A celebrity’s image can be quickly shaped by a single photograph, TikTok video or news headline, but in Robert Wilson’s staged video portraits shot over the past two decades, he invites viewers to slow down — way down -— with hours-long poses held by celebrities including Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt and Isabella Rossellini.
This portrait of Lady Gaga premiered at the Louvre Museum in Paris in 2013. Credit: RW Work, Ltd.
In one portrait, which required a seven-hour pose, Lady Gaga channeled the regal Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière, originally painted by the 19th century French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. During the course of the shoot, a tear ran down the pop star and actor’s cheek.
In Princess Caroline of Monaco’s noir scene, the royal paid tribute to her mother, Grace Kelly, and her famed roles in Alfred Hitchcock movies, striking a pose reminiscent of the 1954 film “Rear Window.” The video works are presented to human scale on large high-definition screens around the show.
“I conceptualize the shoots with every individual,” Wilson said in an email. “With Lady Gaga, I was having an exhibition of my work and collection at the Louvre (in Paris) and I wanted to have portraits of Gaga that were based on the museum’s collection.”
Princess Caroline of Monaco in a 2006 portrait. Credit: RW Work, Ltd.
Wilson said he first had the idea for ultra-slow video portraits in the 1970s, envisioning them shown in “hotel lobbies, banks, and bus stops, and (on the) back seats for planes.” By the early 2000s, when he began shooting the works, high-definition screens were easier to come by, and he could opt for a vertical format, so that “they would be in proportion to a human standing,” he explained.
Brad Pitt captured in a 2004 portrait. Credit: RW Work, Ltd.
Celebrities often have limited time for photo shoots — sometimes just a handful of minutes — but Wilson has snagged a few hours each from Robert Downey Jr., who became the corpse-like subject of portrait referencing a 1632 anatomical painting by Rembrandt, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was martyred as the arrow-ridden Saint Sebastian, as well as Salma Hayek and Winona Ryder.
And though Wilson made many of his works before quick social media clips dominated the internet, they have a particular resonance today. They are not easily shown online, and are meant to be fully appreciated in person in a way that forces viewers to take their time. Wilson said, “I think these works are a counterpoint to the times (in which) we live.”
Top image: Robert Downey Jr. in the restaged Rembrandt painting “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.”