I met the oeuvre of David LaChapelle only this year, around March, during an introductory lecture on contemporary art. In fact, given the photographer’s fame as a commercial artist, I had already seen some of his works on TV or strolling through Milan’s main shopping venues. I vividly remember the wonderful advert that he produced for Schweppes in 2011, featuring Uma Thurman. As a golden idol, the notorious actress lies still on a sofa, encrusted with sparkling jewels and gems. In fact, her whole figure is quite saturated and the viewer’s eyes run from one detail to the next with no rest. Despite the short time span (the advert lasts about one minute), it is a quite dense visual experience that someone may well call tacky.
In fact, LaChapelle eagerly plays with vibrant colours and crowds his pictures with several characters and details. Usually, there is a consistent degree of sexualisation in the way the human figure is presented. In the Schweppes piece above, Uma Thurman’s skin looks glossy, translucent. It emphasises the long legs, which define a clear line from the bottom up toward the centre of the image. The figure is slender and the adherent dress leaves the stretched limbs totally uncovered. LaChapelle is a commercial artist and the Schweppes series shows him at his best. The product is hidden in a corner but made highly desirable by the association with the sensual female figure. The use of primary colours throughout the image is vibrant and refreshing.
The Rape of Africa
An interesting side of LaChapelle’s production is the re-interpretation of classical themes or paintings, such as Botticelli’s Venus and Mars or Christ’s last supper. He often faces tradition in an unconventional way, bending it with unexpected results. The Rape of Africa is a notable case, which seems to hide easily detectable political messages. The title itself, one would think, is a statement concerning the exploitation of Africa’s land and men by richer developed countries, here represented by the sleeping young man. On the other hand though, the female model is Naomi Campbell, a successful woman who earned her fame thanks to the Western fashion world. Along the same line, in Botticelli’s painting (the counterpart for this piece) Venus, here embodied by Naomi’s character, has a position of power over the sleeping Mars. Facing these elements, the viewer is forced to admit that either David is completely changing the interpretation of the original piece or he is not trying to convey the simplistic message we initially attached to the title. This short paragraph does not intend to provide a clear interpretation of the image but rather show the complexity behind LaChapelle’s creations. Often, it is quite hard to assess the relation between meaning and pure aesthetics.
The Last Supper
David LaChapelle reflects the changing, vibrant world of consumer culture in the third millennium. Saturated colours, shining complexion, over-sexualised figures offer an indigestible bite even for the most voracious eye. It is a feast of excess, a visual overload. The beauty of his products lies in the way they appeal to our intrinsic desires and aspirations. Everything from fashion, style, art, religion is condensed into billboard images and offered to the hungry viewer-consumer. As Clement Greenberg wrote in Avant Garde and Kitsch, popular culture creates a predigested, affordable, understandable version of what is truly culture: an inaccessible ivory-tower-like abode for the intellectual. Half-a-century (in fact more) later, LaChapelle offers a similar insight into the culture of his own time. He creates a vision of heaven, totally materialistic and thus so direct but mostly so, so palatable to everybody’s eyes.