Imagine that everyone around you is suddenly and magically turned into a wax statue. You’re able to do things you wouldn’t normally dream of doing — peering closely at the faces of passers-by, for example.
The Hoerengracht, an installation on show at the National Gallery in London, which features the reconstruction of a chunk of Amsterdam’s red-light district (the title translates as “The Whores’ Canal”, and is formed by adding an “o” to “Herengracht“, meaning “The Gentlemen’s Canal”), seems to make this odd fantasy come true. It comes with a cast of sculptures of people that inspire a kind of nosiness, rather as the super-realistic work of the American artist Duane Hanson does.
The installation was produced in the 1980s by the artists Edward and Nancy Kienholz, outsiders whose trademark works were “tableaux”, walk-in environments depicting provocative situations. Eleven young women look out of the tiny windows of their seedy, neon-lit workplaces, their heavily made-up eyes gazing blankly at the street. They are mannequins, yet you feel as if you’re contemplating real girls, prostitutes waiting distractedly for the next client.
The work has at least two significant merits. First is the direct relationship that the viewer has with these modern Mary Magdalenes. One of them, Geralyn, stands on the street, her hands gripping her handbag. You’re invited to confront her face-to-face, and to realise in the process that she is possibly scared for her life, and certainly cold and alone.
A grungy resin, used by the artists to stick the figures together, drips down the women’s faces, creating the impression of tears. The temptation to play the voyeur is aroused by the attention to detail here — to the range of objects crammed in each room: clocks, mirrors, telephones, and so on. Intruding into these lives is a bit like inspecting a personal cabinet, and one is reminded also of the vitrines made by the Kienholzes’ contemporary Christian Boltanski.
The second reason I’d suggest you visit the show is the National Gallery itself. The Kienholzes’ work is displayed alongside some 17th-century Dutch paintings from the permanent collection. Similarities in structure and means of expression are explored. But rather than dwell for too long on the similarities between The Hoerengracht and Vermeer’s wonderful Young Woman seated at a Virginal, visitors should take the opportunity to have a closer look at Guido Reni’s Saint Mary Magdalene, where superbly painted hair hangs loose on the highly symbolic red of the saint’s robe (the echoes of carnal pleasure are impossible to ignore).
Nor should they leave without stopping for a moment in front of Lorenzo Lotto’s beautiful Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia, in the room opposite. The woman depicted in a sumptuous green and orange dress with candid décolletage emodies virtue, but is possibly a courtesan.