Borrowing from Pre-Raphaelite compositions, Uklański shifts how the female figures appear as manifestations of male desire and fantasy in the original paintings.
Art&Newport, in collaboration with the Island Cemetery Company and the Belmont Chapel Foundation, presents Piotr Uklański: Suicide Stunners’ Séance, an exhibition of new paintings of historical and fictional heroines installed in the Belmont Chapel at the Island Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island. Inspired by the Neo-Gothic architecture and history of the 19th century chapel, Uklański has created a body of work that conjures the women who were the unsung protagonists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—an artists society founded in London in 1848 that opposed academic painting’s emphasis on the High Renaissance in favor of resurrecting Italian 15th-century art and narratives laden with suggestions of the occult and layered sexuality. Uklański presents slyly reconsidered portraits of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddall, Jane Morris, Emma Jones, Annie Miller, and others who served as the muses and models for the all-male Pre-Rapha-elites, whose depictions focused upon tragic mythological and literary figures. For example, Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s wife and muse Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddall was the model for John Everett Millais’ famous painting Ophelia (ca. 1851), the foremost icon of Pre-Raphaelite art.
Situated inside the private chapel (now in ruins) that August Belmont dedicated to his daughter, Jane Pauline, who died at 19 of natural causes, Suicide Stunners’ Séance interrogates the morbid portrayals and myths that these women came to embody. Uklański’s paintings draw out the powerful autonomous identities of the “stunners” (as the Pre-Raphaelites labeled their female Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Emma Jones as Helen of Troy), 2020 Suicide Stunners’ Séance Piotr Uklański models) in ways that transcend the original pictorial narratives for which they posed. Uklański imagines the act of painting in this haunted context as an occult séance in which he hopes not only to conjure the models’ likenesses, but to resuscitate their complex individual histories from the fate of one-dimensional “muse-ness.”
In making contemporary portraits that riff upon Pre-Raphaelite source imagery, Uklański has deliberately focused upon women whose voluptuous red tresses are overemphasized. Rather than perpetuate stereotypes associated with this physical feature, he seeks to reveal the identity and individuality of each sitter. At the center of the new series is Lizzie Siddall (1829–1862), perhaps the most adulated sitter for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Siddall’s medieval look and red hair, described as being “like dazzling copper,” transfixed the Brotherhood as a link to the mythologies they prized. Europe in the Middle Ages viewed red locks as a mark of wickedness: Malleus Maleficarum, the notorious witch-hunting manual from that era, warned that witches had ginger-colored hair. Art historian Griselda Pollock writes that the term “witch” was “invented for women who contest the patriarchal orders of theological or medical knowledge. [Their spells] work by casting a penetrating, castrating gaze.” Indeed, the magical locks of witches were said to exert erotic control over men. Playing with this dark symbolism, the Pre-Raphaelites used Siddall’s copper hair not only to reimagine a host of tragic heroines, but also to exploit other “stunners”. In 1874, Rosetti painted Jane Morris (1839–1914)—to whom Uklanski pays tribute with two paintings in this exhibition—as Proserpine, mythological queen of Hades, with Siddall’s red tresses. (…)
SUICIDE STUNNERS’ SÉANCE WILL BE OPEN ON FRIDAY THROUGH SUNDAY FROM NOON TO 8PM, BY APPOINTMENT, THROUGH LABOR DAY. MASKS AND SOCIAL DISTANCING ARE REQUIRED.
Uklanski, Untitled (Emma Jones), 2020
Uklanski, Untitled (Miss Clive), 2020, Install
Uklanski, Untitled (Elizabeth Siddall), 2020, Install