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Contemporary Artists Inspired by Art History
Get inspired 01 Dec 2015

Contemporary Artists Inspired by Art History

Contemporary art is said to be a reflection of our time, yet our time is shaped by our past and starting from scratch in the art world is basically impossible…

Though to varying degrees, behind every work of contemporary art is the inspiration of an old master. However, some artists push the boundary between modernism and classicism further than others. Whether they represent classical subject matters in a contemporary way or vice versa, the seven artists we have chosen for you put a contemporary twist on classical subjects. In doing so, they bridge the often unassailable gap between modernity and history.

1. PATRICK NEU, it’s all in the details

Patrick Neu, D'après Diego Velasquez, Les Ménines, 1656, 2006 © Thaddaeus Ropac
Patrick Neu, D’après Diego Velasquez, Les Ménines, 1656, 2006 © Thaddaeus Ropac

Patrick Neu’s contemporary twist comes from the materials he uses… Bees wax, soot, even insect wings. The sheer fragility of these materials and the mastery that is required as a result never fails to astound! It is exactly through these unusual materials that Neu pays a virtuosic tribute to the masterpieces of days gone by. For example, as part of a series, he burned wine glasses and wardrobe windows to create a sooty coating. He then used this to reproduce iconic scenes from art history. These works don’t look like anything special from afar, some smoky, dirty glasses maybe… When you get close though, a world of minute detail appears and disappears depending on which angle you look at it from. Neu takes inspiration from Courbet, Michelangelo, and the Douanier Rousseau, among many others. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!

2. MAT COLLISHAW, poignant portraits

Matt Collishaw, Paul Nuncio, 2000 © Matt Collishaw

Mat Collishaw is a British artist of the “Freeze” generation, launched by Damien Hirst in 1988. As part of this famous British movement, Collishaw does not shy from shocking people. In fact, across his various media, photography, painting, installation and even videos, Collishaw seeks to provoke thought. What does it mean to have a relationship to an image? Indeed, this experimental artist examines the question by creating aesthetically appealing images which conceal a darker and ambiguous reality.

For his series Last meal on Death Row, Matt Collishaw takes inspiration from the ancient genre of still life to represent the famous last meal of prisoners on death row. The artist selected various quirky final meals and displayed them in 17th century classical fashion. These aesthetically appealing images conceal the sinister reality of imminent death and of those prisoners who committed unforgivable crimes.

3. KEHINDE WILEY, a new icon in contemporary art

Kehinde Wiley, Christian Martyr Tarcisius, 2008 © Numéro
Kehinde Wiley, Christian Martyr Tarcisius, 2008 © Numéro

Kehinde Wiley is an American-Nigerian artist who transforms normal people into the subject of 18th century style paintings which would not be out of place in Versailles. With a complete mastery of painting, Wiley reinterprets classical portraits through the perspective of hip-hop culture: his models pose in their baggy trousers almost as if they were royalty! By juxtaposing the modern with the classical in this way, Wiley innovates traditional techniques and puts his own unique spin on portraiture.

4. CONOR HARRINGTON, where contemporary art meets street art

Conor Harrington, Gonna Take My Problems To The United Nations, 2012 © Conor Harrington

Conor Harrington is an Irish artist who combines classical realism with street art. Inspired by Renaissance painters, Harrington appreciates contrasts: he represents historical subjects in a contemporary street art style. For Harrington, history represents the opportunity to learn something new about the present. By adorning the walls of various towns with these battles, Harrington introduces a slice of history, and with it, a different perspective, into our everyday lives.

5. GUILLAUME BRESSON, making an entrance

Guillaume Bresson, sans titre, 2009-2014 © Guillaume Bresson

A couple of years ago, Guillaume Bresson entered the art world with a bang thanks to his anachronistic pictorial approach. As with Kehinde Wiley, Bresson owes his distinctive style to his complete understanding and mastery of classical technique. By integrating ultra-modern scenes with techniques inspired by Titian or Carvaggio, Bresson has created his own unique aesthetic. While the former might have painted beautifully delicate dishes or precious fabrics, Bresson instead chooses to opt for fast food and Adidas tracksuits.

Bresson doesn’t stop there with his Renaissance inspiration… Not only does he incorporate it into his works through his technique and style, he also directly references works of the past. Take for example his various allusions to Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People or to Rembrandt’s Christ at Emmaus. Guillaume Bresson therefore does not just paint like the old masters, he also ties subtle links between his work and masterpieces of the past. In doing so, Bresson has without a doubt brought the Renaissance into the 21st century.

6. FINTAN SWITZER, creating new classics

Fintan Switzer, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 2012 © Fintan switzer

This young Irish artist also links traditional portraits with street art style. His work places modern protagonists in traditional golden frames which were once used to frame pieces in various museums. His contemporary subjects literally jump out of their frame and the deliberately unfinished style of his work similarly contributes to blurring the boundaries of his art.

7. FLORENCE D’ELLE, contemporary art returns to classical roots

Florence d’Elle, Eurydice, 2012 © Florence d’Elle

Florence d’Elle is a self-taught Belgian artist who almost exclusively takes pictures of women. Whether they are experienced models or not, these women are part of what she calls the “Universal woman”. Simultaneously mysterious and captivating, this woman has passion, desires and fantasies, and she is not afraid to talk about it.

For her Rebirth series, d’Elle photographed all kinds of women in classically inspired poses, outfits and staging. By juxtaposing women with different appearances and body types, d’Elle calls into question the notion of beauty and our very attitude towards the female body.

Redefining art history…

It is clear that artists take different things from art history. Be it the techniques, the style or even the content. These artists, alongside many others, are proving that their works don’t need to be completely original to occupy their own highly unique place in the contemporary art world. For them, being an artist today seems to mean responding to the past, just as much as it does to responding to the present.

If you’ve enjoyed finding out how artists continue to be inspired by art history, you’ll love our wide selection of artists who take inspiration from art history.

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