A Portrait of a Saint Is Reincarnated in Milwaukee

This article is part of our Museums special section about how institutions are striving to offer their visitors more to see, do and feel.

For nearly 66 years, the centuries-old painting of a shadowy, cloaked figure holding a skull, his face unseen, on a canvas almost seven feet tall, has hung prominently at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Titled “Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb,” it is a striking portrait by the Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán, (1598-1664). Part of the museum’s permanent collection, it has long transfixed visitors to the museum.

It remains a major attraction here. But now, it has taken on a new life.

The British multimedia artist Idris Khan, in his first solo U.S. museum show, “Idris Khan: Repeat After Me,” features a new work called “After the Tomb” that uses a complicated process and advanced software to create his version of the painting.

“After the Tomb” looks nothing like the original — from far away, the collaged work on paper looks like a grouped series of colorful abstractions.

But it is embedded with the DNA of the older painting in a way that Khan finds meaningful.

The museum’s director, Marcelle Polednik, curated Khan’s show, which has more than 70 works and remains on view until Aug. 11.

She suggested to Khan that he focus on the Zurbarán work in particular, as she saw such activation of the museum’s trove as part of her mission.

“I came here because of the collection,” Polednik told me when I arrived for a visit in February. “My battle cry has been, ‘Let’s activate it in a way that connects everybody to these works.’”

She added, “One of the ways we can do that is by working with contemporary artists, who see these works in ways that we don’t.”

For a former Milwaukean like myself, “St. Francis” is no ordinary oil painting. It scared the heck out of me as a child. When I was growing up in the local suburbs, school or family visits to the museum meant gingerly peering around the corner to see if it was still there, haunting and implacable. It always was.

“It’s our calling card,” Polednik said, noting that the Zurbarán was the first European work to enter the collection, in the 1950s, and ranks as one of its best-known works (alongside the 1971 Alex Katz dog painting, “Sunny #4.”).

In a way, the painting stands in for a major asset of the museum, its permanent collection, which has more than 30,000 works and particular strengths in areas like German Expressionism, folk and self-taught art and 20th-century Haitian work, in addition to its trove of modern and contemporary art.

Polednik added that when “St. Francis” was removed briefly for conservation recently, its absence “caused a quick tremor” among school docents and others who expected it to always be there.

On my visit, Polednik met me in front of the Zurbarán. My fear had turned to awe at the artistic skill it took to create it.

We marveled at the painting’s power, stemming partly from its perfectly triangular composition, and we noticed the distinct shadow on the right side, which is difficult to see if you are looking at it in a reproduction from a book or online.

The only area of impasto — a thick accretion of paint — is on the left side of the skull, from an unseen light source off to the side, a detail that was lost on me as a child.

It’s the kind of detail that Khan, 45, has prized since the beginning of his career. Activating older works has become his métier.

Wearing an apron in his studio, he talked on a video call from London about his earliest art-making years, studying photography at the Royal College of Art. He had a slow start.

“I was completely frozen that first year at school,” Khan said. “I didn’t take a single picture.”

But he had an “aha” moment.

“I started looking at things that came before me,” Khan said. “An idea came to me about layering time, looking at pictures that preceded me and making something new out of something old.”

In the earliest pieces in the show, from 2004, he used various series by the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher — known for spare photographs of structures like water towers — as a launching point, taking pictures of their pictures and overlaying them on each other, creating a blurry image that seems to be “spinning or melting,” he said.

Blurring the origins and methods he uses has become one of his signatures. Khan found he liked that uncertainty on the part of the viewer.

“People question if they’re looking at a drawing or a painting or a photograph, and I like that kind of deception,” he said. “It’s a thread that goes through the exhibition.”

Khan’s methods have gotten more elaborate over the years, culminating in “After the Tomb,” one of five collaged works on paper made for the Milwaukee exhibition.

Although Khan described himself as a “nonpracticing Muslim,” he said that the religious devotion in “Saint Francis” was one facet that drew him in. “It has a spirituality to it,” he said. (The tomb of St. Francis — the patron saint of animals and Italy, who devoted himself to the poor — has been a place of veneration for Catholics.)

Each of the five new commissions is based on reproductions of an old master painting, and each is made up of smaller component parts that are hung together; Khan calls them “grid works.”

Two beloved Dutch masterpieces also served as inspiration — Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665) and Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” (1642) — as well as paintings by Caspar David Friedrich and Caravaggio, which are all in museum collections elsewhere.

Picking up a brush and painting his own version of the Zurbarán would have been a lot simpler than the process Khan used, which stemmed from a deep interest in music. He said he asked himself, “What does a painting sound like?”

To that end, Khan took a reproduction of the painting and scanned it into a sound software program that analyzes the tone and color density. That is the basis for both the background colors and the visible musical notations that the viewer can see up close; Khan calls the notations a “score.” The notations are stamped into the work, and then collaged with other sheet music.

Khan’s method highlighted the brown of St. Francis’s robe and the mustard yellow of the reflected light — the area of impasto I noted with Polednik.

“When you look at my version, there’s a little more hope in it,” he said. “It’s less dark.”

Khan said he might take that to its logical endpoint someday in the future. “The goal is to create pieces of music to listen to while looking at my work — but we’re not there yet,” he said. “I do want to take it further.”

Polednik has her own possible plan, which would entail replacing “St. Francis” with “After the Tomb” temporarily, and then putting the Zurbarán back, to see how visitors’ perceptions change. She has also toyed with the idea of someday hanging them side by side.

I was lost in my own thoughts about “St. Francis” when a school group of 4th graders showed up near the older painting. I asked them what they thought of it, and the responses included, “depressing,” “Halloween,” “wizard” and “he looks thirsty.”

The group’s adult guide explained that it was a “memento mori”: Something to remind us that life is short. One student replied that even after the explanation, the painting was “still creepy.”

I think they got the point.

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