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Charlotte's Spectrum

16 Feb

Mimicking Painting: The Old and Dusty World

By Charlotte Champion

Photography has always been a great passion of mine, not only trying a hand at it myself but also looking at a lot of photographs and thinking about them. Photography is fascinating aesthetically and theoretically to me. By chance I came across a wonderful series of photographs by Mariska Karto called The Old and Dusty World and was surprised at how much they looked like paintings, which of course is bound to raise a lot of questions in my mind. Today, in the digital age, photography has taken on many different forms – from complete abstraction to Instagram – and yet Karto’s work longs for a time before its very invention. If you squint your eyes enough (thereby getting rid of the photo-realistic element) you would almost, almost think that ‘images’ were by Caravaggio or one of his followers. But I can’t help but wonder if the reference to a ‘dusty’ world is not a little misplaced.


Photography and painting have long since had at best a rocky relationship. When photography was invented at the beginning of the 19th century it was thought to have caused ‘the death of painting’ – after all, no painter could ever paint as realistically as one could photograph. The camera could capture its subjects more realistically exactly because it captured light. Painters such as Caravaggio would use techniques such as chiaroscuro to create depth and dimension: to create a realistic image. Karto’s use of it falls short in that it is already somewhat encompassed in the medium she uses; there is no need for it here as a technique per se. For me, The Old and Dusty World plays with the notion of realism by appropriating the visual cues of painting within the photographs.


Mariska-Karto-2
As photography makes use of light, and by extension colours, there is a direct relationship between the photograph and its subject. With all things being equal, the colour of for example one’s eyes should match that of the photograph. This is because the camera mimics the way our eyes see the spectrum of colour. By contrast, a painting is created with a limited amount of colours (in comparison) handpicked by the artist and as such is much more prone to his/her perception. Despite this, our ‘imaginary painter’ wishes to pick those colours that are as realistic as possible for his subject. Because the visual cues of painting are being recreated afterwards in Photoshop, Karto merges these two colour ‘palettes’ thereby creating a world of her own which is neither properly photographic nor explicitly painterly.


Mariska-Karto-3
She explains of the series that they are “Photographic paintings of woman, inspired by the old masters of the Middle Ages. [It] is about the magic of woman […] the sensual atmosphere [and the] colours of feminine emotions in our world.” Whereas I would disagree that the photographs resemble the old masters of the Middle Ages (if Caravaggio and his followers – the Caravaggisti – are inspiration, Karto has her dates mixed up as they were Baroque painters in the 16th century) I believe indeed that the images balance between realism and a somewhat dreamlike state (emotions, magic, sensuality). The colours are soft and muted, with a predominately grey ‘palette’ and because of this the women feel as if they are not of flesh and blood. To me, in contrast, this would be exactly that which painters tried to perfect in their countless nudes in art history. It is almost as if the photographs negate the fact that someone actually posed in front of the camera. And this is precisely the meaning behind the project – to make the photographs look so much like paintings that you would believe them to be such if you did not know any better. This is exactly what evokes an uncanny feeling in me. But is it because the realism of photography is being masked, or that the paintings of ‘old masters’ were in themselves so realistic and are thereby inspirational? Whichever the answer, these photographs and the paintings of the old masters are anything but dusty.


Check out Mariska Karto's website for more of her work.


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