Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani) 1490 oil on wood panel, 15.0 x 21.6 inches, Czartoryski Museum, Wawel Castle, Krakow
Kathleen Gilje is an art historian's artist: a brilliant scholar and detective who can deftly copy masterpieces from different eras and then, with just an addition or subtraction of elements, transform the imagery into a highly charged, contemporary topic.
her “restorations” (the artist’s term), Gilje’s
appropriations grow out of a long and careful study of the each work of art. She physically masters the artist’s style, material, and execution. Then she
scrupulously researches the iconography, artist’s life and the socio-political
context of the work in order to deepen her understanding of the artist’s
decisions. Often her academic investigations uncover background stories or encoded
narratives embedded in the art or swirling around the artist’s milieu that may
inform her analysis.
additions or adjustments in the works derive from her considerable research.
Then, in an effort to break new ground, she paints revised art historical
readings. Gilje calls this practice “restoration,” because she fantasizes a
restoration of the meaning of the work which may not be visible in the original
Kathleen Gilje, Woman with a Parrot (Restored), 2001,
example, in her 2001 “restored” version of Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot (1866) she replaced the bird’s perch with a
nude male figure to emphasize the phallic symbolism of the original painting.
The parrot in the Courbet may represent the petit
ami who is privileged to gaze upon the female model [i] or the Kamasutra.
Gilje painted her “restoration” of the artist standing over the frisky model
and then painted an exact copy of the Courbet painting on top of her “restored”
version. She had her exact copy x-rayed in order to show her faux “original”
underneath the copy. Viewed as an installation, the 2001 copy of the Courbet
painting placed next to the x-ray film of the “restored” version sparks a
variety of associations. The perch clearly becomes the proxy for Courbet
himself, who has eroticized his model for his own delectation.
installation also comments on scopophilia: pleasure derived from the act of
looking, an aspect of the male gaze.[ii] In
Gilje’s “restoration” of Courbet’s Woman
with a Parrot, the artist enters into his own picture and experiences the
pleasure of viewing the model directly. (The grainy texture of the x-ray also
suggests that we are witnessing the artist’s dream or fantasy as he paints the
nude with ardent desire.)
ability to alter the original iconography to serve her interpretation of the
work elucidates what she believes lies beyond the physical evidence. In this
way, she embarks on dialogues with art history’s masters that seamlessly integrate
her feminist readings and sometimes incorporate the very history of the work
In her Danaë, Restored (2001), Gilje alludes to
the vicious slashing and sulfuric acid attack on Rembrandt’s painting Danaë (1636), which occurred at The
Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, on June 15, 1985.[iii] Here, a puddle of acid flies
through the air toward the nude heroine, instead of the supernatural golden
shower of rain (Zeus’ transmogrification in the myth) which Rembrandt painted in
the original. Gilje explained in a conversation that the golden shower in the
myth is the Greek deity’s semen which impregnates Danaë with Perseus. Gilje
views this sneaky sexual encounter as a romanticized act of non-consensual sex:
a form of rape.
violation of another’s body, is a perfect metaphor for the attack on the
Rembrandt painting in 1985. Gilje noted that Danaë’s gesture in the original painting
was meant to welcome Zeus as the golden shower into her bower. In Gilje’s
“restoration,” Danaë’s raises an arm in a feeble attempt at self-defense,
warding off the approaching acid. In the Gilje appropriation, Danaë’s gesture
emphasizes the vulnerability of the woman in the painting and the artwork
itself during the violent attack at The Hermitage. The title of Gilje’s work
reminds us that Rembrandt’s Danaë is now
literally a restored work of art.
by her ability to reenact the masters’ touch as an apprentice in Antonio DeMata’s
studio for restoration from 1966 to 1968. Then, she went to Naples
with DeMata and his other assistants to restore masterpieces in the Museum of Capodimonte from 1968 to 1972. In 1973,
she returned to New York City, her hometown,[iv]
to work for Marco Grassi, where she restored paintings for various collections,
including the Thyssen Bornemizsa Collection in Lugano and Madrid
and the Norton Simon Collection in Pasadena.
In 1976, she opened her own studio, restoring works for numerous public and
private clients, such as Stanley Moss, Eugene V. Thaw, and Robert Dance.[v]
Caravaggio (Michaelangelo de Merisi da Caravaggio), Bacchus, c. 1595
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
concept of the “restored” painting (her Postmodern Appropriations) dates
back to the early 1990s. Her Bacchus,
Restored of 1992 (after Caravaggio’s Bacchus,
c. 1595) features plastic wrapped over the bowl of fruit with condoms strewn
alongside the succulent choices Caravaggio depicted in his original. Gilje’s
“restoration” suggests that the beautiful young man in the seductively draped
toga was indeed “forbidden fruit” for the patron Cardinal Francesco Maria Del
Monte, who commissioned Caravaggio’s work and delighted in beautiful young men.[vi] Gilje’s Bacchus, Restored belongs to the
horrific first wave of the AIDs epidemic and historically marks the
overwhelming concern that gripped the arts community. Simultaneously, Gilje
explored the iconography of homoeroticism in art, which had recently gained recognition as “queer” theory among academic
art historians and critics.
Today, a wonderful selection of Gilje's oeuvre has been beautifully installed in the Bruce Museum, on view through September 8, 2013. This venue, which has welcomed numerous exhibitions of Old Master art, perfectly complements Gilje's paintings and drawings with its warm colors and informative text panels. The exhibition catalog deserves high praise too. It features essays by the executive director Peter Sutton, critic John Yau, art historian (and subject in two Gilje portraits) Linda Nochlin, art historian (and subject in one portrait) the late Robert Rosenblum, and an interview between the artist and art historian Francis Naumann (who exhibits Gilje's work in his gallery Francis Naumann Fine Art). It is an elegant book, packed with valuable information about Gilje's work and the original pieces she copied - a delicious art history textbook in its own right. Nevertheless, the catalog is not the real thing. Seeing is believing. This rare opportunity to see a large portion of Gilje's formidable body of work in public ends one week after Labor Day and then heads out to other parts of the US. Catch it while you can!
(The New York Arts Exchange features two tours of Kathleen Gilje's exhibition this summer: Tuesday, June 25 and Tuesday, July 9. Please visit our website for details and to make a reservation www.nyarts-exchange.com)
Hadler introduced the notion that the parrot represents the privileged position
of the male gazing upon the courtesan in her reading of her article “Manet’s Woman with a Parrot of 1866,”
Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 7 (1973): 115-122. Kam or Kamadeva, the god of
love in Indian mythology, is best known for the Kamasutra. He flies through the
air on his parrot. Therefore, the parrot can be associated with sensual love.
Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 13 (1975): 6-18, was very much on the minds of
feminist artists and art historians during the late twentieth century, as well
as the feud between Linda Nochlin and Michael Fried on gender bias and artistic
intentionality in Courbet Reconsidered
(Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 1988). Kathleen Gilje directed my attention to the
two articles in this exhibition catalogue.
assailant slit the female figure across the stomach and thigh with a knife and
then threw acid against the canvas. It took twelve years to repair. Danaë was put back on view in the
Hermitage in 1997. (John Russell, New
York Times, August 31, 1997.)
Information culled from the artist’s website www.kathleengilje.com and interviews
with the artist. Her own work belongs to collections all over the world,
including the Musée Ingres, Montaubon; the Weatherspoon Museum, North Carolina;
and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.
Posner, “Caravaggio’s Homo-erotic Early Works,” Art Quarterly 34 (1971), 301-24.
(The essay is an excerpt from "Portrait as Performance: The Theater of the Self in Kathleen
Gilje’s Series of Curators, Critics and Connoisseur," written to honor Dr. Alicia Faxon, professor emeritus, Simmons College, whose scholarship has always been a source of inspiration. The complete version will be published in a forthcoming festschrift dedicated to Professor Faxon, organized by Simmons College, where I taught from 1989-1991.)