Basking in the rich glow of celebrity

A century apart, Andy Warhol and France's Nadar took -- and took advantage of -- the photo portrait.

May 21, 2000|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

The elaborate generosity of the English language ought to distinguish more clearly than it does between fame and celebrity.

To be famous is to be known for one's virtue, merit, accomplishments or exemplary deeds. The ancient Romans made portraits of illustrious individuals and coupled them with glowing testimonials that reconfirmed their right to good reputation and fame.

But to be a celebrity is to be known merely for being well-known. Celebrity depends not so much on virtue or accomplishment as on the mass propagation of attractive images abundantly distributed before the public eye.

This is the truth behind Andy Warhol's oft-quoted dictum that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Warhol was indeed prophetic: Statesmen and serial killers, athletes and movie stars today vie equally for the undiscriminating adulation of a jaded public.

As an artist, Warhol (1928-1987) was both a product and one of the great beneficiaries of modern society's debased concept of fame.

Warhol's celebrity, which the artist cultivated with a diligence that might have shamed more sensitive souls, was not unprecedented, however.

A century earlier, the French journalist, photographer and bohemian bon vivant Gaspard Felix Tournachon, better known as Nadar (1820-1910), was already employing the camera's genius for mechanical reproduction to dissolve the tenuous bond between fame and merit.

Nadar invented himself as a celebrity by photographing the celebrated men and women of his day and then capitalizing on his association with them, much as Warhol was later to do in the company of the jet-setters, rock stars, fashion models and other glitterati who populated his 47th Street studio in New York known as the Factory.

Warhol's debt to Nadar, and the dependence both men shared on the infinite reproducibility of camera images in fashioning public personas, is the subject of an odd and curious show that takes up the two ground-floor photography galleries at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which seems at once an indictment and a celebration of empty publicity.

As a theme, the celebrity scam seems a thin reed indeed on which to hang a show aspiring to weighty significance. One suspects the Warhol-Nadar pairing is at least partly a marketing gimmick, since Nadar by himself, though he was probably the better photographer, is no kind of box-office draw.

Hollow subjects

Technically, Warhol was barely competent as a photographer, and the quickie Polaroid color snapshots of celebrities that constitute his half of the show are not much more impressive than the anonymous little photobooth passport pictures that he often used as studies for his large commissioned portrait paintings.

Like Nadar, Warhol set great store by his presence at these sittings, believing that the alchemy worked by his own personality was an essential ingredient in the revelation of his subject's character.

In fact, his portraits present us with a parade of hollow men and vapid women whose entire reason for being seems confined to the glossy surfaces of their all-too-familiar features. Warhol once boasted that there was nothing beneath the surface of his work, and his portraits are the triumphal expression of this studied vacuity.

It must be said that not all Warhol's subjects deserved such treatment. Roy Lichtenstein, the seminal Pop artist whose own celebrity slightly preceded Warhol's and whose success the latter envied for years, gazes into Warhol's lens with an expression of cool wariness.

Warhol has truncated his rival's torso at an odd angle, as if he were still settling some old score; Lichtenstein's alert eyes and slightly bemused smile suggest he is aware of the ambiguity of their relationship.

Robert Rauschenberg, another early Pop artist with whom Warhol associated, appears with a bandage on his forehead and a hangdog expression -- possibly, the wall text notes, a reference to the wounded artist in Vincent van Gogh's famous "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear" (1889). One can't help but wonder whether Warhol drew some sly subconscious satisfaction from symbolically disabling his old friend and potential competitor.

Warhol's portraits of trendy artist-manques and poseurs like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Grace Jones and Robert Mapplethorpe make them all seem as superficial in art as they were in life. Regardless of the photographer's intentions, they have nothing to legitimately complain about here.

Calling cards

Nadar's portraits present a somewhat different problem. While many of his sitters are now long forgotten, others were men and women of genuine accomplishment who were already well known when he photographed them.

Nadar's genius was to seize upon the camera's facility for making virtually unlimited copies of an image that could be widely distributed in the form of calling cards, thus opening the possibility for a new kind of celebrity based upon the sheer visual ubiquity of his subjects.

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