About Photographic Oil Paintings by Florencia Blanco
By Javier Villa.
There is something hypnotic about photographic oil paintings. The patina of paint is like a false veil behind which lurks death: there is a sense of evasion, as when applying make-up to a corpse prior to viewing. It is a trans-vested genre where the subject is further removed from reality by an additional mask. The photographic image is thus disguised by a technical mixture, but the result is still a hybrid inspiring a particular symbolic tension: that which is intended to be hidden remains present, and what is feigned will never actually happen.
In theoretical terms, the process of ‘de-automation’ produced by the pictorial layer adds a certain distance to the otherwise immediate relationship between photographer and subject; it is a distance inherent to the aura which, according to Walter Benjamin, is experienced in the presence of unique works of art. But when we think about it in relation to death, as this was the traditional and ultimate purpose of the genre—it seems that the effect sought is quite different: an effort to draw the loved ones closer by disguising the loss, to bring the image back to life through the painting, and simultaneously, as the original context of the portrait vanishes over time, to endow the memory of the loved ones with an air of eternity. These characteristics are diametrically opposed to the essential death-time duality of photography as posed by Roland Barthes: the emphasis on death as something arising from the temporal characteristics of the photographic medium itself, or, in other words, the mechanical repetition ad infinitum of something that happened once and can never again be repeated in existential terms. This dichotomy is not resolved in photographic oil paintings, death and time remain suspended, but not entirely; they hang, ethereal, tightening the hypnotic wire of tension vibrating taut between photography and painting, instance and eternity, immediacy and distance, life and death.
It is true that as far as society goes, no middle-class family living in the first half of the 20th century in Argentina would have considered these issues when preparing to spend large amounts of money on photographic oil paintings. Their intention was undoubtedly to render homage to their loved ones with a tribute of some distinction (greater than a photographed portrait, but not as expensive as an original oil painting) and, on certain occasions, to ensure that the memory of the deceased continue present in their daily lives, to the point where the portrait was transformed into something far more than mere representation, imbued with something akin to sacred immortality.
Florencia Blanco produced her series of Photographic Oil Paintings some sixty years later, unearthing a forgotten genre. It was while working on Salteños (2000-2001) that she first began to be drawn to these images, found over and over again in every home she visited, enclosed in ostentatious frames behind bombé glass, their subjects frozen for eternity and lives long forgotten, whose potential in most cases, had been buried as well, for they belonged to a stagnant order of things which no-one ever questions because it seems to have always been the same. Florencia took some pictures at the time but nothing interesting emerged.
In 2003, in the Buenos Aires flea markets, she came across these images that must once have been very costly, the moment of fusion at the crossroads of photography and painting, a turning point in the history of art itself. These works are symptomatic of the relationship between the middle classes and both art and death during a period spanning from the avant-garde to Peronism, a phenomenon neither researched nor studied by either photographers or theorists. Florencia found many of these photographic oil paintings worth barely a few cents in the flea markets, among abandoned objects and mere curios. And she began to collect them.
Thus Blanco started to play different roles involved in the photographer’s practice, in first place, as a collector. By the time her collection had grown to sixty works, in 2005, she had achieved a peculiarly special relationship with the potent emotions lying within them. At this point, she gravitated to the role of historian, working with Patricia Viaña as a producer, and returned to those family homes in Salta, Córdoba and Buenos Aires, seeking the stories that lay behind the images in the memories of their descendants. These were no longer side shots taken for their curiosity value, but full-scale field research: the story of the original individuals and the photographs that were taken, how we relate to death and what place it occupies in our daily lives, both at symbolic and material levels.
The results of her research layered the project with greater density. Although Blanco could have chosen to go down a number of different routes (she could have attempted to document the pictures in their current state, publish a book, claim ownership of the originals, set up an exhibition or use them as inspiration for a series of imitations), she decided to photograph them herself. This is, without a doubt, an original proposition: to photograph these subjects, already doubly portrayed, whose images had gained substance during her research. She was adding research, another layer to the composite: from the subject to the original photograph, from the photograph to the photographical oil painting, and thence to a new portrait. This is a kind of repeated exercise in portraiture as a new genre, aiming at a result similar to pictorial application but in reverse: to breathe life into the image by returning to the medium of photography in its pure state.
This decision leads to a new crossover between roles; as her subjects are previously-configured images, she is not only working as photographer but also as curator. Blanco effectively “cures” death with her art. This combination of roles revives the essential vectors underlying photographic composition; distance and point of view, from which a powerful image emerges into the photo. In those households where photographic oil paintings still hang on the walls, in those dusty rooms, she takes pictures, or otherwise shifts the paintings elsewhere, to a location where they continue to be part of the family home and its universe, but acquire another meaning as they emerge from their tomb imbued with new life, ready to establish a new dynamic with the world around them. It is precisely in these nascent relationships that the artist’s role becomes more prominent, engendering encounters dusted with a certain Frankenstein-like magic. Here, bubbling to the surface, are chromatic correspondences, the play between background and subject, new connections with other objects, emphasis or displacement generated by de-contextualization, sensations wafting from the histories of the subjects intertwined with personal intimacies, one’s own inexorable bond with death and way of dealing with it.
The same process is applied to the other group of photographic oil paintings, which she put together from her finds in local flea markets. However, although the objective remains the same, its symbolic energy is very different; these portraits have no history and are thus anonymous. When dealing with a different version of death, the end results change. It is no longer de-contextualizing the images in order to bring them back to life, but rather about re-contextualizing them. Deep within the need to adopt those dead and abandoned, to find them their own place, lies a distance hitherto unperceived, for the photographs hang in public areas, bereft of the family surroundings that used to shelter them. Melancholy and loneliness fill the air.
With this new series, Blanco builds a photographic palimpsest which continues with the logic of superimposition driving her research. However, the new layers she adds do not alienate the subjects even as they refresh their make-up, but rather return them to the world blessed with a shiny photographic veneer. They recover timeliness and context, precisely the elements which they had lost in their journey to becoming a picture. Thus, she discovers the formula for reviving buried images in order to confront the representation of death and find it its rightful place.
Javier Villa, September 2009.