The September 2011 edition of the monthly French arts magazine Connaissance des Arts featured La Florence Lumineuse de Fra Angelico (“The Luminous Florence of Fra Angelico”), coinciding with the opening of Paris’s Jacquemart-André Museum’s major exhibition of the master’s work and that of his contemporaries: Lorenzo Monaco, Masolino, Paolo Uccello, Filippo Lippi and Zanobi Strozzi. A detail of a truly glowing Mother and Child, Fra Angelico’s Virgin with Child, 1450, graced the front cover of the issue, Mary in a brilliant red gown draped in a gold-trimmed indigo cloak, the Christ child practically transparent in his porcelain perfection and head of copper curls. Mary gazes piously down at her holy child, seemingly levitating in her lap, his right hand extended outwards in a gesture of benediction. Each figure is crowned with a perfectly circular golden halo, embellished with symmetrical patterns in a prescient blood red. Fra Angelico did not embrace the plate-balanced-on-the-back-of-the-head style halos that his contemporaries such as Masaccio adopted in their work, and instead depicted his glowing aureoles flush against an emphatically flat background. Rich gold brocade curtains frame the pair, as a rather contemporary pattern of black, red and white stripes falls vertically behind them.
Meanwhile, the back cover of this particular magazine issue features a color photograph of a pensive Angelina Jolie, her feet as bare as the Christ child’s and her distant gaze almost as reticent as the Madonna’s. Dressed in loose earth-tone linen, the Hollywood actress is seated in a wooden canoe floating in a lush marshland. Her dark hair hangs loose, as she clasps her left knee and snuggles against the bulking Louis Vuitton signature tote bag that is slung over her left shoulder. Like the 15th century icon detailed on the cover, this advertisement is in the business of communicating and affirming a very precise belief system. In the work of Fra Angelico, pre-Reformation Christianity is at stake, while in the print image for French leather goods, it is an almost religious exaltation of luxury and celebrity.
The juxtaposition of these two images triggers an explosion on references, not the least concerning the sacred Mother figure, and the (corresponding) position of historical and contemporary Western woman. Although it feels gossipy and mean-spirited to make the point, in this context, the fact that the founders of the Jacquemart-André Museum, Nélie Jacquemart and Edouard André, were childless, is significant. The couple met when Jacquemart, a young portraitist, painted André, a banker and well-known collector. The collection they built together after their marriage in 1881 is known not only for its world-class holdings of 14th and 15th century Italian art, but also for its extensive imagery of the Mother and Child. It is said that without children of her own, Jacquemart became intensely attached to the genre, acquiring exquisite versions by Bellini, Botticelli, Della Robbia, Mategna, and Perugino. Meanwhile, Jolie, although blessed with a large and growing family, at times also seems obsessed with her expanding progeny. She has given birth to three children, and has also adopted others from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam. In both cases, these women seem to long for a (sacred) image of motherhood – whether that is a performative act or an artwork to behold.
The two cover images also strike a strong aesthetic resonance. Not only do Jolie’s barefoot pose and diaphanous garments echo Fra Angelico’s rendering of the Christ-child, but her seated pose mirrors the grounded triangular composition cherished by Renaissance painters. Likewise, the hand of the Madonna, gently gesturing towards her heart finds its repetition in the equally delicate hand of our contemporary actress, this time gesturing towards her legendary legs.
However, the stirring resonances between these two images, endpoints for a 500 year swathe of Western history, would most likely be invisible, “seen only unconsciously,” if not for Mounir fatmi’s project, La Quatrième Couverture (“The Fourth Cover”). Started in 1991, more than 20 years later, fatmi continues to build his visual archive, establishing a particular timeline of parallels and divergences in media and advertising imagery. His is a very simple action of pulling a particular magazine off the newsstand (the September 2011 issue of Connaissance des Arts, for example), and opening it to present its front and back covers (the first and the fourth) side by side – a sort of diptych of secular icons. Fatmi’s skills of observation, his sense of the nuances of aesthetics and composition, as well as the social and political implications of particular juxtapositions yields this series a revelation.
For this project, Fatmi appropriates covers from French weeklies such as L’Express, Le Figaro, Le Monde, Les inRockuptibles, Paris Match, Marianne, Télérama, Le Point, Le Nouvel Observateur, Challenges, and Jeune Afrique (publications that fall widely across the liberal and conservative spectrum), as well as international titles such as The Economist, Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Der Spiegel, L’Espresso and Telquel. Advertisers range from the luxury watchmakers such as Wempe, Longines, Patek Philippe, Tag Heuer, Omega, and Bruguet, and other high-end brands such as Hermes, Dior and Guerlain to more popular items and services such as Pelforth and Kronenbourg beers and Western Union.
In many of the works of this series, the current-events driven subject presented on the magazine’s front cover seems wildly divergent from the fourth cover advertisement. For example, the front cover of the January 21, 2010 issue of Paris Match features a horrific photo of a young girl being pulled, naked and covered with dust, from the post-earthquake rubble in Haiti. Meanwhile, on the back cover, fatmi’s fourth cover, we see John Travolta posing on a vintage WWII front-line fighter plane in an advertisement for the luxury Swiss watch brand Breitling. But was it not, in fact, Travolta who flew his own plane to Haiti in the wake of the recent earthquake, transporting 80 medics and much needed supplies directly to the devastated site? By opening a copy of this particular issue and laying it flat, fatmi identifies a convergence between the images that sell information and those that sell luxury.
Where the first and fourth covers in this series work often very clearly intersect is around the impact of the current financial crisis. The famous double-dip, W-shaped recession is currently proving itself a reality as 2012 opens with continued anxiety about the stability of the Eurozone, a sluggish American economy and the down-grade of the credit rating of the world’s fifth largest economy, France. The September 17, 2011 issue of The Economist, headlined with “How to save the Euro” was published with a back cover ad for Patron Tequila; the tagline reads: “Global Currency.” Fatmi didn’t miss this collision of contexts, and included these covers in his growing archive.
Overall, fatmi’s series La Quartrième Couverture, asserts the global currency of images. Social, political and cultural values, where they were once codified by religious symbolism, are now qualified by signs of glamour and luxury. Fatmi’s act of opening, forcing us to witness the connections, and the divergences, between front and back, positions the image as the common denominator between the information and consumer economies of our day.
Lillian Davies, January 2012