One of Antonio Canova's lesser known sculptures is a nude of his contemporary, Napoleon Bonaparte, which the sitter wasn't at all enthusiastic about. Judging from official portraits by Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Bonaparte was acutely conscious of the representational power of his wardrobe and bearing - so pointedly different to the ancien regime's preference for the akimbo stance later resurrected by camp. The sculpture was eventually bought by the British Government and presented to the Duke of Wellington, who had it installed in a stairwell.
During an interview about his most recent work for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Hiroshi Sugimoto mentioned a complementary anecdote. Madame Tussaud - who early in her career had been compelled to make wax masks of decapitated French nobles - made a wax figure of Bonaparte on his death bed. The Duke of Wellington was such a frequent visitor to this exhibit that when Wellington himself died, Tussaud's museum (which opened in 1835) made a wax-figure of him which was placed into the tableaux with Bonaparte, thus rendering his visitation perpetual. Among Sugimoto's new series of photo-graphs of notables found in wax museums, 'Portraits' (2000), these gentlemen, who never actually met in the flesh so to speak, hang side by side.
This collection of personages includes English royalty, philosophers, Old Masters, and the attendees of Christendom's first formal business dinner - the Last Supper. The photographs were commissioned by the Guggenheim and, although they are the first of Sugimoto's works to depart from his dogged attachment to a 50 by 60 cm format, are nonetheless a continuation of his serialised concern with the nature of photography and its relation to time and history. To create 'Portraits', Sugimoto isolated his impassive subjects from their tableaux and shot them at three-quarter length aga-inst a black backdrop. The resultant photographs were then blown-up to life-size, mounted to give them the depth of a canvas, and encased in glass covered box frames.
The lighting, composition and installation of the works in the manner of a grand painting gallery, along with the addition of a recreation of Johannes Vermeer's The Music lesson (1662-5), invites a meditation on the relationship between photography and painting - a subject explored in depth in the substantial catalogue by writers, including the exhibition's curators Nancy Spector and Tracey Bashkoff. However, the show's splendid, carefully lit costumes, numerous Queens, and the affable, dotty Voltaire, could be an irreverent, campy homage to the magic of mimicry and glitz. By all accounts this is a far cry from Sugimoto's intentions; but then again, one of his earliest photographic memories is taking pictures in a dark cinema of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953).
Most inhabitants of Berlin have seen at least part of this exhibition. Not, however, by passing through the imposing corporate facade of the Museum into what is actually a relatively small venue, but rather via an enormous amount of quality reproductions. The Guggenheim makes up for its relatively small internal acreage by an impressive and all pervasive use of advertising, billboards, light boxes and banners throughout the city's public places. Whereas previously their advertising distinguished itself by minimal expanses of black and white slogans such as Dan Flavin ist da (Dan Flavin is there), many of Sugimoto's 'Portraits' really were once there, as if yesterday's world leaders, in all their sumptuous glory, suddenly appeared like ghosts to take public transport.
First published in Issue 54