In this fascinating series of works, Hungarian new media artist Bence Hajdu has removed the figures from a series of Old Master paintings with such precision that it’s almost hard to believe. While some compositions, like Jacques-Louis David’s “Oath of the Horatii” (1784) seem perfectly suited to such background reconstruction (see its clean, minimal lines and crisp shadows), others like Claude Lorrain’s “Seaport with the Embarkation of St. Ursula” (1641) seem like a more difficult selection, because of the picky details — in this case, waves and small scattered figures.
Hajdu’s works, which I’ve converted into GIFs (apologies to the artist) to make it clear what a fantastic visual feat the artist has achieved, also highlight the theatricality of the scenes. The pieces, which he has previously exhibited accompanied by smaller versions of the original images (a set up pictured below), have a silence that the original images lack. It is as if the characters have wandered off the stage and we’re left to ponder the world where such drama occurs.
In some cases, his erasures give a new life to the works, like Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” which seems a natural fit for the process as we’re all familiar with the table clutter of a meal. Somehow it makes the scene appear more human when the frozen figures disappear. I can’t say I had ever pondered the meal Jesus and his disciples shared in Leonardo’s masterpiece but it’s a curious revelation — is it just me or do the disciples on either end appear to be hoarding most of the food? #LOL
Others, like Botticelli’s “The Annunciation” don’t benefit much from the editing, as the sparse interior and idyllic view through the window tell us little if anything about the original scene.
In the case of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, Hajdu has taken the liberty to leave a scarf behind for where the Virgin Mary was sitting. In this one scene, we’re left to feel that the angel has just left and the Madonna gone inside. And even if the floor shadows are a little bizarre in Hajdu’s rendering, it only helps us to see that the geometric arrangement of the scene in general is quite peculiar in and of itself.
One of the things I keep thinking about as I look at these scenes is how much I’d love to play a video game that wanders through familiar scenes like this. It’s like visiting a childhood home that you see anew after all these many years. The Old Masters don’t disappear, they’re just constantly reinvented.