Robert Wilson is a highly acclaimed American artist, theatre producer and playwright. Across his diverse career Wilson has been consistently influenced by theatre, art history, and culture, all of which are prominent elements in his video portraits. Wilson’s video portraits place well known figures of today within art historical or dramatic contexts and draw upon the biography and personal life of the ‘sitter’. Such as with Wilson’s portrait of Jeanne Moreau (1947-2015) as Mary, Queen of Scots. Moreau was a prominent actress of mixed French and English heritage, whose career in French cinema and theatre spanned over sixty years. When Wilson approached Moreau about creating a video portrait she was researching a theatre project based on Mary, Queen of Scots, which became the basis of her portrait.

In Wilson’s 2005 portrait, Moreau inhabits Mary’s space, yet the historic figure of Mary looms large within the image. The seventeenth century portrait of Mary Stuart (1542-1587), better known as the Queen of Scots, was created by an unknown artist c. 1610 and was a based on an even earlier portrait from 1587 by Nicholas Hilliard, a leading English portrait painter of the late sixteenth century, which showed her after ten years of imprisonment in England. She had fled Scotland following her deposition which had placed her young son, James VI, on the throne and had sought sanctuary in England. Her presence in England was a long running political issue as she became the focus of plots and conspiracies against her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Paintings of Mary were highly popular in the early seventeenth century as a means to show loyalty to the Stuart monarchs of England following the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne.

Moreau is regal and defiant, reflecting Mary’s unwavering belief that she was Scotland’s true monarch. While her stance is strong, the room which surrounds her is plain and dark referring to her existence as a prisoner. The main decorative features in the portrait are the crucifix and rosary, symbolising her deep adherence to the Catholic faith at a time of religious upheaval, and the stark white lace of her cuffs and ruff. The dominance of black and white were significant in Mary’s portrait as black indicated authority and piety, whereas white signified virtue. She is at once commanding of our gaze by her unique nature, and yet also a captive to the the role in which she has been cast, a constant tension experienced by an actress on the stage, or by an imprisoned sixteenth century Queen. Jeanne Moreau was known in her acting career for portraying women who did not submit to their circumstances, and in this portrait we see her share that characteristic with Mary, a Queen who never submitted to impositions of her imprisonment.

Art does not need words. Art can be appreciated by any culture, regardless of political, national, economic, social viewpoints. It has the universal language of its own
Robert Wilson
  • Look at the portrait of Magdalen Poultney, later Lady Aston, attributed to Marcus Gheerarerts the Younger and studio. What parts of this portrait is Wilson referencing in Jeanne Moreau (1947-2015) as Mary, Queen of Scots?
  • Find a portrait or still life in AGSA’s permanent collection that you like. If you could animate a small section of this work in some way, which would it be and why?
  • Wilson is not interested in resemblance of the image or recreating a visual likeness of the sitter, but rather he is making a world, a psychologically charged space for the imagination. Compare Wilson’s work to that made by other artists who create worlds within their imagery such as Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson. What similarities do these artists share and what separates them?
  • Wilson says, ‘If we look carefully, this still life is a real life’. The video portraits reflect Wilson’s intense interest in the body, performance and the power of the gaze. Suggest reasons why these portraits are not just still – what is the purpose of the subtle movements in these works?
  • For Wilson, his theatrically staged video portraits bring together the conventions of various painting genres – in particular portraiture, landscape, still life and history painting – yet simultaneously informed by movements such as abstraction, minimalism and conceptual art. Using one of Wilson’s works as an example, explain how he has been influences by one of the above mentioned movements.

attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger and studio, 1561/62, 1636, Magdalen Poultney, later Lady Aston, c 1620, London?, oil on canvas, 231.7 x 136.0 cm; Morgan Thomas Bequest Fund 1948, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Sitters in Wilson’s work include contemporary performers Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt, Isabella Rossellini, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Robert Downey Jr and Winona Ryder, the artists William Pope. L and Zhang Huan, and the writer Gao Xingjian. We know that fame can sometimes be fleeting but art is one way to memorialise people. Who is someone famous you would like Wilson to create a video-portrait of next?

  • Wilson’s characters are drawn from history, art, literature, science and mythology, spanning from popular culture to French Neoclassical art, from Hollywood allure to Japanese anime. These have included unexpected sources, such as Albert Einstein, Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Victoria and Joseph Stalin. Create a tableaux inspired by someone from history. You will need to research this person, find as much visual information as you can to help inform your scene with relevant props and costumes. Photograph your tableaux.
  • Wilson’s animal portraits include an elk, a panther, two owls and a porcupine. He is interested in inter-species communication and these portraits are a poetic statement of exchange across species. If you were to describe yourself as an animal, which would it be and why? Create a portrait of this animal that captures its character and personality.