What on earth does a contemporary Australian photo media artist have in common with an eighteenth century English painter? An inspection of Anne Zahalka’s photograph Untitled (mouse), with a bit of help from google, soon shows us the answer: a woman named Ann Ford. Thomas Gainsborough painted Miss Ford’s portrait in 1760; Zahalka appropriated it in 2001.
Since her graduate degrees in art, Zahalka had been mining the pages of art history to visually readdress works of the old masters, a post-modernist reaction to the way in which her predecessors depicted their subjects within the confines of traditional portraiture. In the mid-1980s the arc of her ideas began to form. The Australian artist first received broad recognition for her series Resemblance, photographic works where she restaged scenes found in iconic Northern European (15th – 17th century) paintings—such as Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait. From orchestrating the images of the Flemish and the Dutch, she turned to scanning old masters’ portraits, then set about rubbing out their subjects’ heads. In an interview she said, “By denying the significance of the face through its erasure, I wanted to show how the body, hands and objects continue to project character, power and meaning. This involved a stripping away so that the gesture might exist as a ‘sign.’” But afterward she still saw, it seems, room for misinterpretation on part of the viewer. She noted, “We project onto portraits what we want to see.” And by 2001, she obliterated the gestures of the sitter as well; she cropped Ann Ford at her knees. She added an unexpected single element: a tiny white mouse.
If you take a peek at Gainsborough’s original you’ll see Miss Ford (later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse) surrounded by a stack of musical scores and a couple of stringed instruments. As proper and prim as she appears, we’re told the twenty-three-year-old English lady was not exactly a lady. In the eighteenth century she was considered a ‘demirep,’ or a woman with a ‘half-reputation.’ Miss Ford was notorious for being combative, for performing her viola da gamba in public; her father even had her arrested. Twice. Gainsborough himself inordinately talented and unconventional ‘expressed solidarity’ with her; he, with Miss Ford’s input, gifted her image with the very things that made her critics crazy: her music and her French dress; he posed her ‘unladylike,’ her legs are crossed. She was a young society woman who was “navigating a changing world through skill and wit,”—a perfect segue I find, give or take a couple of centuries, to Zahalka and her Untitled (mouse). In the tiny rodent’s forthright yet halting presence the contemporary artist captures what Ann Ford represented without the need to see her face; the mouse too imbues the work with the bit of humor that Gainsborough’s painting has lost on us today.
 Naomi Cass, Director of the Centre of Contemporary Photography, in conversation with Anne Zahalka, “Hall of Mirrors, Anne Zahalka Portraits 1987-2007,” National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia.
 Christopher Knight, “Art review: ‘Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman’ at the San Diego Museum of Art,” Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2011.
Additional sources: Anne Zahalka website; “Portrait Painting in England, 1600–1800,” Metropolitan Museum of Art; Exhibition Catalogue, “Objects In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear: Anne Zahalka in Conversation With Curator Karra Rees,” 2007; Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.
(Image: Untitled (mouse), 2001, by Anne Zahalka, color print on canvas, 14 x 14 in., reproduced for non-commercial use only.)