Algerian-Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz’s new film, “Firebrand,” which debuted at Cannes in May, takes place at a sprawling estate where members of the British elite retreated to escape a rapidly spreading plague. Inequality has reached new heights, the role of religion in public life is a matter of urgent debate, political factionalism is tearing society apart and Europe is destabilized by war. The year: 1546. Based on the 2012 novel by the English writer Elizabeth Fremantle, “Queen’s Gambit”, the film presents the last months of the reign of Henry VIII from the advantage of his sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr, portrayed by Alicia Vikander. Playing fast and loose with the historical record, it is an allegory for our own age in the guise of a period drama.
Aïnouz is hardly alone in finding echoes of the factional presence in the annals of early modern Europe. The Starz series “The Serpent Queen,” renewed for a second season shortly after its premiere last fall, features Samantha Morton as Parr’s contemporary Catherine de’ Medici, an orphaned Florentine who became queen of France in the 16th century by ruthlessly manipulating her enemies Catherine was also the inspiration for Maria Grazia Chiuri’s spring 2023 Dior collection, which included dramatic structured skirts suggesting the exaggerated proportions of Renaissance farthingals—stiff hoop skirts popular among women at court—accessorized with pearl chokers and ornate gilt collars. In fact, nods to the Renaissance and Baroque eras have been ubiquitous on runways for the past few seasons: There were box bags at Loewe’s spring 2023 show and oversized corsets and puffed sleeves at Matty Bovan, and Chloé’s Gabriela Hearst identified the 17th-century artist . Artemisia Gentileschi as the muse for her fall 2023 collection. The Renaissance tends to be thought of as the source of high culture in the West, giving us humanistic inquiry, vernacular literature and a linear perspective, but it was also an era of disaster and destruction, tumultuous with brutal confrontations over theology and territory and the rise. of Machiavellian politics. If ours is another such age, these designers seem to be asking, wouldn’t it be more fun, at least, to trade sports for jewelry and brocade?
Many contemporary artists have followed a similar impulse, explicitly referencing the formal tropes and techniques of early modern art: The New York painter Chris Oh painstakingly reproduces Renaissance Madonnas and weeping Christs on everything from abalone shells and geodes to encyclopedias, reviving familiar art. historical touchstones and everyday objects with the mystical quality of relics. At the 2022 Venice Biennale, Polish Roma artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas transformed the interior of the Polish pavilion into an approximation of the 15th-century Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, recasting its cryptic frescoes as a series of textile murals depicting scenes of Roma . history
Few artists working today, however, have internalized the lessons of Renaissance composition as completely as the Los Angeles-based painter Julien Nguyen, who first gained acclaim for a pair of panels in the 2017 Whitney Biennial envisioning the front page of The New York Times as a demon-filled polyptych. For his 2021 solo show at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, Nguyen interspersed spare, majestic portraits of friends and lovers with riffs on biblical themes such as the temptation of Christ. (His current show at the gallery’s Los Angeles location includes a self-portrait in the guise of Renaissance artist Rogier van der Weyden’s 1435-40 painting “St. Luke Drawing the Virgin.”) Although his debt to Quattrocento painters such as Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca is obvious, “it’s a question of method, not style,” Nguyen told Artforum. in 2021. “During this period, painting became a form of philosophical play.”
At a time when the term “creator” is most closely associated with TikTok and Instagram influencers, it’s perhaps no surprise that artists and designers are revisiting the era when the idea of artistic self-awareness first took root – when artists, in other words, were raised by travelers to philosophers. The renewed embrace of excessive beautification also implies a backlash against the bland aesthetics of optimization so dominant in design over the last decade, for example in the muted tones and clean lines of digitally native direct-to-consumer brands. Intricate embroidery and theatrical agglomerations of fabric are naturally excessive and inefficient, serving no particular purpose beyond simply being a beautiful, special thing.
“The question I ask myself is why do we perceive the fashion industry model as it is now as the end-all, be-all, when clothes have been around for thousands of years,” says New York designer Zoe Gustavia Anna Whalen, whose debut collection, for fall 2023, featured deconstructed panties, corsets and stomachers hand-stitched from dead material fabrics. Taking cues from pre-industrial clothing and approaches to making them, she prioritizes “slowness and craftsmanship” – an ethos she also sees as a recovery of the “silent work of women” producers throughout history, whose contributions have been dismissed as mere decoration. Australian artist and baker Jessamie Holmes similarly views the imaginative, historically inspired confections she makes under the name Thy Caketh – for example, a Spanish Armada-themed cake decorated with ribbons, seashells and a miniature portrait of Elizabeth I – as celebrations of not announced female work in fields including home baking. Part of her practice was unlearning the principles of severe refinement imparted during her studies as a graphic designer. “Every time there’s a minimalist movement, there’s going to be a maximalist reaction,” she says. “We can only show restraint for so long.”