Matts Leiderstam

Just past the entrance to “Nachbild” (After Image), the first solo show in a German institution by Swedish artist Matts Leiderstam, one saw a grotto. Photographed in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, it reached to the ceiling: a slide projection on an almost entirely freestanding painted wooden board. At the center of the grotto, as part of the photographic mise-en-scène, stands an easel with a painting that in turn displays a landscape, Leiderstam’s own copy of Nicolas Poussin’s Spring or the Earthly Paradise, painted in Rome in the seventeenth century.

At first we seemed to be viewing a sort of stage set; the painting in the park looks kitschy because of the projection’s artificial colors. Something in this picture doesn’t fit. And the same could be said of the five photographs from Leiderstam’s “Returned” series, 1997–99, on display in the entrance hall of the Badischer Kunstverein; each of these framed small-format photographs, taken in Hampstead Heath and Central Park, shows two idylls not directly related to one another—a real landscape and, as in the first work, a landscape painting placed in the setting. The classical garden art of the park merely provides the opulent frame for the art-historical icons Leiderstam has meticulously copied.

The centerpiece of this retrospective of the Göteborg native, born in 1956, was the installation Grand Tour (1997–), which extended throughout the Kunstverein’s main hall; emerging from the grotto’s aggressive artificiality, visitors found themselves in the pleasantly restrained atmosphere of a reading room, perhaps in an institute for art history or the drawing collection of a museum. In the seventeenth century, the Grand Tour was an obligatory finishing touch for the education of wealthy young men; crisscrossing Europe, they might develop the taste and connoisseurship that, ideally, would form the basis for their own collections. Leiderstam developed an initial version of this project when he was invited to the Venice Biennale eleven years ago. It had struck him that many of the obligatory stops along this educational itinerary overlapped with the recommendations in gay travel guides: Romantic grottos, landscape parks, and elegant squares have become pickup spots. His copies of masterpieces, which he makes strange by darkening them, then confronting the copies with their originals, allude to this reassignment of function. Detail studies emphasize and enhance the eroticism inherent in the originals: Seductive gestures are amplified, and a square in Venice suddenly seems filled with young men.

Pictures and books were displayed on high tables that divided the room lengthwise. A large canvas was leaning against an easel, and magnifying glasses were at the ready along with slide viewers, facsimiles, and “Claude glasses,” colored-glass monocles that hobby painters used as an aid in imbuing their landscapes with muted light characteristic of a Lorrain painting. Beside these small instruments, a projection flickered, revealing fragments of a landscape tinted one color after another, as if to test them all out. In this installation, Leiderstam himself at first seemed absent as a painter—but one soon noticed startling interventions in this staging of an all but seamlessly unfolding discourse formulated in the terms of popular science: for example, the fact that tiny panels, cut to the size of a page, had been inserted in the tomes lying out on display.

Leiderstam blurs together art history and homosexual subculture. But what’s so disconcerting is that he manipulates his materials with such boldness that one can lose sight of the distinction between copy and original. His paintings weren’t the only ones here: He included works from the Staatliche Kunsthalle among the authentic material. And on the other hand, not all the reference material was authentic; his own detail studies had been stealthily interpolated into the art-historical reference works lying open on display. Leiderstam leads the viewer to a seductive but equivocal encounter with classical art.

Catrin Lorch

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.