What if Monroe had Instagram?

The ‘Icon’ in art is not a new theme. Throughout the history of art, portraiture has allowed certain figures to become celebrated and venerated by the public. From The Virgin Mary, to Marilyn Monroe, adoration has been heaped on certain figures throughout history.

It’s 2020 and the groundbreaking reality TV series, ‘Keeping up with the Kardashian’s’ has cemented a family dynasty within popular culture. It has tracked the interstellar rise to fame of the show’s family of starlets, sisters Kim, Kourtney and Khloe, and their half sisters, Kendall and Kylie ,headed by matriarch and powerful business woman, Kris Jenner.

Featuring a string of all star cameos and exploring themes such as gender reassignment, family feuds and prison sentences, the show has been hailed a ‘guilty pleasure’ for fans around the world. With a multitude of businesses’ and even a brief foray into the world of politics under their combined Gucci belt, Kim and Kris recently confirmed that with 20 seasons and a plethora of spin offs, their time in reality tv has come to an end.

But what impact has this pop culture phenomenon had on the art world?

The Rise of Modern Icons

The ‘Icon’ in art is not a new theme. Throughout the history of art, portraiture has allowed certain figures to become adored, celebrated and venerated by the public. Even the self portrait has become a recognisable trope in art. From Vincent Van Gogh to Andy Warhol, artists have used their own image to portray personal concepts and ideas. It is true to say that society has had celebrity long before the concept had arisen. From The Virgin Mary, to Marilyn Monroe, adoration has been heaped on certain figures throughout history. 

But never before has so much adoration been heaped on someone, so heavily and with such ferocity, by themselves. Enter, ‘The Selfie Generation.’ This is a very modern idea, and it has come about purely through accessibility. The accessibility of technology, mainly the mobile phone with its own high definition camera now as standard, but also and very importantly, the accessibility to, and sheer abundance of other similar imagery and content.

In 2015, social media powerhouse Kim Kardashian released her curated photo book, ‘Selfish.’ a vast collection of selfies, photographs of Kim Kardashian, taken by Kim Kardashian. This was a true celebration of the face of Kim Kardashian, by Kim Kardashian, if you will. Self promotion at its unapologetic best. It also brought one of, “the most bizarre pop culture moments” of the year just two months later.

Juergen Teller is a German fine art and fashion photographer, known for his unique, quirky, surreal and often cheeky photo shoots. His work examines the social construction of beauty. With a distinctively candid feel, he regularly photographs his subjects in isolated surroundings with a washed-out, overexposed light, often with seemingly unposed and unguarded expressions. In one of his most famous portraits, Young Pink Kate, London(1998), he shot supermodel Kate Moss, intimately buried under pristine white hotel sheets, her face and tousled dyed pink hair disembodied against a white ground.

2015 saw one of Teller’s most talked about photo shoots, titled Kanye, Juergen & Kim. Originally published as an editorial booklet by System Magazine, then for sale as a coffee table book and finally going on sale at a special selling exhibition at Phillips, London. The original location for the shoot was on the glamourous grounds of the Chateau d’Ambleville in France, but Teller’s desire to create something different than the world had seen before led to the trio walking along the French countryside in various states of dress.

As with the Kate Moss shoot, Kardashian’s hair was dyed, this time platinum blonde as she sported a cream satin effect bra against matte shapewear, thigh high black pull ups and black suede stiletto boots. In contrast, West - who styled the pair - was clothed in a black t-shirt and jeans with his signature detached grimace on each photo. Lastly, the photographer Teller wore a blue woollen hat, red puffer jacket and only his boxers and trainers.

The aesthetic of the shoot was one of confusion. With each of the trio in completely different styles. Most of the images featured Kardashian in piles of rubble or intimate half portraits of her walking through the countryside. This juxtaposed the images of West, crouched down, looking pensively away from the camera or with folded arms whilst leaning against a tree. The images of Teller for the series show the photographer wading through water to the next shot or climbing up piles of rocks with a plastic suitcase as if three different shoots were taking place at the same location.


The Art of Self Promotion

Teller also did something he had never done before, by relinquishing any re-touching of the images. He instead handed this over to the newlyweds, the power couple known as Kardashian-West.

But who better to control one’s own image, than oneself? Kim Kardashian is undeniably the master of her own image, her own self promotion, her own branding, her own commodification, her own iconic status.

For the bygone starlets of Hollywood like Marylin Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, figures celebrated throughout the Pop Art genre for their beauty and mystique, power lay in the hands of others, usually male artists and photographers. Their images were reproduced, edited, printed, collaged and used mainly to benefit others.

For multi-millionaire Kim Kardashian, the power now, it seems, lies in her own hands. Initially labelled, and still derided as ‘talentless’, ‘famous for being famous’ among other insulting descriptors, it is undeniable that, given a mobile phone and the brains and talent for self promotion, the camera is this girl's best friend.

Our latest exhibition Doing:unDoing explores a collection of work by artists working in the modern age influenced by social media. Dive into the body of work and see how it compares.

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