Third Person is a collage combining three separate images. The principal image is a colour photograph of a film actor from the 1940s or 1950s. The silhouetted figure of another man has been cut out of this portrait, eliminating most of the actor’s face and chest, and the space has been filled with a reproduction of a painting of Queen Victoria. The outline of the second man cuts across the actor’s forehead and the corner of his right eye which looks out of the image at the viewer. His right hand, raised close to his face, is bisected by the collaged addition; it holds a cigarette that emerges from the point where the actor’s fingers meet the hand of Queen Victoria, lying on her ermine robes. The outline of the silhouetted male figure cuts off her head at the neck; the line of her necklace extends the line of the smoking actor’s right eyebrow. The silhouetted figure’s head is half filled with the image of a rich blue sky in which clouds are warmly illuminated in orange shades that complement the queen’s skin tones and the flesh tones of the smoking actor. The blue sky echoes highlights of blue light in the smoking actor’s black hair and on his dark jacket. These complimentary colours – shades of orange and electric blue – are repeated in the out of focus orange and blue patterning on the wall behind the actor.
While the colours of Third Person recall those of one of Stezaker’s earliest postcard works, The End (the film), 1975 (T12348), one element used to make this collage has historical significance dating from the artist’s childhood. He has commented:
The image ‘behind’ the cigarette smoking film actor is one of my earliest collected images from a book commemorating Queen Victoria’s life and published just after her death and which fascinated me as a child. Indeed the book was given to me after I scribbled over the pages, including the one now mounted in the collage which could be seen as a belated reparation for the damages done to it in infancy. I could never turn this page in particular (the sumptuously printed colour frontispiece) without a pang of guilt for my childish desecration.
(Letter to the author, 26 October 2007.)
Third Person, and a related collage made at the same time, Untitled (T12344) belong to a group of collages generically called Film Portraits. These are all derived from the artist’s collection of portraits of film stars published in the yearly Film Show Annuals and Film Parade (London and Hollywood), mainly dating from the 1940s and 1950s. Stezaker no longer remembers which of the publications the page from which he created Third Person was taken. The Film Portraits developed from a group of images entitled Dark Stars created in 1978-80, made by cutting around the outline of a portrait and mounting the background on black paper, transforming the star into a dark silhouette. The Film Portraits take this technique one step further: after cutting around the portrait, Stezaker turned the page to make visible the portrait on its verso. The third ‘person’ or image is derived from third source and laid beneath the cut page. In Untitled it is a picture of a moth, taken from an early colour photogravure printed in The Natural World (a pre-war publication that the artist found in a second-hand book shop).
Stezaker’s use of a silhouetted (male) figure to open a window into another space or world recalls several paintings by Belgian Surrealist René Magritte from the 1960s, in particular The Upholder of the Law, 1964 (private collection), High Society, 1965-6 (Bounameaux, Brussels) and The Happy Donor, 1966 (Musée d’Ixelles, Brussels). These paintings feature a bowler-hatted silhouette man whose head is filled with sky; the cloudy sky in the head of the silhouette man in Third Person recalls the blue cloud-dotted sky in the head of the silhouetted figure in High Society. However, Stezaker differentiates his work from the surrealist aim of providing a window into the unconscious, saying that feels that he is doing the reverse: ‘I wanted to make conscious, to save the viewer from unconsciousness rather than release the viewer to it.’ (Quoted in John Stezaker: Dispatch 123.) The notion of the ‘third person’ stems from a passage in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), a novel by the Geman poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Stezaker has explained:
The ‘third person’ ... represents the necessary intermediary figure through which narrative connects between self and other (the ‘two who really matter’ as Rilke describes the agency of the third person). Rilke describes the third person as a ghost ‘who invades all of life and literature’ and I would extend his agency to all of image culture – a threshold figure ever present but unrevealed. Cinema which is the marriage of narrative and image depends on this spectral presence as much as literature. Rilke says ‘without him nothing can happen’, everything hesitates. Many of these collages using the silhouette to intercut two images characteristic especially of the work of the late 80s and early 90s use this cinematic figure (shadow or silhouette) to probe hidden connections between worlds of images. At the time it opened the collage process to multiplicity, flow and ultimately to the unconscious.
(Letter to the author, 26 October 2007.)
Stezaker has based his practice on found images since the early 1970s. The processes of collecting, isolating, cropping, fragmenting, juxtaposing, combining and sometimes mirroring are integral to his work which utilizes images from film stills, postcards and encyclopaedias to make visible layers of meaning and symbolism unconsciously attached to images.
World Gone Mad: Surrealist Returns in Recent British Art, exhibition brochure, Herbert Read Gallery, Canterbury, Castlefield Gallery, Manchester and Limehouse Arts Foundation, London 2006, reproduced in colour front cover.
John Stezaker: Dispatch 123, exhibition brochure, Norwich Gallery 2006.
Michael Bracewell, ‘Demand the Impossible’, Frieze, issue 89, March 2005, pp.89-93 and front cover.