Beyond the Canvas
Titus Kaphar's Shifting the Gaze, 2017
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
Painting is a visual language where everything in the painting is meaningful, is important, is coded. But sometimes, because of the compositional hierarchy, it's hard to see other things. - Titus Kaphar
In 2017, Titus Kaphar hosted a TED talk whose title was "Can art amend history?" It's an impassioned speech during which he tells the story of how he first came to engage with art and some the struggles that went with it. Do look it up.
While on stage, Kaphar unveils a copy he had made of a Frans Hals' Family Group in a Landscape and starts to forcefully paint over the figures of the white sitters, making statements about the messages conveyed by their depiction with each brushstroke. Once the smallest and least noticeable character in the painting, so much so that he almost disappeared into the background, the boy is now the main focus of the composition. This is how Kaphar encourages us to shift our gaze, by drawing our attention to the overlooked, the forgotten by art history, in this case the Black family servant, unsurprisingly the only one who's not smiling.
Because I am a bit of a nerd, I took the time to read the blurb on the Thyssen-Bornemisza website. We find out about Hals, his brilliant skills, the provenance of the painting and how the couple holding hands is supposed to represent faithfulness (no, really?). The curator then waxes lyrical about Hals' brushwork, the 'vitality and optimism' with which he painted his sitters and the 'marvellous rendering of the husband’s boots'. Even the dog gets a mention. Guess what, the Black boy is all but invisible.
I am grateful to Lisa Small, Senior Curator at the Brooklyn Museum for introducing me to Titus' work and vision.
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Titus Kaphar (b.1976) Shifting the Gaze, 2017
Frans Hals Family Group in a Landscape, 1645 - 1648 © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid