Forever Someone Else - Tomas Lundgren
"Everything I do is about the past. What once was, but is no longer. I intervene as an invisible witness. All the works in my new exhibition address, in different ways, the ability that depiction has to shift, duplicate, or distort identity, or the self."
The people in the paintings have been depicted in several stages, and placed in different contexts, to achieve different ends. Depiction always has this dual nature of being on the one hand mere depiction, and on the other hand an expression of something else. More specifically, the traces of subjectivity that remain in the paintings. The artist’s model, who acts as an original for a painting; the anarchists, who aren’t individuals, but entries in an identification register; the American natives, who wear masks to take on different roles; the broken figurines of saints, who embody several stages of depiction–paintings based on photographs of wooden figurines that depict the original religious leaders.
Around the turn of the last century, the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha created a series of timeless allegorical portraits. He needed somebody he could borrow anatomical proportions and positions from. He had no interest in any individual characteristics. Sometimes he used his daughter, sometimes he used some other model. They were present as lenders of general features rather than some individual distinctiveness. When I look at the photographs of his daughter Jaroslava and all the others, it’s as though I were stepping into a space between the artist and the model, as an invisible witness.
The viewer and the person who’s being depicted are recurring themes in my works. His works began from this point, and when I paint the photograph, it’s as though I were traveling back a century through time to adopt his process. When I look at what I’ve painted, I can see that I’ve depicted an individual. She’s the one I’ve been trying to catch a glimpse of. It’s difficult to capture history, but the people make it real. They actually existed once. When you zoom in on a life, there is a beginning and an end. I think of this exhibition as a continuation of the one I had two years ago. It involves the same exploration of history and depiction. Everything is based on old photographs taken from various collections and archives.
I often approach my subject by reading different texts on a specific topic. It could be identity, masks, or artists’ models. Then, I select images based on what I’ve read. That’s my starting point, and the earliest phase of the process: the idea stage. My working method is reminiscent of the mental process of recalling images. They form vague impressions in your mind. But each time a memory is recreated, it shifts subtly, like a kaleidoscope. The fragments are laboriously pieced together. Each time I implement the process, shifts and distortions occur. Returning to the original photograph allows me to move through time and rediscover other details. Somebody who has occupied me a great deal is Alphonse Bertillon, an anthropologist who worked for the Parisian police at the end of the 19th century. His systematic categorization of facial photographs was a precursor of today’s mug shots. This was the time when the practice of including photographs in the files of criminals and suspects first began.
Bertillon was a pioneer in the use of precise photographic depictions for identification and cataloging of both criminals and their victims. In the series Uniform, I’ve focused on his collections of anarchist sympathizers, who were brought in from the streets of Paris. All of them were photographed the same way: close-up, from straight ahead. He gathered them all together in an attempt to find some common feature, some facial attribute that might have predestined them to being politically undesirable. But all they seem to have in common is their individual distinctiveness. They are old men, young boys, women, well-dressed, scruffy, bohemians, and aristocrats. There is no single thing that visually connects them all. Perhaps this is exactly what he saw, because the individuality and variety they displayed is the opposite of the consistently uniform (sometimes literally!) esthetics of other political groups. Although he intended to portray a generic anarchist, they are all obviously specific individuals.
This collection of artless identificatory photographs are an early version of the passport photographs of our own time. A social contract that began with Bertillon. However, it also a precursor of ethical transgressions, like the Roma register in Malmö. Of course it’s relevant today. In my paintings, I don’t rationalize any details away. On the contrary, I intentionally seek out the specific. A stray hair that’s fallen across the forehead, stubble on the chin. They remain as anonymous ghosts in the archive. When I paint them, I become intimately familiar with their faces after spending eighty or two hundred hours working on them. I recreate them into a kind of incomplete whole.
Forever Someone Else, the title of the exhibition, is taken from a suite of poems by the Portuguese poet and philosopher Fernando Pessoa.