The Multiple Worlds of Cindy Sherman’s History Portraits

It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a total book on some shelf of the universe; I pray to the unknown gods that a man – just one, even though it were thousands of years ago! – may have examined and read it. If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but for one instant, in one being, let Your enormous Library be justified. The impious maintain that nonsense is normal in the Library and that the reasonable (and even humble and pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception. They speak (I know) of the ‘feverish Library whose chance volumes are constantly in danger of changing into others and affirm, negate and confuse everything like a delirious divinity.’

Borges, The Library of Babel

 In his story The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges elegantly describes the efforts of those who seek order in an infinite world. Despite the narrator’s searching and travelling through the library of the world, unfortunately he has never found the catalogue of catalogues that would give the key to the mystery of order. In seeking a solution to this ancient problem of chaos versus constancy, the narrator can only answer that he has hope that order exists somewhere in this realm of chaos. With this, Borges weaves an elaborate tale in which his model of the world is multiple and diffuse. He begs that, if he must live in this hell of confusion and disorder, at least let heaven – the best possibly ordered world – exist elsewhere. Condemned to this dark realm of the impious, Borges names it a ‘feverish library’ where all is in constant flux.

This too is the image of the world created by Cindy Sherman in her History portraits series. These photographs, shown initially as a group at Metro Pictures Gallery in New York City in 1990, present chaotic scenes in which images from art-history catalogues clash and mix. Through her impertinent handling of the shelves of art history, Sherman offers us the insight into the feverish library described by Borges. In rejecting the catalogue of art-history catalogues, she refuses to participate in traditional narratives of the artist as genius and the art object as a singular and invaluable masterwork. By rejecting such established hierarchical systems of order, Sherman creates a decidedly feminist model of the world that privileges disagreement over unity and difference over singularity.

In the History portraits series, as in her earlier black-and-white film stills works, we see Sherman posing in multiple guises. While her early works had created elaborate tableaux reminiscent of B-grade Hollywood movies, here Sherman turns her impious attention to the history of art and diverse artists such as Raphael, Caravaggio and Ingres. Wittily combining costumes, prosthetic devices and make-up, Sherman’s portraits are in no means faithful mirrors of the original works of art, but instead bring into question the distortion that such historical works undergo through functions of time and memory. Combining elements from multiple and often incongruous sources, Sherman intentionally highlights this play of distortion. That is to say, these grotesque and often comical assemblages do not add up to a single whole – a plausibly coherent window onto the world. Her mixture of references does not point reverently to the work of an old master or to an anxiety of influence overcome by the younger artist’s reinterpretation. Rather, these works destabilise concepts of copy and original, using a space in-between to illuminate the operation of representation itself. This artistic strategy of self-conscious referencing and quoting of art within art questions the relationship of the divergent worlds that meet here within. Thus, in bringing these worlds together, Sherman’s portraits undo the seemingly established security of the identity of an artist and his masterpiece. Rather than allowing works of art to rest in a sacred fiction of autonomy, Sherman’s performativity emphasises not only that identity is by no means secure, but also that it is an invention subject to constant undermining.

In Untitled #183-A, 1988 (fig. 1), Sherman poses in a low-cut lacy gown, reminding us in her demeanour and attire of François Boucher’s portrait Madame de Pompadour, 1759 (fig. 2). Sherman created the series History portraits during an extended stay in Rome – a place she found perfect for finding a variety of costumes and decorative objects. The mixture of props in Untitled #183-A – a book held in her right hand, pearl jewellery, and a tapestry casually draped in the background – refer more to Sherman’s flea market scavenging than to Boucher’s Rococo elegance. Here Sherman stages the disagreement of colliding worlds on several different levels. First, by juxtaposing the supposed realism of photography – its documentary aspects – with the glaring falsity of the staged scene with its rigged props, Sherman insists that identity in portraiture is always constructed. Secondly, the clash between Madame de Pompadour’s Rococo realm and Sherman’s modern world activates the virtual potential of both, causing each to be altered in the collision and reinterpreted anew.

The assembled narrative of Untitled #183-A is at once playful and extremely serious. Sherman’s cool stare and pursed lips are countermanded by the lavishly busty pose – her décolletage being all the more flagrant for the evident falsity of her breasts. The greenish tint of the photograph adds a touch of the macabre to the atmosphere. Such citing of a vaguely recognisable, yet fractured and incoherent scene creates both belief and disbelief. The strength of the narrative attracts the viewer, who then must reconcile the work’s internal inconsistencies. Regarding the camera in a calm yet frosty manner, Sherman dares the viewer to challenge her studio fiction. However, this challenge does not end at the borders of this work, but instead reaches back to infect the Boucher portrait with conspicuous exaggerations.

The tension that Sherman assembles in Untitled #183-A is not a simple distrust of representation. The viewer is not given any credible access to the identity of her buxom sitter. In contrast to Boucher’s domestic harmony and romantic garden scene, Sherman rejects the appeal to intimacy. Rather, Sherman’s feigned femininity offers nothing behind this masquerade. Gone are such small comforts as the lap dog, the billowing trees in the background and the calming surroundings. The staging, her caked make-up and plastic bustier insist on the constructed nature of identity. This double compounding of the artifice of representation both in the photograph as art object and its staged scene leaves little room for the viewer to comfortably peruse the work. Sherman’s masquerade of femininity not only questions the representation of womanliness in works by artists such as Boucher, but also our culture of art-historical fetishisation.

Sherman’s History portraits series reveal how certain genres in Western art have traditionally piggybacked the artifice of feminine identity onto the artifice of representation itself. While several of the portraits are modelled after male subjects, they are few in number and tame in comparison to their feminine counterparts. In an interview from 1990 Sherman remarked, ‘It’s harder to do men because you find yourself doing only that boring macho pose’.1 G. Collins, ‘A portraitist’s romp through art history’, New York Times, 2 February 1990, pp. 17, 20. However, if these macho poses are indeed boring, perhaps it is because the masculine has been accepted as the normative base line of social relations and traditionally passes as unnoticed. As the unmarked term, the masculine is then the standard against which the feminine is consistently constructed and judged. In focusing the majority of her attention on works that depict the wives, lovers or female art patrons of male artists, Sherman aims to show us how the female body in the so-called masterpieces of Western art becomes the marked term, in as much as it is highlighted as different from the norm.

Untitled #223 from the history series appears, at the quickest glance, as a typical Madonna and Child scene praising the tenderness of maternity (fig. 3). However, the viewer quickly comes to notice the peculiar details of the scene. The exaggerated make-up as well as the awkwardly attached rubber breast direct critique toward an entire genre of Western art history. Once hazy atmospheric effects of light and dark are rendered here in stark photographic clarity. Facial features, which in a Renaissance painting would have been rounded through the use of chiaroscuro, now have a sheen of uncanny plasticity. And the depiction of a loving embrace between mother and child is replaced with a plastic doll seeking nourishment from a plastic breast. The absurd impossibility of this relationship infects and erodes the idealisation of certain Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Child.2 Sherman’s strategy here is obviously heavy-handed, relying upon its theatricality for effect. Often this exaggeration does not take into account how many such Madonna and Child works are already internally multiple. For a reading of how Bellini’s mother-and-child images deconstruct naturalness from within themselves, see J. Kristeva, ‘Motherhood according to Giovanni Bellini’, in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, New York, 1980.

The obtrusiveness of the plastic breast exposes the contradiction of the genre: the Renaissance ambivalence of how to suitably idealise the figure of Christ as the son of God and naturalise him as human at the same time. The exposure of Mary’s breast for feeding serves to not insist upon her own physicality, rather it becomes a symbol pointing to the corporality of the Christ Child. Thus Mary’s body is exposed but erased at the same time. In Sherman’s version the false breast appendage functions to signify the marking of the female body. This double operation insistently refers back to the construction of representation itself, basely disallowing the possibility of idealisation.

Through this twist, a kind of double positive, Sherman updates the art/photography debate staged throughout the course of the history of photography. The incommensurability of photography and idealisation was the chief complaint of Charles Baudelaire in his mid-nineteenth- century texts on art. Describing the attack that photography apparently carried out against painting, he wrote:

By bringing together and posing a pack of rascals, male and female, dressed up like carnival-time butchers and washerwomen, and in persuading these ‘heroes’ to ‘hold’ their improvised grimaces for as long as the photographic process required, people really believed that they could represent the tragic and the charming scenes of ancient history. Some democratic writer must have seen in this that cheap means of spreading the dislike of history and painting among the masses, thus committing a double sacrilege, and insulting, at one and the same time, the divine art of painting and the sublime art of the actor.3 C. Baudelaire, ‘Salon of 1859’, in Charles Baudelaire: Art in Paris 1845–1962, trans. & ed. Jonathan Mayne, New York, 1965, p. 154.

 Sherman revels in showing us rascals in costumes with improvised grimaces. Rather than hiding the seams of artifice, she exposes them all the more. In grossly distorting these painterly tableaux, Sherman’s photographic performativity turns the divine art of painting inside out. In these seams, painting and the sublime art of the actor meet, not simply to exchange hierarchical roles, but to offer an entirely different set of possibilities. While Victorian photographers such as Oscar Rejlander (1813–1875) sought in narrative photographic tableaux to elevate photography to the art of painting, Sherman altogether rejects the idea of representation as the striving after an ideal form.

So then what are the links between the History portraits and the paintings that preceded them? Should we not rather say that the two have little or nothing in common? The garish green tone, the exaggerated breasts, the clumsily hung tapestry in Sherman’s Untitled #183-A are worlds apart from the muted tones of the Boucher and its evocative, enclosed space of domestic tranquillity. A comparison of the Sherman with the Boucher animates the excesses of the late Baroque, contaminating the work with brash colours and turning soft, dimpled smiles into bitingly hard-edged features. Returning to Sherman’s portrait, her impish pout becomes calm serenity and her dishevelled costume gains a new-found elegance. This reciprocal action evinced here destroys the sacrosanct space of the museum in which masterworks such as the Boucher have long resided. The job of the frame to delimit attention is eroded. Instead of isolating autonomous scenes as ubiquitous windows onto the world, the frame is now what draws the outside in. That is, the Sherman work carries the Boucher within itself and vice versa. And in so meeting in this internalised clash, these highly contradictory worlds find a stage for their disagreements. This symbiotic relationship folds the two together, and activates the virtual in the actual. Thus, what is dead in art history’s tradition of aesthetic autonomy is rejected, and a new rapprochement of objects – a new model of representation – is offered.

Sherman’s feverish library categorically rejects the long-standing Platonic tradition of representation. Gilles Deleuze has described the Platonic model of the world as grounded on the preciousness of singularity:

The world was thought to have an infinite number of floors, with a stairway that descends and ascends, with each step being lost in the upper order of the One and disintegrated into the ocean of the multiple. The universe as the stairwellmarks the Neoplatonic tradition.4 G. Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, Minneapolis, 1993, p. 29.

 The Platonic concept of the world considered the perfection of the original to be corroded by the dissemination of representative copies. Correspondingly, the tradition of aesthetic autonomy, with its insistence upon singularity in time and space, functioned to secure the spectator against the Platonic horror of multiplicity. By bringing contradictory worlds together in the history portraits, Sherman attacks aesthetic autonomy and opens herself to the onslaught of this fear of multiplication. Her welcoming embrace reverses the Platonic model and instead finds possibilities for new productive encounters in this ocean of the multiple. In collapsing the stairwell of the Platonic world, Sherman creates a flat stage of performativity – a stage on which both works are hence transformed. Instead of hanging in isolated singularity on the wall of the museum, Untitled #183-A offers processes of convergence and divergence.

Beth Hinderliter, doctoral candidate at Columbia University, New York (in 2004).


I would like to thank Isobel Crombie for her suggestion to write this essay on the occasion of the National Gallery of Victoria’s purchase of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #183-A.



1     G. Collins, ‘A portraitist’s romp through art history’, New York Times, 2 February 1990, pp. 17, 20.

2     Sherman’s strategy here is obviously heavy-handed, relying upon its theatricality for effect. Often this exaggeration does not take into account how many such Madonna and Child works are already internally multiple. For a reading of how Bellini’s mother-and-child images deconstruct naturalness from within themselves, see J. Kristeva, ‘Motherhood according to Giovanni Bellini’, in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, New York, 1980.

3     C. Baudelaire, ‘Salon of 1859’, in Charles Baudelaire: Art in Paris 1845–1962, trans. & ed. Jonathan Mayne, New York, 1965, p. 154.

4     G. Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, Minneapolis, 1993, p. 29.

Untitled #183-A has since been renamed Untitled in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.