Celebrities pose for hours for these portraits inspired by art and film history

Jacqui Palumbo

A celebrity’s image can be quickly shaped by a single photo, TikTok video or news headline, but in Robert Wilson’s staged video portraits shot over the past two decades, he invites viewers to to slow down – way down — with hour-long poses held by celebrities including Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt and Isabella Rossellini.

Now on view at the Art Gallery of South Australia, the ‘Moving Portraits’ exhibition features A-Listers in meticulously staged scenes drawn from the history of art, film and culture – mixed with portraits of non-famous people and animals – with each video containing only subtle hints of movement over long periods of time.

In one portrait, which took seven hours to pose, Lady Gaga channeled the majestic Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière, originally painted by 19th-century French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. During filming, a tear rolled down the pop star and actor’s cheek.

In Princess Caroline of Monaco’s noir scene, the royal paid homage to her mother, Grace Kelly, and her famous roles in Alfred Hitchcock films, striking a pose reminiscent of the 1954 film ‘Rear Window’. The video works are presented on a human scale on large high-definition screens around the show.

“I conceptualize shoots with each individual,” Wilson said in an email. “With Lady Gaga, I had an exhibition of my work and my collection at the Louvre (in Paris) and I wanted to have portraits of Gaga based on the museum’s collection.”

Wilson, an acclaimed theater director who has worked for over five decades, is known for his experimental opera and avant-garde stage performances where he has long toyed with the conventions of the time. His four-act opera with composer Phillip Glass from 1976, “Einstein on the Beach” lasts nearly five hours without intermission, allowing audiences to come and go as they please. He also memorably staged a 24/7 spectacle at Haft Tan Mountain near the Iranian city of Shiraz, “a kind of setting or window to the world where ordinary and extraordinary happenings could be seen together” , is it quoted in a catalog. as they say of the 1972 production.

Wilson said he first came up with the idea for ultra-slow video portraits in the 1970s, envisioning them being shown in “hotel lobbies, banks and bus stops, and (on) seats rear of planes. In the early 2000s, when he started filming the works, high-definition screens were easier to find and he could opt for a vertical format, so that “they were proportionate to a human size”, he explains. he.

Celebrities often have limited time for photoshoots – sometimes just a handful of minutes – but Wilson took a few hours each from Robert Downey Jr., who became the cadaverous subject of a portrait referencing a 1632 anatomical painting by Rembrandt, the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was martyred as the Arrowed Saint Sebastian, as well as Salma Hayek and Winona Ryder.

And although Wilson made many of his works before fast-paced social media clips dominated the internet, today they have a special resonance. They are not easily displayed online and are meant to be fully enjoyed in person in a way that compels viewers to take their time. Wilson said, “I think these works are a counterpoint to the times (in which) we live.”

Top image: Robert Downey Jr. in the reconstructed Rembrandt painting “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”.

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