Gallery Girl meets Tabloid Art History

200 years ago, only the very elites of society would be seen taking an interest in art history. Museums were only open when the ‘lower classes’ were working, so even if you were artistically inclined, renaissance paintings were only viewable by those who did not need to work to survive. Luckily for us however, nearly everyone can walk into a gallery now. Art historical references are becoming more and more commonplace within our everyday lives. So much so, that the Carters (Beyonce Knowles and Jay Z), filmed there latest music video in the Louvre. Even before pop royalty muscled onto the art scene however, Tabloid Art History was posting images of the likes of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan alongside Gustav Klimt and Caravaggio online, in tongue-in-cheek comparisons between modern pop culture and the art historical masterpieces. Gallery Girl spoke to two of the three founders, Chloe Esslemont and Mayanne Soret, to discuss social media, reality TV, fashion and ‘high culture.’

Gallery Girl: You met at university, at what moment did you decide to start Tabloid Art History, and how long did it take before it took off?

Chloe: Elise (Bell) and I met at uni. We’d seen each other on nights out and always got on really well. There was an image floating around the Internet comparing a photo of Lindsey Lohan to a Bernini statue, and me and Elise chatted on Twitter about how we LOVED when pop culture and art history intersected, and how we wished there were more comparisons like that. We started making a few, and then decided to make a twitter account to post them on. I thought we’d run out of ideas after about a week, but here we still are!

Mayanne: I met Elise and Chloe via twitter. When they put a call out for contributors for the first volume of TAH (our journal), I proposed to help out with the design. Then we met at the CWDT event the zine was for in April 2017 and I joined permanently shortly after.

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GG: What caused each of you to become interested in art history? 

Chloe: I’ve always been drawn to both art and history, even before I had an idea of it being a distinct subject. What draws me to it is it being a great way to further understand and appreciate art, as well as the period that produced it, who made it, and why.

Mayanne: I came to art through fashion, music and photography. I wanted to be a music photographer. I researched photographers and bands. A lot of them had studied art, and/or were very vocal about their references. So I took art classes at high school, and I decided to study art history. During a museum visit with my class the curator told us that only 1% of the collection was on display, and that was my “click” moment. It took me a while to stick to art history though – I knew I wanted to study it, but I was afraid to not know enough, or not have the “correct” taste in art – I do still struggle with that imposter syndrome.

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GG: How do you think social media is benefiting exposure to the visual arts?

Mayanne: Art is brought into our lives in a much more organic way through social media. Being able to scroll down your feed and find artworks at the same time as photos of friends, fashion editorials, memes, etc.… teaches you that you can enjoy art without it being the only thing in your life. When you work in / around the arts there’s this pressure of constantly thinking about art. Outside of the art world too, I that mind-set keeps people out of engaging with art, a lot of people who like art don’t “dare” go to museums and galleries, or talk about the art they like because they feel they have to be an expert in order to enjoy it. Seeing art everywhere gives the message that art is for you to engage with. And of course it offers artists and galleries a new kind of visibility, sharing their work and programs without geographical bounds and in real time. On the content side, there are loads of pages and individuals, and celebrities talking about, and highlighting marginalised histories, forgotten or overlooked artists. It can be a great place to learn because you don’t need to go through all the funding loops that you’d need to go through to put up an exhibition. But it’s no utopia either, a lot of the time the work posted on twitter, Instagram, etc.… require a huge amount of labour by the producer, and it is done for free. But more often than not I see people showing up for each other, supporting and defending the work they like, so I’m mainly positive.

Chloe: I would add that the internet is great for giving people a level of control over their work that perhaps would be more difficult without that kind of platform – I think part of what makes The White Pube so interesting and amazing for instance, is that they aren’t beholden to the input of publishers, editors etc. Not that these roles aren’t important, because they absolutely are, but within the context of TWP’s work I think what makes it particularly compelling is that it is completely theirs – there aren’t other agendas in the mix, their thoughts are their own.

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GG: Have you had any people contact you to thank you for introducing them to art history?

Mayanne: Yes! We have one follower who decided to study it at school because of us, and is now considering doing it at uni. We also have followers who have asked for recommendations on reading, websites, etc.… on how to know more, or who told us they changed their perspective on art, or learnt something, from our feeds. Offline, the friends who know I’m part of Tabloid Art History often comment on certain comparisons we’ve done, mentioning that they did not know the art or pop culture moment referenced.

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GG: Having taken two art history degrees myself, I’m curious to know what you wrote your dissertations on?

Chloe: My degree is in English Literature, my dissertation was on the conceptualisations and depictions of femininity in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Jeffrey Eugenidies’ The Virgin Suicides, as well as their film adaptions. I really loved having the opportunity to talk about film as well as literature, as I hadn’t really been able to do that before.

Mayanne: I wrote mine on the early New York photographs of Garry Winogrand, it was mostly a comparative study of pre-WWII and post-WWII American street photography, and a big literature critic on the romanticisation of Winogrand’s work and personae, while his photographs were often crude and misogynistic.

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GG: What are your personal favourite comparisons? 

Chloe: I love the ridiculous, humorous ones, like the Britney at Taco Bel/David by Caravaggio ones, where the enjoyment is in the widely different contexts/moods of the images. But I also like where the images compliment each other, such as our comparison of a screencap from Beyoncé’s Formation to ‘Domino Players’ by Horace Pippin.

Mayanne: I love seeing Chloe and Elise going on deep-dives into specific cultural events, like they did with Janelle Monáe’s Pynk, and I love comparisons of random / out of context paparazzi pictures, the ones I most enjoyed doing are usually in that specific category, like Emma Stone’s hungover with Greuze.

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GG: Do you have a favourite artist or movement? What about a favourite artwork? 

Chloe: It’s so hard to pick! There are so many. Some of my favourites include Amrita Sher Gil, Frida Kahlo, Botticelli, the Pre-Raphaelites (Rossetti especially), Antonio Lopez, Leonor Fini, and Archibald Motley. In terms of contemporary artists, I especially love Polly Nor, Mickalene Thomas, Sarah Bahbah, Kehinde Wiley, and Ignasi Monreal.

Mayanne: 1920’s / 1930’s women photographers in the US, France and Germany, Berenice Abbott, Ilse Bing, Katy Horna, Marianne Breslauer… In general, because of my research, anything that has to do with early XXth century visual culture. Don’t know if I have one particular favourite artwork, the work that got to me the most recently was Leaf of Voodoo Lily by Imogen Cunningham.

GG: do you have a personal favourite TV programme/film/music video/reality star/celebrity that you like to reference?

Chloe: Beyoncé is always fantastic because her work is so, so visually rich, with so many artistic and historical meanings, parallels, and references. I do also love to reference the Real Housewives because they are so dramatic, glamorous and ridiculous, and also I watch it all the time so the franchise is often on my mind lol.

Mayanne: I’m trying to do more cinematic parallels, I adore production/set design, and I think there are loads of art references to be uncovered in there. I think we all really like referencing artists like Beyoncé, Solange, Janelle Monáe, Lorde, etc.… because they make such stunning and well-researched music videos. At the moment, I’ve been enjoying playing around with RPDR season 10 looks.

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GG: You have also produced a journal, TAH, can you tell me a little about this came about? 

Mayanne: A great London based art collective called CWDT invited Tabloid Art History (then Chloe and Elise) to produce some works for their exhibition Wholesale Piracy at Kameo in April 2017. The idea of a zine came naturally, with CWDT suggesting we’d have a “companion guide” to go with our comparisons. We got loads of great submissions and did a first issue for the exhibition. Afterwards people asked if we were going to make it available online… So we put a call out for illustrations, and I re-designed a new one. We made it available online for free, and we created a shop where people could pre-order paper copies, with all profits going toward paying the contributors. We ended up selling more than 250 worldwide. That really informed how we organised VOL2, which is in the making now. We have some incredible visual and written work for this issue, exploring various different topics from gender identity and modelling, to activist art spaces, intersectional feminist art and the art world, Hollywood starlet and life post-Reality TV. The sale of TAH VOL2 will also go toward contributors’ fees for TAH VOL3. We paid our contributors for VOL1 on the sales, then used our funds from previous paid commissions for VOL2, so that we can make the journal self-sustaining from there on.

Chloe: I love the zine, as it gives us a chance to explore the kinds of things we’re talking about on Twitter/Insta in more depth, and bring other people on board. It is also how we met Mayanne, and tbh I have no idea how we ever did this without her! She is the queen of all things design, accounts, and logistics, the work she put in on that side of TAH really makes everything we do possible.

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GG: Are there any other art or pop culture blogs or twitter/Instagram accounts that you are big fans of?

Mayanne: @rememberthishappened, @popculturediedin2009, @everyoutfitonsatc, @kardashian_kolloquium for the pop culture, @thehairhistorian @thegreatwomenartists @blackblossomss @bihistory @workingclasshistory @artxafrica @the_corsetedbeauty for the history/art; for insta stories @macaal_ has my favourite insta stories from museums, and @alexis_co makes great stories about women history, and I love to watch @thewhitepube stories going to galleries or festival. Obviously @museummammy, and my favourite podcast co-host @aminatou makes great reading lists too. I also love out of context pages on twitter, like out of context buffy or out of context the good place, plus vintage sci-fi and vintage Hollywood pages.

Chloe: Most of my favourites are listed above, but I’ll also add in: @gabriel_held_vintage on insta, @DanNoveau from the V&A on both twitter and insta, as well as hey_reilly and @diet_prada (both on Instagram). I also love following Anna Biller (the director of my favourite film ‘The Love Witch’) on twitter, as she often gives really interesting insights into the movie making process, as well as lots of great Old Hollywood film recommendations!

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GG: is there anything exciting planned for Tabloid Art History in the near future?

Chloe: TAH VOL.2 is our most imminent exciting project! We have some other stuff in the works but that is definitely what will be taking up a lot of our time this summer.

You can follow Tabloid Art History on Twitter @TabloidArtHist and Instagram @TabloidArtHistory

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer and curator. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine, ReOrient and Suitcase Magazine. Lizzy recently curated Perpetual Movement as part of Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival 2018 in London, which was featured in Vogue Arabia and The Art Newspaper.

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