Tom Hunter stages and then photographs elaborate tableaux vivants loosely based on Old Master paintings. The people in his pictures wear modern dress and act out stories set in modern London – Hackney, to be precise – while posed and lit as though they were characters from Renaissance or Baroque art. The result is a version of contemporary life seen as if through a distorting mirror, haunted by the ghosts of the past.
A photograph taken in 1997 exemplifies Hunter’s tried and tested method. A young woman stands by a window reading a letter, while sunlight floods her face and brightens the room in which she stands. Shown in profile, she closely resembles the solemn and quietly beatific female figure in Johannes Vermeer’s celebrated painting A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, in the Gemaldegalerie in Dresden. But whereas Vermeer’s girl stands next to a table on which a fruitbowl overflows like a cornucopia, her late twentieth-century alter-ego stands next to a bed in which lies a sleeping baby. And while the girl in Vermeer’s painting is, by implication, happily in love and blessed by wealth, Hunter’s young woman is a single mother implicitly on the skids. His brusque title underscores the contrast and completes what appears to be an essay in disenchantment: Woman Reading a Possession Order.
Hunter anomalously won a prize for photographic portraiture for that picture, at the National Portrait Gallery a few years ago. Now it has been placed at the start of a new exhibition of his work, this time at the National Gallery. It makes for a muted introduction to “Living in Hell and Other Stories”, a series of more recent pictures in which the photographer visibly strives for ever-more extravagant effects of intriguing incongruity. Each of Hunter’s new photographs takes its title from a headline found in the pages of an evidently somewhat sensationalising local newspaper. Rat in Bed, Naked Death Plunge and Murder: Two Men Wanted are characteristic examples. The pictures concocted in response to these terse phrases of low-end journalism turn out to be varyingly inscrutable homages to the various oil paintings that have caught Hunter’s eye.
Up Before the Beak: Angry Swan guards Bridge after Crash is a spectacularly peculiar update of Michelangelo’s famous painting of Leda being ravished by Jupiter in the form of a swan. A woman in laddered stockings and white high-heeled shoes lies flat on her back beside a footbridge in a stretch of nondescript urban parkland while a swan, wings outspread, appears to be having its way with her. For Batter or Worse is a considerably more populous mise-en-scene, in the form of a staged brawl taking place on the steps of Hackney Town Hall at dusk. The excruciating pun of the original newspaper headline referred to a fight breaking out at a wedding. That is recast here by Hunter as a pastiche of the Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo’s Fight Between the Lapiths and the Centaurs – a picture depicting a mythical brawl between wedding guests, which can itself also be seen in the National Gallery. For Piero’s Lapiths and Centaurs, Hunter has substituted warring factions of, respectively, redheads and British South East Asians, tumbling and scrapping in a slightly limp and self-consciously theatrical fashion in the half light of evening. Were it not for the evidently absurdist spirit in which it has been conceived, the picture might be taken for an allegory of simmering racial tensions in modern Britain.
Hunter’s pictures have a way of hinting, but only ever half seriously, at hidden depths of social concern. Rat in Bed shows a naked Asian girl with long flowing hair lying in bed in a little room with matching red curtains and rug. Chinese-style fairy lights have been strung through the brass bedstead. A cat sleeps on the floor, oblivious to the unpleasant fact that two rats have somehow got into bed with its owner. One rodent sniffs the mattress, while the other stands up on its back legs. The girl’s shoes are neatly laid out in a line on the floor: stack-heeled boots, fluffy pink stilettos, strappy black mules. Her taste in footwear suggests that she might be a prostitute or a stripper – at any rate, someone working in the sex trade, who needs to sell a glamorous image of herself to the punters. She is posed as if she were the young Tahitian girl in Gauguin’s Spirit of the DeadWatching. Perhaps her stifling bedroom is meant to represent the sad and sorry cul-de-sac of nineteenth-century orientalism, the way in which what was once an artists’ and poets’ cult of the exotic and unfamiliar has been debased to the seedy imperatives of the sex tourist. Perhaps the rats with which the girl shares her bed are meant to stand for her parasitic clientele.
Hunter’s photographs are prompts to speculation, enigmatic lures for the would-be interpreter seeking to find the reasons behind their visual rhymings. But the suspicion remains that the spirit most truly animating them is one of playful but disaffected parody. A strong dystopian strain runs through the photographs, especially those that draw on the world of classical myth. Murder: Two Men Wanted is a pastiche of Piero di Cosimo’s touching little painting of A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph, in which Hunter has contrived matters so that a crop-haired young man, accompanied by an Alsatian, kneels beside the body of a woman lying in a pile of leaves somewhere in some city park. Naked Death Plunge shows a scrawny nude man lying apparently dead in a patch of grass beside a multi-story housing estate, like a squalid modern Icarus. Gangland Execution. Boys Find Man’s Body in River is an updated version of Constable’s Suffolk idyll of 1820, Stratford Mill, sometimes known as “The Young Waltonians”. Constable’s River Stour has become a dank pool in yet another patch of city park. The painter’s group of fishing boys, innocently at one with nature, has been abbreviated to a pair of children in tracksuit bottoms and hoodies standing by this stretch of water, beneath latticework of branches silhouetted against a bright and tranquil sky. But all is not well in their parody of a paradise. These latterday “Young Waltonians” are confronted by a body lying face down and arms outstretched in the water.
The idea of transposing the solemn or idealising structures of the art of the past to depictions of the chaos and flux of contemporary experience is by no means new. The French nineteenth-century painter Edouard Manet might be said to have invented the approach in paintings such as Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe or Olympia, in which he proposed modern-day equivalents to the shepherds of mythical Arcadia, or the goddess Venus – students picnicking in the woods, in the first instance and, in the second, a sullen prostitute in her boudoir. Hunter plays a similar trick but does it so often that he occasionally seems to run the risk of turning into a mannerist of his own devices; and because he is working in the medium of photography, his pictures inevitably lack the weight and density, the inflected surface wrought by the touch of a human hand, of his Old Master sources. His best photographs make a virtue of their own relative flimsiness, and of the apparent instantaneity of their making. The most effective are those which seem least contrived, creating the illusion that the world has indeed momentarily arranged itself into a tableau redolent of long extinct myth. But many of them seem like somewhat academic exercises in a late, late form of photographic Surrealism – mere picture puzzles, mildly enlivened by ingenious Old Master references.
A series of beautiful and haunting photographs by Ori Gersht, currently on display at the Photographers’ Gallery, also distantly evoke paintings of the past – in this case the virgin forest wildernesses painted by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. Gersht, who was born in Israel but now lives and works in Britain, took these photographs, of blurred snowy landscapes and fragments of pine forest, on a recent journey to Kolomia and Kosov, in Ukraine. The background to their making is an integral part of their meaning. This particular part of the Ukraine bore witness to appalling acts of genocide during the Nazi occupation of World War Two. Gersht’s own father-in-law, Gideon Engler, who was born there, was one of the few survivors of the mass killing of local Jews. Together with his brother and father, Baruch Engler, he spent two and a half years in hiding, first in a small hole in the ground and subsequently in the cramped attic of a nearby house. Baruch Engler later wrote a harrowing account of their sufferings, and of the atrocities that they witnessed.
Gersht’s pictures of this site of personal and historical trauma, taken at such a remove of time, are charged with a sense of melancholy and loss rather than anger. Their subject is the inaccessibility of a past that cannot be recovered but, equally, remains distressingly unforgottable. He took many of them through the windows of trains, courting effects of blur and overexposure. Snow-covered homesteads loom into view through veils of mist. A single telegraph pole stands dark and upright, bisecting a field of white that recedes flatly to a white horizon. These are images that question the truth of James Joyce’s dictum that “places remember events.” They suggest the photographer’s frustrated desire to see more than the world will allow him to see – to capture the numberless ghosts hovering, in his imagination, over the mundane tranquillity of the here-and-now. Liquidation is the sombrely punning, collective title that he has given to these unsettling, apparitional pictures.
The climaz of Gersht’s exhibition is a short film called The Forest. Shot in deep pine forests in the interior of Moskolovka, while local woodcutters were at work, it consists simply of a sequence of slow pans across bands of individual trees. As the eye follows the movement of the camera, set high among the branches, individual trees sporadically fall, crashing to the forest floor. The camera does not respond to these interruptions so much as simply register them, continuing serenely and metronomically along its prescribed course and back again, catching them often so to speak out of the corner of its eye. The forest regains its tranquillity surprisingly quickly after each felling, disturbed branches springing back into the air as dust-motes dance in shafts of raking sunlight. While the semblance of peace is preserved, the tearing sound of every fall is amplified on the soundtrack to a reverberating, crashing roar – layered, persistent echoes of shocks swiftly absorbed. The film has the quality of a recurring dream. It provides an eloquent but unforced metaphor for the truth, such as it was, that Gersht found on his journey.