You are what you eat ate

If we are what we eat ate? Are we also what we see saw? If we are then, I am a mix of classics like Botticelli and the Dutch masters of chiaroscuro, mediaval architecture, mainly from my hometown and Italy at large, and the artistic love of my life: impressionism.

When we learnt about art in school (back in... a long long time ago), we never quite made it to modern day movements. So my experience of postmodernism is one of casual gallery encounters, explored with formal guidance. Without context, I found some of the pieces "a bit beyond me".

I always wondered how could anyone ever live up to the standard set all those years ago, but I guess the answer is: no one has to.

Post modernists turned the art world as we knew it on its head. The boundaries were pushed, pulled and crossed into a world of visual mad possibilities. The incredible artworks, the actions, performating arts - the creatives were no longer just behind their pieces they were in them too.

Some chose actions and performances, others chose still mediums like painting and photography, and are now making the most of image manipulation technology as it evolved.

Yasumasa Morimura

Yasumasa Morimura was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1951. He studied arts at the Kyōto City University of Arts where he graduated in 1978. He then stayed on at the university as an assistant, practicing painting, drawing, photography, and wood-block art.

Morimura entered the international stage at the Venice Biennale's Aperto Exhibition in 1988, and then went on to show his pieces in solo exhibitions around the world.

Daughter of Art History (Theater B)

The Daughter of Art History (Theater B)

Yasumasa Morimura, Daughter of Art History (Theater B), 1989.
Chromogenic print with transparent acrylic mounted to a wood panel, 180.3 × 246.4 cm (71 × 97 in.).
Image from J. Paul Getty Foundation

The Daughter of Art History (Theater B) was created in Japan in 1989 and is part of a series titled "Self-portrait as art history". This piece is a chromogenic print which was varnished to recreate the texture of brush strokes. Along with Morimura's other self-portraits, this reenactment of Manet's "A bar at the Folies-Bergeres" (1882) is a great example of post-modernist appropriation. In his early work, Morimura chose to become part of Western paintings as a commentary on the influence of Western art in Japan and the tension between a traditionally male-dominated society and newly emerging female values.

Although some critics wondered whether his self-portraits could be considered art or just imitations, Morimura's ability to become one with the original paintings makes his pieces unique and leaves the viewer with plenty of food for thought. Without trying to make a statement about gender identity, he commented on, and questioned, traditional beliefs of his time.

For Morimura, the concept of art is simple: "[…] art is the same as god. God exists in people who believe that god exists. But it does not exist in people who have no faith. In the same way, art exists if there are people who believe in art." (Mori Art Museum, 2010)

The context

The Daughter of Art History (Theater B) was created in a period of turmoil. For two decades cultural nationalism had linked Japan's economic growth and success with the unique nature of Japanese traditions and hierarchical society. However, when the economic bubble began to burst and the first signs of inequality appeared in the fabric of society, some began to question those respected traditions, and to advocate for much needed reforms.

Some aspects of this piece are as topical now as they were in the 80s and 90s: the role of women within in society, gender identity and its perceived importance and place in societal interactions are still being defined.

The message

The self-declared purpose of Morimura's work is to generate an emotional reaction to beauty, but there is also a sense of unease carefully hidden behind the beauty. A lot is left unsaid, so the viewers are free to make up their mind on why they are touched by this work. Morimura's piercing, sad eyes capture the viewer and talk about two worlds, past and present, merging: have we moved forward or are we still plagued by the same issues?

The tools

Although the composition of this piece is mainly dictated by the original artwork by Manet, Morimura has carefully woven in additional elements to guide the viewer's eye around the image.

colours - The Daughter of Art History (Theater B)

As shown above, the tone of the artist's skin matches many of the surrounding colours blending his naked figure into the original painting.

barmaid detail - The Daughter of Art History (Theater B)

The light complexion and central positioning of the barmaid has been preserved to ground and balance the whole image, and to draw attention to the main character of this story. The contrast between the fair skin (achieved through make up that is reminiscent of that traditionally worn by Japanese geishas) and Morimura's deep dark eyes draws the viewer towards his gaze.

The contrast between the skin tone of the upper and lower body draws attention to the placement of the folded arms: is the barmaid despondent towards her situation or is she trying to protect herself?

The triangle created by the folded arms then guides the eye towards the strategically placed vase, moved from its original position, and the bright roses.

arm detail - The Daughter of Art History (Theater B)

Once the eye is left free to wander around the rest of the image, the arms of the original barmaid seem to materialise on the counter. However, they are not just a simple remnant of Manet's work: Morimura has added wires to their structure, as if the barmaid wasn't real, just a construct, a mannequin or a robot, and only her arms are left behind.

background figures detail - The Daughter of Art History (Theater B)

Finally the eye moves towards the two of figures on the right hand side, the last ones with distinguishable features.

One is the barmaid's reflection: interestingly Morimura has decided to leave the reflection fully clothed, maybe to suggest that her clothes are an armour the barmaid wears to protect herself, to keep herself safe from the disreputable men who frequent her bar. The naked figure standing in the middle of the piece is her real self, a vulnerable woman working in a man's world.

customer detail - The Daughter of Art History (Theater B)

Morimura's final touch is his impersonation of the male customer on the far right of the image. He is gazing over the barmaid's shoulder: does he see himself in the woman who stands before him or is he afraid to meet her gaze?

There seems to have been a power shift, or maybe even a role reversal, between the characters in Manet's painting and Morimura's piece: the man no longer towers over the woman with a dominant almost dangerous look on his face, he seems lost in thought.

There is an uneasiness about this piece, generated by the many paradoxes included in the imagery. The same person is in three places at once, a naked woman has a clothed reflection and someone (or something's) arms are resting on a counter, posed like they are waiting for their owners to come back and claim them.

The rethoric

Is this piece credible? The (art world) jury seems to still be out. Is it ethical to appropriate artwork? Postmodernists definitely thought so.

Morimura's meticulous reconstruction of the scene and his reinterpretation of the characters reinforce the dilemma. Despite being aware of the deceptive nature of the this piece, the viewer cannot ignore the power and the soulfulness of the image he has created.

The contrast between the modern medium of photography and the impressionist strokes, the man posing as a woman, then as a man again generate an emotional response. Empathy towards the barmaid and her vulnerable state, sadness for the man and his lost gaze are just some of the feelings instigated by Morimura's work.

Strong in its postmodernist style and unique to its geographical origins, this piece remains topical while being timeless in an age were society seems to be craving a revival of old beliefs.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #66, 1980

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #66, 1980 - Image from MOMA

Morimura's idea of posing in paintings and photographs as famous characters and pop icons is aligned with other postmodernist work, like that of Cindy Sherman for example and contributes to the postmodernist perspective on appropriation.

Morimura's careful reconstruction of Manet's work and his empathic approach to the reinterpretation of his characters suggest a deep connection to that work and a great ability to build parallels between the human condition of days past and that of today. The Daughter of Art History was created to emulate a painting, so its viewing envinroment possibly meant to be a gallery. With the advent modern technology, his amazing work can now be appreciated online either from the comfort of one's home or on the go.

Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys was born in 1921 in Krefeld, Germany. Beuys became interested in becoming an artist while stationed in Italy during World War II in 1943. However, he was captured and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp and it wasn't until 1947 that he enrolled in the Dusseldorf Academy of Art, where he later became a lecturer in Monumental Sculpture.

Joseph Beuys, How to explain pictures to a dead hare, 1965.
Video of live performance. Retrieved from YouTube

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare

His solo performance piece How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare – held in in November 1965 at the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf – is just one example of how Beuys created a social commentary through symbolism and shamanism. This one off live action was captured on film and video, and both stills and video are available online.

A small raised platform, some artworks and a chair are the simple props used to set the scene but are also Beuys’ way of capturing the audience’s attention. One cannot help but wonder why anyone would wish to explain anything to a hare, let alone a dead one. As soon as we start to wonder we are drawn in. Although this may be one day be considered a macabre exercise, it is the raw energy of “its ingredients” that makes it such a powerful piece.

The characters are Beuys himself (with his head coated in gold leaf and honey and felt and iron tied to his feet) and, of course, the dead hare.

The context

The 50s were a period of division for Germany, with the West joining the NATO and the East joining the Warsaw Pact, and the Berlin wall being built to stop the flow of immigrants. These were also years of economic growth, partially fuelled by the country joining the European Economic Community and its connection to the capitalist West.

Although more than a decade had gone by, Germany was still dealing with post-war issues. A trial that spanned 3 years and ended in 1965 saw over twenty people convicted for crimes committed at Auschwitz.

The art world was also in turmoil, with artists like Beuys working from within the establishment to push the boundaries and remove barriers to self-expression in all its newfound postmodernist media.

The message

According to Beuys "Even a dead animal preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality" (Antliff A., 2014). He believed the piece was a success with the media because it stimulated the imagination and instigated questions, instead of relying on a rational explanation. Beuys’ performance were often well attended, with crowds pushing forward to get a better look at this latest creation. His audience was mixed: general public, art connoisseurs and the media in particular seemed eager to find out more about Beuys’ critique pieces and installations.

When questioned about the purpose of his work Beuys said that “the meaning of the action becomes the reality that complex enterprises are built up and that communities work towards such ideas” (MacRitchie, unknown). His performances were the fuel that lit conversation on complex subjects, like anthropology, spirit, freedom and many others. The purpose of these discussions was to ignite a new way of thinking and maybe even create a new social order. So Beuys’ later involvement in politics became the logical progression of his artistic work.

The tools

Beuys uses the ambiguity and absurdity of the scene to its full potential. The whole piece can be considered a metaphor for an art world that is tirelessly trying to explain art to those who are not interested or are incapable of understanding.

Juxtaposition of life and death, of species, and materials are just some of the tools Beuys used to convey his messages. The vibrancy of the gold leaf and honey mask creates a stark contrast with the hare's corpse. The way Beuys cradles the corpse as if it was an infant also contributes to the contrast and symbolism of the piece. You can teach a dead hare, like you teach an infant through intuition, but how is it that adults cannot learn?

The rhetoric

Is this piece believable? That will depend totally on whom you ask. Is a man whose head is coated in gold leaf and honey credible? That is also disputable. When it comes to ethical, let’s not even mention the dead animal in the room. That is not to say that Beuys did not carefully construct and enact the scene. He employs a number of tools and props in a way that still conveys the message fifty years on.

Emotional response is probably not the main aim of the piece, although it may have enraged some of the more conservative art lovers and disappointed those who expected to see something easy to read. Its strength sits in its ability of generating a discussion that is strongly embedded into its historical and cultural context but still largely valid today.

By choosing performance as his medium Beuys can expand on his concept and show the audience his idea without need for explanation. Postmodernism made large use of performance art in all its forms and Beuys certainly mastered the art. However, conventional is not the first word that comes to mind when watching this performance, partially because of how Beuys has used his own body as a canvas.

Pears & apples?

I chose to compare The Daughter of Art History (Theater B) to How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare because I feel that there is a connection between the way Morimura and Beuys approach art and its creation.

In these pieces, they choose to be the protagonists, to transcend who they are in order to become those characters. From a more technical perspective, both artists choose photography as a medium to capture their performances.

Both Beuys and Morimura use their works as a commentary on society and engrained traditions. While Morimura explores Western influence on the East and the perception of gender identity in society, Beuys was set to redefine how viewers understand and respond to art. They both caused deep reactions because their work suggests that traditional thinking is unable to keep pace with a fast changing world and even faster changing views.

Life and death, intuition versus rationality, male and female, East versus West: dichotomy pervades both pieces and is achieved through a number stylistic choices.

Beuys is wearing simple clothing, but his head is covered in gold leaf and honey. Morimura is wearing make up but no clothes. The barmaid is naked but her reflection is clothed. Beuys is moving, talking and explaining, while the hare hangs lifeless from his arms.

The choice of materials and media reinforces the contrast: shiny smooth gold against soft fur, the detail of photography against the impressionist brush strokes.

Born in two faraway countries that were still dealing with the aftermath of a war lost, both Morimura and Beuys have a fearless approach to art. They show themselves for who they are and to speak up for what they believe in. Their work was created to generate an emotional response in the viewers, to draw them out of their rationality into their intuition.

I feel that there is a thread connecting these two amazing people born miles and years apart: they did not "make art", they were art. That is postmodernism.

Morimura and I

Coming across Morimura’s work made me aware of the postmodernist attitude towards appropriation. It also inspired me to investigate empathy in my art work, which eventually led me to create a piece on the WWI armistice centred around my empathy towards those who lost loved ones in the war.

This research has made me realise we live in an artistic age where almost everything goes. Although it is very liberating it is also hard to pin down a specific style or movement that could inspire my work. It has also made me realise that we still all fundamentally believe to be different: whether we are common people or artists, whether we are from the West or the East. Living in country that is still struggling to be bicultural when, by now, it should really be celebrating its being multicultural does pose some questions about boundaries and respect within and between those cultures.

I do not believe it to be my mission as an artist to try and break down those barriers, as I think it needs to be a concerted effort by the country as a whole, its community and minorities. So although I find other cultures fascinating, I would feel nervous about creating work that refers to them or that borrows elements from them, because it would be perceived as disrespectful and because there is a risk that I could misinterpret or misrepresent them. I would love to collaborate with artists who recognise themselves as belonging to other cultures as a way to learn about them.


Antliff, A. Joseph Beuys. 2014. New York, NY: Phaidon Press Inc.

BBC. "Germany Profile." BBC News. Last modified March 15, 2018. Retrieved from

Beith M, Dehghanpisher B. "Japan's Man of Many Faces." 2001. Newsweek (Pacific Edition) [serial online] 138(6):5

Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Joseph Beuys | German sculptor and performance artist." 2018. Retrieved from

Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Morimura Yasumasa | Japanese artist." 2018. Retrieved from

Hein L. The Cultural Career of the Japanese Economy: Developmental and Cultural Nationalisms in Historical Perspective. 2008. The Asia Pacific Journal - Japan Focus, Volume 6, Issue 6.

Itoi, K. "Season of Passion - artnet Magazine." Last modified 2001. Retrieved from

The J. Paul Getty Trust. "Daughter of Art History, Theater B (Getty Museum)." 2018. Retrieved from

MacRitchie, L. Home - Live Art Development Agency. Accessed September 18, 2018. Retrieved from

Mori Art Museum. "Roppongi Crossing 2010: can there by art? | Interview with Morimura Yasumasa. " 2010. Retrieved from

The National Library of Israel. "First Auschwitz Trial in Germany, 1963-1965.". Accessed September 18, 2018. Retrieved from

Unknown. "Joseph Beuys How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965)." YouTube. December 28, 2015.