Courtesy of An-My Lê and the Marian Goodman Gallery
On April 5, the Yale Center for British Art announced its first acquisition of a piece by a Yale School of Art alumna. This work consists of a large-scale photograph by Vietnamese American photographer An-My Lê ART ’93, the Charles Franklin Kellogg and Grace E. Ramsey Kellogg professor in the arts at Bard College.
The photograph depicts the restoration of English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner’s painting called “Port Ruysdael,” which is currently a part of the center’s collection. Lê’s work is titled “Fragment II: Restoration of J. M. W. Turner’s Port Ruysdael, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, 2018” and will be placed alongside Turner’s works at the center.
Last Friday, the YCBA hosted Lê in conversation with Mark Aronson, deputy director and chief conservator at the center, and Chitra Ramalingam, associate curator of photography at the center, as part of its “at home” online series. Lê told the audience that she took the photograph — which measures 40 by 56.5 inches — during a visit to Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, where Turner’s painting was being restored in 2017.
According to the center’s announcement, “Fragment II” is currently on a nationally touring exhibition organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art which surveys Lê’s work with over 100 images from her major series called “Silent General.” The photograph will be incorporated into the center’s collection at the end of the tour and will be part of the center’s celebration of Turner’s 250th birthday in 2025.
“Impressive in its scale and ability to capture the painterliness of its subject, Lê’s photograph is in direct dialogue with J. M. W. Turner’s painting ‘Port Ruysdael,’” Director of the Yale Center for British Art Courtney J. Martin told the News. “We look forward to displaying the works alongside each other to offer viewers a renewed perspective on the center’s collections and encourage even more connections to be made between past and present.”
Martin also explained how the center’s decision to acquire Lê’s photograph and place it next to Turner’s paintings speaks to its continued efforts toward more progressive curation.
The director said that Yale’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of coeducation in Yale College last year inspired the center to make an increased effort to diversify its collection and include more women and artists of color. As the first work in the collection by a Yale School of Art alumna, Lê’s photograph reflects a culmination of these efforts.
“The acquisition is the result of a year of planning and, for me, years of engagement with Lê’s practice,” Martin said. “As an art museum, it is our role to connect with our audiences and make our collections accessible in the broadest ways possible.”
Lê was born in Vietnam in 1960; she and her family fled the country for the United States as refugees in 1975, the last year of the Vietnam War. Many of Lê’s photographs depict the impact and realities of the war, which fundamentally shaped her life. Lê said that painters who focus on war generally consider a single subject or approach. But she is interested in depicting the more complex aspects of war that conflate different perspectives and ideologies.
“The notion of war, of being a refugee, of being connected to this devastating war was such a huge thing to carry for any Vietnamese American at the time,” Lê said in her talk at the center. “Not all of the reenactors with whom I worked [for my photographs] were veterans. They were drivers, did bureaucratic paperwork, etc. They were each grappling with their own relationships with the war.”
Lê’s work often depicts the American experience of the Vietnam War through mythic and fictional representations.
Like Lê, Turner also often created fictional scenes resembling real-life events. For example, “Port Ruysdael” displays a boat at sea during a storm. According to Aronson, this painting is often seen as a real-life depiction, even though it is a product of Turner’s imagination. In Turner’s work, Lê sees the sublime in a tension between land, ocean and man. Her work similarly explores the relationship between nature and human culture.
Aronson told the audience that he stylistically sees “two Turners” in the artist’s paintings, which are, in a way, reproduced in Lê’s work. The first Turner produced “crisp and focused” images on his tour of England’s coast, while the other Turner is a soft-focused, ethereal painter who “paints with steam and smoke.” Aronson noted that both Turner and Lê reproduce reality with sharp precision and simultaneously enchant viewers with their view of the sublime.
Lê is fascinated by this aspect of photography: the ability to precisely describe the real world while allowing space for interpretation, the subjective and sublime.
“[Photography] is an incredible tool in the way that it connects reality with the subjective,” Lê said. “Working with a large camera allows you to think about form and proportion — the notion of something being too beautiful or parsed out is very scary, but allows for subjective interpretation and an incredible experience. I connect that to a sense of scale; the kind of mystery that the world provides. Because it’s not just ideologies that we are trafficking with; it’s also a sense of something greater than us, and I think that camera allows for that.”
Ramalingam explained that in drawing inspiration from one of the greatest British painters of the imperial age while making a commentary on the Vietnam War, Lê necessarily implicates Western intervention in the developing world. Ramalingam told the News that Turner’s marine paintings carry the history of British imperial naval power into the artist’s aesthetics of the sublime, through light, water and terror in the seascape.
“The center’s collection is and should always be a rich resource for artists seeking to confront this history in the present,” Ramalingam said. “Lê’s engagement with Turner, as in her ongoing exploration of conflict and landscape, is a powerful example of this connection.”
She hopes Lê’s photograph will allow visitors to see the center as a place where history is constantly re-understood and where “the border between reality and unreality is made and unmade.”
The center’s next “at home” talk will host visual artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat in conversation with Oksana Chefranova, associate research scholar in the Film and Media Studies Program at Yale, on April 23 from 12 to 1 p.m.
Maria Antonia Sendas | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, April 20: The story has been updated to correct a misspelling of Aronson’s last name, as well as a reference to Lê’s work as a painting — it is a photograph.
Correction, May 11: Lê is Vietnamese American, not Vietnamese. The story has been updated.