Wall considers these two large-scale works to be his first successful attempts to challenge the norms of photography through the use of transparencies mounted in lightboxes. In doing so, he references both popular culture (the illuminated signs of cinema and advertising hoardings) and the sense of scale he admires in classical painting. As three-dimensional objects, the lightboxes take on a sculptural presence, impacting on the viewer’s physical sense of orientation in relationship to the work.

The Destroyed Room 1978

My first pictures like The Destroyed Room emerged from a re-encounter with nineteenth-century art’, Wall has said. Here, the work in question is The Death of Sardanapalus 1827 by Eugène Delacroix, which depicts the Assyrian monarch on his deathbed, commanding the destruction of his possessions and slaughter of his concubines in a last act of defiance against invading armies.

Jeff Wall The Destroyed Room 1978

Jeff Wall
The Destroyed Room
Transparency in lightbox 1590 x 2340 mm
Cinematographic photograph
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 1988
© The artist

Wall echoes Delacroix’s composition, with its central sweeping diagonal and sumptuous palette of blood reds, while acknowledging its staged atmosphere by re-composing the scene as a roughly fabricated stage-set, absent of any players. ‘Through the door you can see that it’s only a set held up by supports, that this is not a real space, this is no-one’s house,’ he has commented. Though clearly a woman’s bedroom, the cause of the violence is unexplained, leaving the viewer to speculate on the sequence of events.

Picture for Women 1979

Picture for Women was inspired by Edouard Manet’s masterpiece A Bar at the Folies-Bergères 1881–2. In Manet’s painting, a barmaid gazes out of frame, observed by a shadowy male figure. The whole scene appears to be reflected in the mirror behind the bar, creating a complex web of viewpoints. Wall borrows the internal structure of the painting, and motifs such as the light bulbs that give it spatial depth. The figures are similarly reflected in a mirror, and the woman has the absorbed gaze and posture of Manet’s barmaid, while the man is the artist himself. Though issues of the male gaze, particularly the power relationship between male artist and female model, and the viewer’s role as onlooker, are implicit in Manet’s painting, Wall updates the theme by positioning the camera at the centre of the work, so that it captures the act of making the image (the scene reflected in the mirror) and, at the same time, looks straight out at us.

Jeff Wall Picture for Women 1979

Jeff Wall
Picture for Women
Transparency in lightbox 1425 x 2045 mm
Cinematographic photograph
Collection of the artist. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
© The artist

The seam running down the middle of the photograph is apparent in some of Wall’s large-scale pictures, where two pieces of transparency are joined. The fact that it serves as a reminder of the artifice of picture making is something that Wall has come to appreciate: ‘The join between the two pictures brings your eye up to the surface again and creates a dialectic that I always enjoyed and learned from painting…a dialectic between depth and flatness. Sometimes I hide it, sometimes I don’t’, he has said.