Untitled is a collage combining three separate images. The principal image is a colour photograph of a film actress taken in the 1940s or 1950s. Her face has been excised by the silhouetted figure of another woman cut out of the paper on which the portrait was printed. The space of the silhouette is filled with a photographic reproduction of a moth on a branch. As is usual in a portrait, the photographed actress looks at the viewer but as a result of the artist’s intervention only her cheek, a few eyelashes and a sliver of eyebrow are visible on her right side and her jaw and ear on her left. Her right shoulder and part of her forearm are raised – she appears to be leaning on something. Stezaker’s collage obscures all the parts of her normally needed to read a portrait and in this sense the silhouetted figure operates like a mask – a concept central to Stezaker’s work (see Masks XI, XIII and XIV, 2005-6, T12345-7). The artist derived the image of the moth from an early colour photogravure, printed in a volume of The Natural World (a pre-war publication Stezaker found in a second hand book shop). The colours of its unusual markings – a delicate pink, white and two shades of brown – echo what we can see of the film actress’s skin tones, dark brown hair and white blouse or dress. The moth’s patterning covers most of the actress’s face with the uncanny effect of evoking a strange disfigurement. The artist has commented that the image reminds him ‘of that combination of the insectile and Victorian interiors in A.S.Byatt’s Morpho Eugenia (a short story printed in Angels and Insects, London 1992)’ (letter to the author 27 October 2007).
Untitled and a related collage made at the same time, Third Person (T12349), 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 Untitled 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. The concept 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.)
In Untitled, and a related work made at the same time, Third Person (T12349), Stezaker’s use of a silhouetted figure to open a window into another space or world recalls many of the paintings created by Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967) in the mid to late 1960s. However Stezaker differentiates his work from the surrealist aim of providing a route 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.) Stezaker’s work makes visible things that are normally kept hidden, embodying the return of the repressed identified by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) as ‘the uncanny’ in his essay of 1925.
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.
Mark Coetzee, John Stezaker: Rubell Family Collection, exhibition catalogue, Rubell Family Collection, Miami 2007.
John Stezaker: Dispatch 123, exhibition brochure, Norwich Gallery 2006.
Michael Bracewell, ‘Demand the Impossible’, Frieze, March 2005, issue 89, pp.88-93 and front cover.