographed are three-dimensional realizations of other photographs. Tussaud's wax magicians didn't get the real English monarch to pose for them; they had to base their image on the many famous photographs that define her public presence and persona. And that's one reason they seem so strikingly "real" -- because they capture the certified, constructed version of reality that we're all familiar with, rather than its messy truth. But note that Sugimoto's photos don't really look particularly like the actual photographs that the waxworks were based on: They look like new photographs of the people that the original photographs were of, that somehow capture the same trademark "look" the sitter had in that earlier photo shoot.

These photographs, that read at first so strongly and straightforwardly as archetypal "portraits of famous people," only get there through the most roundabout route: They are high-art black-and-whites of low-art, full-color wax sculptures of well-known photographs -- probably in color, too -- of famous people, and they preserve qualities from each level of reality, and of representation, that they've brushed up against. The old staple of art criticism is to talk about a work that's so realistic, it almost comes to life. Thanks to Sugimoto, things get just a touch more complicated: He gives us people seen through photographs of sculptures extracted from photographs that are so realistic they almost come to life.

One of the most striking aspects of the Guggenheim show is how hard it makes us think about what art can do to render life. The photographs of living royalty -- Emperor Hirohito's here too, incidentally, as are Pope John Paul II and Yasser Arafat -- strike us as true to life, however many removes they may be from it. Go back a bit in time, however, and a subtle change takes place. Winston Churchill isn't obviously less "lifelike" than later figures: A talented wax worker has put in all the detail you could want, in the right places and proportions. But because Churchill is based on a photo from an earlier era, he begins to look more artificial: We note the artifice in older image-making more than in an image made today, and so read it as being artful, rather than as full of life. This makes the great British prime minister, as shown by Sugimoto, a beast we've never seen before -- the subject of a famous photograph who has come back, unchanged in any tiny detail, to have his picture shot again. We can tell, that is, that the figure captured by the contemporary artist's camera existed in 3-D -- this clearly isn't just a copy photo of an older photo. But that figure-in-the-round has the very strange quality of looking like a person in an old-time photograph. The stylizations produced by the art of the original photographer have been somehow grafted right back onto the figure that he photographed, available for capture once again by Sugimoto's truthful, modern lens. Paradoxically, a photo whose style seems entirely up-to-date somehow also manages to conjure up an antique look.

The heart of the confusion, and the magic, in this show in fact depends on the wax workers' skill. They've mostly done such a good job of capturing the look of living flesh that we ignore their presence in the scheme of things: We read Sugimoto's photos as showing strange-looking real people -- people, for instance, who look oddly like archival images, or like official portraits -- rather than as showing some sculptor's work, with all the oddities of style that we all expect from such handcraftedness, when we become aware of it.

If Winston looks a little strange and out-of-date, however, what about his predecessors whose images have come down to us, and to Madame Tussaud's employees, even less faithfully than his? England's first Elizabeth, as met up with at the Guggenheim, had the bad luck to have been rendered by the painters of the English Renaissance, mostly a mediocre lot. As a result, Elizabeth's waxwork self, and then Sugimoto's portrait of it, inherits all the awkwardness of her badly painted portrait, now realized in three dimensions. The pet ermine climbing up her sleeve fares better -- he's the real thing, stuffed; the Virgin Queen has to suffer the indignity of sitting for her prestigious Sugimoto photo session as a hack Elizabethan portrait come to life.

If only she had had the luck to have been born a little later, and a few hundred miles farther east, she could have come down to us a Rembrandt -- as Rembrandt himself did, thanks to his self-portraiture. In Sugimoto's photo of the Dutchman, well on in life and fallen on hard times, he has all the convincing, aching humanity that he made famous in his own paintings. Rembrandt comes across as the most truly human of all the people in this show -- until you realize that this is just the way he wanted things to look. This isn't, after all, a faithful photograph of Rembrandt, for all the sitter's convincing, soulful fleshiness. It's just a copy of a copy of the painter's self-inflicted artifice, as thoroughly constructed and contrived as any other figure in this show. The true miracle isn't in the accurate illusionism of the original painting, of the waxen image of it, or of Sugimoto's photograph. The true miracle is how Rembrandt's uncannily convincing skill survives translation and then retranslation across four centuries and three media.

Oddly, the historical personalities who come off best in this whole show are those whose faces we know least. In a show where lifelikeness is the catch phrase, the figures whose images stray furthest from what they were in life, end up looking most alive. Henry V, hero of Agincourt, had the fortune -- good or bad -- to live before the days of even moderately realistic portraiture. When Tussaud's sculptors wanted to model him in wax, they had no decent image to fall back on. Instead they had to ask some drinking buddy -- I imagine him as "Nigel down the pub" -- to sit for them instead. That means, in rendering one of history's most famous leaders, Sugimoto's camera for once had the chance to capture a real person, full of flaws and foibles and hesitations, rather than the artifices of a formal portrait artist. Except, of course, that Sugimoto still had to be as gentle with his lights as though a king were sitting for him: Nigel, after all, was made of wax.

"Sugimoto: Portraits" was on view at New York's Guggenheim Museum from July 26 to Dec. 10, 2001.

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