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Meet Tabloid Art History, the Twitter account that mashes up Britney Spears with Caravaggio

Britney Spears at a Del Taco drivethru, 2007 // 'David with the head of Goliath' by Caravaggio, c. 1607
Britney Spears at a Del Taco drivethru, 2007 // 'David with the head of Goliath' by Caravaggio, c. 1607
Tabloid Art History

One of the great joys of the internet is the way it can turn visual art into a vast potpourri of news and pop culture and centuries’ worth of art history, with tabloid pictures of the Kardashian-Jenner clan rubbing elbows with the post-expressionists. Visually sophisticated celebrities like Beyoncé and Kanye West fill their work with deliberate references to beloved paintings, and Tumblr posts diagram the golden ratio of Renaissance art onto news photographs. Any image can be a tabloid shot, and any image can be high art.

Enter the Twitter account Tabloid Art History, which celebrates the nexus of the topics in its title. Run by three current and former art students and based in the UK, Tabloid Art History places images from pop culture next to their precise analogues in art history: a picture of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West photographing their daughter next to a detail from Diego Velàzquez’s Las Meninas, featuring Velàzquez painting a child. Or a picture of Bettie Page with two leopards next to a 19-century painting of Circe with two lions that echoes Page’s exact pose.

The account’s raison d’être is right there in its bio: “Because for every pic of Lindsay Lohan falling, there's a Bernini sculpture begging to be referenced.”

It’s a wonderful thing to have in your Twitter feed, in the midst of all the outrage and anger of the day: a tabloid photo, with all the absurd frivolity that comes with it, and then a piece of art. It makes you see the tabloid photo in a new way, and sometimes the resonances of each echo off one another in strange and shivery ways that stay with you for the rest of the day.

Tabloid Art History was created in November 2016 by Edinburgh University students Chloe Esslemont (an English major and former art history major) and Elise Bell (an art history major). They were quickly joined by art history grad Mayanne Soret, and commenced excitedly mashing up tabloid fodder with art on a daily basis. Since then, they’ve racked up nearly 12,000 Twitter followers and are still growing, and have begun work on a companion zine for the London art collective Can’t Win Don’t Try.

I spoke with the three women over email about how they built Tabloid Art History, the false divide between high culture and pop culture, and why and how we consume images.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Constance Grady

What was the genesis for this project?

Chloe Esslemont

Myself and Elise have talked about our dual love of pop culture and art history (particularly the pre-Raphaelites and the Kardashians), and how we disagree with the seemingly common perception that they shouldn’t or don’t intersect; that pop culture is vapid and therefore incompatible with so-called “high culture.” We saw an image which compared a picture of Lindsay Lohan with a Bernini statue and we realized how easily it came to us to do the same thing.

Elise Bell

From there, we would procrastinate in lectures (sorry, Edinburgh University staff!) by sending each other comparative images of Lindsay Lohan with Botticelli, Paris Hilton with a German expressionist woodcut, and so on. I then created the account and sent Chloe the password, and that was when it was born.

Chloe Esslemont

Exactly.

Elise Bell

To say this started off with a plan in mind, or at least an idea of how popular the account would become, would be a complete lie. Whilst the foundations and theory behind it were there, it was more niche in jokes and a lack of space to express our love of art history and pop culture that started it.

Chloe Esslemont

Initially we thought we would post comparisons for about a week and then run out of ideas. We only followed our friends and my mum. That six months on so many people enjoy our content and we’re still coming up with comparisons months later is unexpected and lovely.

Constance Grady

What do you think we get out of putting tabloid pictures next to art?

Chloe Esslemont

I think we get to explore the differences and similarities between pop culture and “high” culture. The view that you can only enjoy ONE of these types of things has always annoyed us — we unabashedly love both, and what better way to celebrate that than combine them where possible?

Mayanne Soret

Yeah! I really hate that idea that they are some things “worth” putting your intellectual energy on, or that there are such things as guilty pleasure in culture. If it makes you happy to spend time on, or if you feel it’s raising questions and making you think, then your interest and commitment are valid.

Elise Bell

The celebrities of our time, tabloid images, celebrity photo shoots, reality TV appearances: They are all just byproducts of visual media. We engage with them in the same way that past societies engaged with paintings of the Madonna in the Renaissance, or royal portraits, or the Cassandras and Athenas from the classical period.

Mayanne Soret

You also get to see a lot of formal similarities, shapes and colors and positions that are similar and seem to convey the same message(s). You learn so much about the way you consume images, past and present, in that way.

Chloe Esslemont

It’s also so much more accessible [as a way into art history].

Elise Bell

Yes, and that is really at the heart of what we’re trying to do. It’s important that the notion of art history as the bastion for good taste and high class is questioned and critiqued, especially in 2017, when the subject is still predominantly engaging only with a privileged subset of people and radically needs diversifying.

Constance Grady

What qualities do you look for in a picture when you put a post together? Do you have any favorites?

Elise Bell

I can honestly say that out of the several hundred posts we’ve made, most have been very spontaneous and in the moment. This probably says more about how ridiculously we consume media, but they are almost always born out of a flash of inspiration, usually triggered by a photo we see on our Twitter feed or by a painting we see in our studies.

Chloe Esslemont

It also depends on what about the picture stands out: Is it an expression? Body language or pose? Colors? A prop? We generally look toward a mixture of these things to point us in the direction of what will work together. Mood, tone, all of this is something that we consider.

Mayanne Soret

Elise and Chloe do most of the posting, I’ve been mostly working on the zine since April — we’ve released a first version when London art collective Can’t Win Don’t Try commissioned it, and we’ve been reworking it to publish it this summer since.

When I suggest a comparison, it’s just an image I saw that has a posture or color that I think is interesting. I also keep a file of all artworks I see that feel familiar — it may just be they look like a pop culture picture I’ve seen! Sometimes we put a bit more work in, like if an image goes viral (like Rihanna on a jet ski) or if there’s a specific pop culture event we want to honor (a music video like Dua Lipa’s latest single, or a photo shoot like Beyoncé’s pregnancy series).

Chloe Esslemont

in terms of favorites though, mine has to be the Divine and Grace Jones/“Creation of Adam” comparison, as is the Anna Nicole Smith/Botticelli Venus one.

Elise Bell

My personal favorites have to be either the Spice Girls photo shoot/“Les Demoiselles” comparison, or Trump on the cover of Der Tagesspiel/Francis Bacon Pope John X.

Mayanne Soret

I really love all the Britney ones we did a few weeks back. Grace Jones/Waterhouse and the Kardashian clan/Yves Klein Blue are among my all-time favorites, though. But to be honest, every new one is my fave.

Constance Grady

Is there a particular art history era or movement that you think our current cultural moment lends itself to?

Chloe Esslemont

What we love about what we do is that we don’t restrict ourselves to a particular time period of art history or type of art history either. We essentially have thousands of years to choose from. But in regards to right now…

Elise Bell

Possibly the work of Hieronymus Bosch. The early Netherlandish period was full of images of people causing a mess, searching for divine inspiration or absolute hell on earth.

Chloe Esslemont

Probably quite apt in terms of current global politics.

Mayanne Soret

I also think today’s an exciting enough time in the arts as it is, to be honest. It’s tough because the current financial and political situations are shit pretty much everywhere in the world, but it also pushes young creators to take a stand, have a real look at the status quo and how it’s been benefiting the same people for the past centuries, and to find concrete solutions to bring it down and make art that represents all of us, our issues, our desires. We’re seeing more dialogue around age-old adages like, “It’s the art that counts, not the man.” It’s really what’s gonna make our time, that we’re confronting the old voices and their nonsense.

Elise Bell

What we have found limiting, however, and this is also reflective of our formal art history education and the lack of diversity within the canon, is how little literature or online resources there are dedicated to showing the art made by women and people of color. We get bored of matching tabloid imagery with works created by dead white men.

Mayanne Soret

Yeah, we can’t pretend that we can detach ourselves from centuries of repeated narrative in less than a year on the internet! We have to make sure our comparisons go further than the obvious Western canon, and remind ourselves of that constantly (and we don’t always manage to). Twitter is a great platform for that.

Chloe Esslemont

Saying that, we’re making a very serious effort to broaden our horizons in terms of comparisons. Whilst the account can be seen as a crash course through art history, we’re also learning too.

Mayanne Soret

Especially since we’ve started the zine and received our first articles, the kind of voices we attracted and the thing we could see taking shape from just one issue … it’s really been a space of total freedom for our contributors, and it’s really something that we want to build on and bring further. But of course if we want to represent the voices that have been singled out of the art historical discourse, past and present, we’re the first person we need to hold accountable for it.

Chloe Esslemont

Can’t Win Don’t Try, the art writers for Gal-Dem [a collective magazine made by women and nonbinary people of color], The White Pube [an art criticism website and research project], VANDAL [a DIY art organization] … we’re crazy inspired by the work these artists and young critics/curators are doing and they’ve primarily been able to do it using the internet as a medium to promote their voices. It’s a very exciting time to be getting involved with art.

Elise Bell

Essentially, what we’re trying to do is make art history less scary, less intimidating, less classist, and bring it to a wider range of people, and it’s amazing how social media and the internet is allowing alternative art criticism and artmaking to flourish.

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