Jeff Wall, born in Vancouver in 1946, is a Canadian artist best known as a photographer and as an art-historical writer. He studied at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and received his MA with his thesis “Berlin Dada and the Notion of Context”. Afterwards, he worked at some universities in the field of art. He also published in 2007 essays on several contemporary artists such as Dan Graham, Ken Lum… These texts are collected in the New York Museum of Modern Art under the title of “Jeff Wall: Selected Essays and Interviews”. In 1978 he organized his first exhibition at Vancouver and presented his main oeuvre: the Destroyed Room.
His photography technique
Concerning his artistic technique, he already experimented with conceptual photography when he was an undergraduate student at UBC. It is only in 1977 that he produced his first back-light photo transparencies. His main sources of inspiration were the French poet, Charles Baudelaire and the French painter, Edouard Manet. Wall’s main objective was to recreate masterful paintings into photos. With the technique of back light, he tried to bring these masterpieces into new life. During the 1990s, Wall began to judge his work as a means of connecting film and literature with art. He started taking his pictures in the way of a Hollywood movie with large sets built for the occasion, gathered costumes and hired models. The outcome was a perfect representation of the natural world.
“The Destroyed Room”
“The Destroyed Room” is Wall’s first major work. He wanted to reconstruct the past in a photography. It depicts the violence of modern life in comparison with the ancient times. He explains that it emerged from a re-encounter with nineteenth-century art. The picture depicts a woman’s ruined room (everything is destroyed, the furniture, the floor,..). He took his inspiration from the painting "The Death of Sardanapalus” by Eugène Delacroix (1827). It represents the Assyrian monarch committing suicide with his slaves and wives after setting on fire his own city because he did not want his enemies to have his goods. The red in both the original painting and the picture represents the violent passion and the loss of control. What differs from Delacroix’s work is the absence of any characters or actions on the photography although the chaotic spread of colour and objects puts some energy in it and reminds of a recent past.
“Boy Falling From A Tree”
In “Boy Falling From A Tree”, Wall shows us a typical garden backyard: a shed, a swing hanging from a tree,… At first sight, it seems banal. However, if you look closer, we can see the lumbering figure of a boy falling from the tree. We wonder what will happen next. We are actually witnessing the moment of “just before”.
Jeff Wall is a key-icon in the art-scene for three reasons. First, he made Vancouver known by helping defining the so-called photoconceptualist paradigm. Secondly, he wrote and published many essays on the work of his contemporary colleagues such as Ian Wallace, Dan Graham, Rodney Graham,… Finally, he very often takes Vancouver’s natural beauty, urban decay and industrial featurelessness as sources of inspiration.
Charlotte Lambert and Olivia Nisolle