Jan van Eyck, The Portrait of Givanni Arnolfini and his Wife Giovanna Cenami ( The Arnolfini Marriage), 1434 ( Creative Commons)
Re-appropriated images had not caught my attention before researching for this assignment, however, I realise that artists can be greatly inspired by the work of others. I will discuss this further whilst exploring The Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cemani by Jan van Eyck. I will also offer an examination of the Vermeer painting, A Girl Reading at the Open Window and the re-appropriation of that image by photographer Tom Hunter, entitled Woman Reading a Possession Order, looking at how the images relate to one another and the use of visual communication and media.
I was not familiar with the Jan van Eyck Arnolfini Marriage image and my first impression of it, accessed online was one of curiosity. It is so finely painted with extraordinary detail and clearly full of symbolism. It became ever more interesting as I discovered that it was painted in 1434, in Bruges, at a time when it was more usual for artists to be commissioned to paint royalty or religious figures. I wondered why it would have been painted and for whom. In some ways, the research into these questions was as fascinating as the portrait itself. Originally thought of as a record of marriage, in the same way that we might photograph a couple today, research shows that the woman in the painting might not be Giovanna Cemani after all.
Historian, Jacques Paviot, during unrelated research in the early 90’s, found a reference to Arnolfini’s wedding to Giovanna Cenami. placing the wedding in 1447, 13 years after the date on the portrait and six years after van Eyck’s death. Could the painting have been an idealised vision, with a younger Arnolfini and a fantasy bride?
Whilst hundreds of people might have seen the portrait in the last 500 years, it is now displayed at the National Gallery in London and available to view worldwide by anyone who has access to the internet. In addition, unlike the middle ages there are now numerous art books available to buy and to read in libraries. Online Information about the painting is freely available and translated into several languages, again giving access to millions of people. Alongside this, new information can be accessed rapidly, building more understanding of the social and political times as reflected in this and other paintings.
The painting remains of great historical value as it is one of the first images to portray people who lived more ordinary lives, giving the viewer something more real to identify with. The symbols of wealth shown, for example in the fur-trimmed clothing, the brass chandelier, the imported oranges (which might also signify sensuality) and the rug on the floor, demonstrate that the couple were possibly successful merchant class. Despite first appearances that the woman might be pregnant we now know that the style of the day was to have voluminous folds of fabric draped around the body. This would have been understood by viewers in the 15th century but confusing to more modern eyes.
Some of the symbolism used in paintings hundreds of years ago does, however, maintain a common interpretation. The oranges could be exchanged for apples and both might suggest temptation and sensuality.
In the re-appropriated image that I have chosen to work with, Tom Hunter’s photograph of Woman Reading Possession Order, a bowl of fruit has been replaced by a baby. This says to me that the baby is the fruit of a relationship. The photograph is a re-appropriated image of Johannes Vermeer’s A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window. In an article in The Guardian in 2009, Tom Hunter says, “ I took this in 1997, for my master’s degree show at the Royal College of Art. The 17th-century golden age of Dutch painting had had a massive impact on me: the way they dealt with ordinary people, not kings, queens and generals. I thought if I could borrow their style for squatters and travellers, it would elevate their status.” The photograph won an award and has been exhibited widely.
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. Vermeer, J. 1658 (Google Cultural Institute))
Like the Vermeer painting, Hunter shows a woman standing at a window with a play of light bringing the outside into the room. In both images the window is an essential symbol but I think that in the Vermeer painting, the window is confining, holding the “girl” within a relationship that she would perhaps prefer to leave. The woman reading the possession notice in the photograph is about to lose the safety of her home where she has been a squatter. For her the window might signify protection from the outside world. Hunter describes his work as a piece of propaganda, as he highlights the plight of squatters being evicted at that time.
The Vermeer image is now displayed at The Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden. Painted towards the end of the 1650’s, the “girl” is pictured with a bowl of fruit as mentioned earlier. The fruit tumbles from a dish onto a brightly coloured rug on a table. One of the pieces of fruit has been cut open revealing the stone. Could this signify more than temptation and perhaps an illicit relationship has begun? In both images the artist has captured a sense of stillness in the women as they read their respective letters. They stand in similar postures, with similar hairstyles and colouring. Each wears a serious expression and from the viewer’s perspective the letter inspires curiosity. What does the letter say? What does it mean for the woman reading it?
In conclusion, there is much to say about the value of using a familiar image to add a layer of information to a re-appropriated image. The original symbolism may be altered or embellished whilst developing a more overt message. The context of the image tells the viewer more about the event as well as describing something of the social mores of the day. When the title is explanatory, such as the Hunter photograph, it adds to the message of the image.
The National Gallery
https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-van-eyck-the-arnolfini-portrait (Accessed 14/09/16)
A Picture worth Many Thousand Words Buchholz, S. 2000 University of Massachusetts Amherst Archives.
Tom Hunter website showing image
http://www.tomhunter.org/persons-unknown/ (Accessed 14/09/16)
Google Cultural Institute
https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/asset/girl-reading-a-letter-by-an-open-window/3wFQaidzxA5mqg?hl=en (Accessed 14/09/16)
http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/girl_reading_a_letter_by_an_open_window.html#.V9WYmo-cHIU (Accessed 14/09/16)
Tom Hunter My Best Shot Pulver,A. 2009 The Guardian newspaper article.
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/04/photography-tom-hunter-best-shot ( Accessed 14/09/16)
Tom Hunter website
http://www.tomhunter.org/info/ ( Accessed 14/09/16)
Response to the Tutor Report
The feedback was disappointing. I found the assignment a real challenge to respond to what I imagined were questions requiring answers, and to keep it within the 1,000 word limit It seems that I misunderstood what was required. What I learn from this is that I could have queried the areas that confused me.
I began with the Arnolfini Marriage discussion as there appeared to be questions pertaining to it in the assignment. The final point asked for a 1000 word essay reflecting on the questions posed.
The main learning for me though, is that I tend to accept the artist’s comments or statements about their work without question. I imagine that the artist has some sort of right to describe the work and that I have no right to question. It has been useful for me to explore that way of thinking.
With Hunter’s photograph of “Woman Reading a Possession Order”, I offered his rationale which was to support those squatters who faced eviction. I have no way of knowing if this was true or not, however I did not question it. What do I think about it? I think it is possibly true.
Looking at his website, I see that Hunter has been largely expressing socio-political images and representing people whom he feels are marginalised in some way.. I do think that “Woman Reading a Possession Order” is a beautiful image and that it might be perceived in this way as a first response. However, in the context of the original exhibition which was called Persons Unknown, it is more likely to have been viewed as a statement, given the political mood of the times. The young woman does look well dressed and well-groomed which might give cause for doubt as to her status as a squatter. However, we do not know how long she has been in this situation . The image might also intentionally challenge prejudice about what a squatter should look like.
The difference between Hunter’s photograph and the Vermeer painting to which it refers, is largely accessibility. The photograph can be reproduced, enlarged, miniaturized, the colours altered, whereas the painting is a steadfast image (apart from possible fading of pigment). Both images show everyday people and invite speculation which I find interesting.
My referencing has been tortuous and I think I have a better idea of how to link to online references.
I feel disappointed generally with the assignment as I had been fully engaged in Part Three and thought I had gained from it.