By Sophie Landres
April 30, 2021
In 2007, alumna Sophie Landres (Class of 2008) detailed the “cosmetics of burial” in German photographer Candida Höfer’s large-format, color photographs of Portuguese Empire interiors. Landres prods at how Höfer “uses her technical prowess to aggrandize the already grand,” in this case the ornate interiors made possible by colonialism and chattel slavery. “As a skilled mortician, Höfer succeeds in concealing the ugly scars of an imperialist past,” Landres asserts. Highlighting the artist’s background and use of symbolism in photography, the writer’s description alone emanates analysis—a key characteristic of the art writing that Degree Critical publishes and the MFA Art Writing program has taught.
—Lune Ames, Managing Editor
If it’s true, as some have said, that all photographs are in some way about death, then Candida Höfer’s large-format, color photographs of opulent Portuguese interiors must represent the cosmetics of burial. The most intriguing of her images, which include empty dining halls, lavish theaters and palatial rooms, are shots of libraries in which shelves of browning books are smothered cancerously with Dewy decimals. Titleless and showing their age, the volumes offer glimpses of history as entropic or unsightly. The other images feature the gilded crests and glitzy bedazzling of a Faberge egg and content-wise are as nutritional. They could serve as advertisements for luxury items, presenting the ill-begotten spoils of the Portuguese Empire in the very best light. As a skilled mortician, Höfer succeeds in concealing the ugly scars of an imperialist past.
Like Andreas Gursky, known for his photographic manipulation of architecture and repetitious forms, and the equally bleak but more versatile Thomas Ruff, Höfer was educated by Bernd Becher to look straight-on at structure and symmetry. Mostly measuring approximately 80 by 100 inches, the prints of “In Portugal” present rooms that open to the viewer, who upon entering is then confronted by an impenetrable wall. The formula repeats and not a drop of irony or apology can be found in these overly ornate compositions.
Through light and scale, Höfer uses her technical prowess to aggrandize the already grand. In Palacio Nacional da Ajuda Lisboa VII we face two long, linen-draped banquet tables, running parallel under a canopy of trompe l’oeil painting and into a mirror propped dead center. The entire room is trimmed in platinum, blush, and powder blue architectural details that warp and melt in the reflections of silver canisters and a multitude of other specula. A long exposure gives ethereal light to several chandeliers, beaming out like the scepters of a snowflake and flattening shadows into opaque, black recesses. Rather than infinity, it is finality that echoes against each precious object.
From Van Eyck’s mirrored self-portrait in The Arnolfini Wedding to Velázquez’s placement of the king and queen in Las Meninas, mirrors have an established history of reflecting the face of power and holding the watchful presence of those in control. Höfer extends this ultimately self-serving tradition by capturing her own ghostly yet authoritative image in several photographs, positioning herself boldly among the aristocracy. Still allowing no hint of irony, she focuses on the seductive powers of both crown and camera, with an interest in emptiness that becomes empty itself. The books of the Portuguese libraries can’t help but embody the imprint of human thought and history; but otherwise Höfer’s Portuguese photos are strangely lacking in historic content. Like the unpeopled palaces that silently reverberate with shine and polish, what all these treasures mean to the descendants of slaves, to the wretched poor of Brazil, East Timor, Angola, Mozambique, in fact to all of Africa, this too is hauntingly conspicuous by its absence.