In the art world, portraits of white figures, particularly those of noble descent, have long dominated what many consider art. Since the early 15th century, paintings such as Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring and Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man have been displayed in art galleries worldwide, highlighting how white male artists have dictated standards of beauty within art for centuries. On the other hand, photographer Maxine Helfman has recently been actively redefining who has historically been depicted in art, highlighting the importance of art mimicking reality.
Maxine’s 2015 Historical Correction situates itself as a response to the famous Flemish portraits by positioning Black individuals — wearing the traditional clothing of nobles — as her focal point. Ultimately, placing a marginalized group in paintings historically featured as “high culture” contributes to the reckoning of racism and elitism in the art world.
The details that contribute to this long-overdue reckoning include how the subjects are staged in each portrait, seemingly commanding a sense of respect from the viewer. Although the original Flemish subjects were painted in similar stances, Maxine’s decision to depict her Black subjects in these same stances offers commentary on who can command respect from others. Their poses can be seen as “stern” because they hold eye contact with the viewer in a way that commands them — the viewers — to look at the portrait. Also, it helps with stating the importance of Black individuals speaking their truth and being respected in the places in which they take up space.
In a 2015 interview with CNN, Maxine detailed what she hoped viewers would get from viewing the collection. “At face value, when people look at them, it’s a beautiful image. You’re so easily brought into these, and by the time you are, you give it some thought and ask some questions.”
Encouraging her viewers to ask questions about history, and more importantly, who can document history is at the core of Maxine’s work. Collections such as Forefathers and Royal are similar collections to Historical Correction due to their subject matter, which also addresses how we as a society interpret history.
Forefathers is a collection of portraits of 13 U.S. presidents — including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — all of whom owned slaves. The paintings depict each forefather in his usual stern stance looking straight at the viewer. This is reminiscent of the stance that is usually seen in museums. Still, Maxine adds a meaningful touch: the face of a Black individual behind each forefather. Their expressions mimic the expression of each “forefather,” which contributes to understanding how we view these men. Slavery contributed to the success of each of these men, and the Forefathers collection looks into the lack of attention to how Black individuals contributed to the creation of the United States.
Underneath each forefather’s name includes the number of slaves each man owned. George Washington owned 317 slaves; Thomas Jefferson owned over 600. This collection forces viewers to reckon with how the U.S. has depicted its “forefathers,” usually in a positive light, without mentioning the horrors in which they were complicit — specifically, the enslavement of Black individuals. The collection can be seen as a contribution to writing the history that many of us have been told in a way that is more accurate to the truth.
Royal is a commentary piece on the significance of reckoning with the problematic history of European Royalty. Also, similar to Historical Correction, it contributes to the blending of both past and present in understanding who has had the privilege of demanding respect. The collection features portraits of Black individuals in traditional 16th-century royal clothing. Each picture bears a strong resemblance to the paintings of actual 16th-century royals such as Henry Ⅷ.
Maxine’s styling background comes to the foreground in Royal. It can be seen in her usage of materials like velvet in colors such as red and gold that royals are often depicted in. Also, the models wear “ruffs,” which were the collars that nobles would wear to make sure their posture was erect and demanded attention. By positioning the models in this clothing and in these stances, Maxine communicates the message of how the importance of having a more holistic view of history can lead to a better understanding of our current society.
Another essential component evident in both Historical Correction and Royal is how the models are seen wearing their natural hair. Even in 2021, Black individuals wearing their natural hair is seen as a political statement because of how media outlets have policed Black hair, preventing Blacks from actually wearing their hair in its natural state. This component contributes to the overall message of the importance of redefining who is seen as important or worthy of having power, essentially stating it does not always have to be a white cisgender man.
As a self-taught photographer with a background in styling and art direction, Maxine’s wide range of expertise in the art sector has contributed to how each collection speaks to the viewer. “I have always had a fascination with how the brain perceives an image… Like fitting the pieces together of a complex puzzle, my work is about fostering connections and connecting the dots that reveal personal meaning in an image,” says Maxine on her website.
Historically, portraits have been a way for viewers to engage with history in a more intimate way than reading it in a textbook. They also may give viewers insight into how history has influenced how they see the world. “My portraits aim at addressing these issues that reappear again and again, such as race and gender inequality or self-identification and the lack of inclusion,” Maxine added.
Maxine’s portraits are more than just a political statement on how the past has influenced the present. They can be seen as a portal into a reimagined world where those who have been forced to be voiceless and unseen are finally heard.
Each of these collections is influential in a way that helps with redefining how classical art has been depicted as “beautiful,” and reconsiders what culture has been deemed the most important to view.
© Jessica Bond (12/17/21) Special for FF2 Media® LLC
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: A photograph from Maxine Helfman’s Royal.
Bottom Photo: George Washington photo from Maxine Helfman’s Forefathers. (Click on photo to enlarge.)
Use of photos courtesy of Maxine Helfman. All rights reserved by Maxine Helfman.