Art Retells History with Modern Tech
BY MARLA O'BRIAN, Gazette
What does 19th-century French general Napoleon Bonaparte have in common with today’s Instagrammers? According to UK-based artist Heath Kane, more than you may realize.
As Kane explains, “What we do on social media today is like what they did 200 years ago with portraiture.”This perspective has been on display as part of a provocative exhibit at the Galeria Militar in Todos Santos.
The show features two world-renowned artists, Kane and Mexican painter Diego Rodarte, each contributing one larger-than-life piece. Both share the theme of viewing classical artwork through a modern lens. Kane’s piece is titled “Epique IV” and is fourth in a series depicting Napoleon donning the Blue Demon’s iconic Lucha Libre mask.
“I’ve always had a fascination with the romantic period, the masters of painting, and how their portraits show no scars, just a porcelain face,” Kane says. “It’s a distortion of history, just like there is now on social media. We glorify our lives to the extraordinary and this is our mask to the world.” He continues, “Art from the Romantic period always shows white aristocrats, not including the full fabric of the population. The gritty side of life is never shown, so the common truth gets erased from history.
Likewise, if we look back at Instagram feeds in 200 years we won’t see the reality of the 21st century, we will only see the pretty side of life.” In Epique IV, Kane takes the classic 1814 portrait of Napoleon on horseback by Ernest Meissonier and superimposes it with color and imagery to tell a more accurate story of the general’s brutal campaigns. “It’s a remarkable image of him on the horse, then I distort it to show the true history. There are crosses added to show how he left a trail of death. I’ve X’d out the other people as it was all about Na-poleon and his ego.
The horse is red because it was one of his prized possessions, and the Latin script on the horse roughly says “F you and the horse you rode in on’.”But what’s most glaring, and why the piece is so meaningful for a Mexican audience, is Napoleon’s visage covered by the famed Blue Demon mask. Kane explains why he is drawn to the Lucha Libre star.
“He is himself. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, he is always one person. It’s the opposite of us, taking on different personas depending on where we are or who we’re with.”One of Kane’s previous versions of Napoleon wearing the Blue Demon mask was shown by the famous French society Salon des Beaux-Arts at the Carrousel de Louvre in Paris in 2019.
Originally from Australia, the artist has been creating from his home near Cambridge in England since 2014. Kane is known worldwide for creating work that makes a social commentary on how we document history and juxtaposes famous figures with current issues. His first creation, entitled “Rich Enough to be Batman”, features the face of a young Queen Elizabeth masked as the Caped Crusader.
Alongside Epique IV at the Galeria Militar is another large original painting that disrupts our interpretation of classic art. Hailing from Mexico City, Diego Rodarte paraphrases romantic portraits with purposeful splashes of bright color. In “Accion XXXIIV”, Ro-darte takes a painting of an aristocrat from the period and adds splotches of neon pink radiating over his eyes. The original portrait is dark and poised, whereas the bright splashes create an impact that is both disturbing and humorous. “It is very important for my work to ask the viewer a question, in this case, to question the authorship of the art since my work is based on painting already done previously. Who is the author of the pieces? The original painter or me?” Rodarte asks.
The artist specifically seeks to create contrasts in his work, both with the application of paint and color but also to highlight the contrasts in ideology between then and now. Jessie Wallace, one of the principals at Galeria Militar alongside painter Mark Gabriel, speaks passionately about the visceral impact of Rodarte’s artwork.
“There is emotion exuding from these classical characters. He takes a beautiful piece and then disrupts it, taking the stuffiness out of it,” she says. To have first showings of original pieces from such well-known artists is a coup for the gallery in Todos Santos that only opened a year ago.
“The show is a huge success,” says Wallace. “And especially meaningful because both pieces were made to be shown in this country.” The artworks have garnered much interest from potential buyers, despite being large investments in terms of space for display and price. In fact, Kane’s piece has already sold and will go to its new local home in early November. But that doesn’t mean everyone can’t enjoy the art. A unique aspect to the show is that, for the first time ever, Galeria Militar is offering non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of Kane’s piece.
An NFT is is a unique and non-interchangeable unit of data stored on blockchain. This provides proof of ownership for easily-reproducible items such as photos, videos, and other types of digital files. In other words, instead of buying the physical print of Epique IV, you can own a limited-edition digital version.
But what would be the benefits of this? As Wallace explains, “An NFT authenticates the ownership for the buyer and the creator, like a microchip. Then it can be traded online on NFT websites and the artist gets a commission, instead of third party auction houses that take a huge commission without any benefit to the artist.” NFT owners also get the artwork’s digital file so they can print as many images as they want for non-commercial use.
The number of NFTs being offered by Galeria Militar is limited to ten, meaning they could increase in value based on demand and scarcity. As an example, world-famous artist Damien Hirst recently released his first NFTs, offering 10,000 pieces at $2000 each. The series called “The Currency” sold out in a day and are now valued at over half a billion on the secondary market. Yes, that is a “B”. Kane’s theme of looking at yesteryear’s art with modern eyes seems especially appropriate for this technological release, and was part of the reason Wallace decided to offer his work in this format. As far as she knows, it’s the first time an NFT has been released by a gallery in Baja California Sur.
Galeria Militar, located at 120 Heroico Colegio Militar in Todos Santos, had hoped to display the pieces until the end of November but given the popularity of the show, they may be taken down for buyers before month’s end. On November 11, the gallery will be opening another exhibit featuring new works by popular artist Mark Gabriel called “Retro Tropical Jet Set”. As the title suggests, this display will conjure up poolside memories from the 1950s and 60s. For more information, visit galeriamilitar.com.