Crossing the Delaware

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

Recycle. That is what I thought when I saw Annie Leibovitz’s recent photo shoot of Stephen Colbert, recreating the iconic painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851, oil on canvas, 379 x 648 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s (1816-1868) composition represented the decisive and bold act of General Washington that led to victory at the Battle of Trenton (December 26, 1776) during the American Revolution. Its imaginative recreation, casting the faux conservative and influential TV comedian Stephen Colbert in the role of the would-be leader of the nation, trivializes the action by comparison (Colbert is depicted crossing his desktop with the aid of what are probably his assistants). The irony and subversive mood of the piece is directed as much against the iconic status of the original itself, an image countlessly reproduced, as it is against Colbert himself, or rather the persona that he inhabits.

This is one of the most culturally productive ways art, especially past (or museum) art, can be used today. By recycling, I understand the process whereby an artwork is recreated from an original source, using different media, addressing new audiences, and creating new contexts for its diffusion, reception and consumption. It is also a sign of a healthy irreverence towards artworks, cultural institutions and authority (cultural as well as political), and although this example is a glossy commercial product more than anything else, I heartily welcome the spirit in which it was conceived.