Reimagined masterpieces turn Western art against itself

American artist Kehinde Wiley uses the visual impact of black and white to stunning effect in his six-channel film, The Prelude, the immersive centrepiece of his exhibition at the National Gallery.

Black Londoners, recruited from the streets of Soho, are filmed in the hostile and all-consuming whiteness of the snowbound Norwegian landscape. It’s a businesslike, if rudimentary, metaphor, through which Wiley puts race at the centre of a dialogue with the European landscape tradition.

The film is accompanied by a group of paintings that riff on Bosch’s Ship of Fools (c.1490-1500), and two of Caspar David Friedrich’s most famous pictures.

Bosch’s allegorical painting pillories the morally adrift; in Wiley’s reimagining, a tree tops a small boat occupied by an alarmingly ill-equipped and chaotic group of young black men and women. Traditional iconography is thrust into the present, as migrants forced to risk sea-crossings fuel a subversion of traditional oil paintings, honouring the heroic journeys of myth and legend.

Humanity’s battle with nature takes triumphant form in Friedrich’s epitome of Romanticism, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c.1818). In Wiley’s reworking, skin colour has a transformative effect, his Black Wanderer a symbol not of dominance and transcendence, but of marginalisation, displacement, colonialism, and enslavement.

The shift of meaning effected by racial difference is uncomfortable, but real emotional power is squandered in the execution. Wiley’s flaming skies reach for the sublime, but the photorealism and brash colours achieve instead a knowingly commercial aesthetic, that channels the fashion photography of David LaChapelle.

Prelude (Babacar Mané), 2021. Some of Wiley’s works riff on the Romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (Photo: The National Gallery/Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Galerie Templon, Paris)

With a running time of 30 minutes, the film is an opportunity to develop the Romantic motif of the figure in the landscape. The camp glamour of the paintings matures into something weightier, as figures stumble about in the snow as disoriented as if they had fallen from the sky – an impression enhanced by the deeply inadequate clothes that leave them shivering horribly in the mounting blizzard. Excerpts from Wordsworth, Emerson and Thoreau are read by an actor, and a rousing, cinematic score tries for grandeur and even universality.

But as we watch a smile slowly subside into a frozen grimace, agonising to watch, the knowing elegance of the piece is uppermost.

By repurposing the venerable theme of humankind battling raging nature as a metaphor for the battles fought by generations of black people against their white oppressors, Wiley turns the lexicon of Western art against itself. In this, the beautiful people, the immaculate clothes are an essential ingredient – after all, it’s quite normal for heroes in art to wear preposterously unsuitable clothes.

This is how Wiley ensures his subjects’ dignity, but the fashion-shoot aesthetic is also, paradoxically, an obstacle to emotional profundity. The film is exquisitely beautiful, but a project of such importance needs to provoke more.

To 18 April 2022


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