Modern History: Newspapers, Photography, Pictures

Thumbnail Image
Issue Date
Edwards, Maria Pavlova
The Graduate School, Stony Brook University: Stony Brook, NY.
This thesis focuses on Modern History, a series of works completed between 1977 and 1979 (with one addition in each 1991 and 2003) by contemporary artist Sarah Charlesworth (born 1947). Consisting of appropriated newspaper front pages from which all text has been removed, Modern History subverts the print media as well as photography. In turn, this study attempts to examine the importance of both media for Sarah Charlesworth and elucidates the novel ways in which she used them in relation to historical practices and contemporary theoretical discourses. Modern History is examined within the context of the history of photography, newspaper appropriation, as well as Conceptual art, which Sarah Charlesworth practiced prior to beginning her series. Her work is also aligned with the ideas of the contemporaneously-emerging Pictures generation, showing the ways in which Modern Historybridged the gap between Photo-Conceptualism and the new modes of artistic production. The title of Sarah Charlesworth's series demands a parallel to be drawn between her work and history painting.Modern Historyexemplifies a continuation of past practices, but also marks a definite break. With the appropriation of newspapers and the excision of text, Charlesworth's series can be seen as moving past Modernism, past Conceptualism, and while fully exploring the ideas of Pictures artists,Modern History offers a view of how ideologies are created in Post-Modern society. This paper illustrates the transition from the artistic use of photographs as objective modalities of information to their use as pictures- a term that acquires a new meaning in the hands of the Pictures generation. Charlesworth's systematic insistence on the separation of text and image, in combination with the serial presentation of her work, adds a level of complexity that goes beyond the practices of her Pictures colleagues. Modern History explores not only the problematic relationship between text and image, but also controversies inherent in photography itself. Both subjects are explored by critic and philosopher Roland Barthes; the former in his 1961 essay The Photographic Message, and, the latter in his book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography published in 1981 - two years after Sarah Charlesworth's series was completed. Accordingly, while exploring some of the issues raised by Sarah Charlesworth's first mature series, her work is also posited as the nexus for some of the most significant past as well as contemporary artistic ideas as well as a harbinger of the theoretical discourses of the 1980's. This study shows the ways in which Modern History asserts the medium of photography, the practice of appropriation, and the making of pictures as integral parts of the Post-Modern paradigm.