Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait: Smithsonian: National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, November 18, 2016 – May 7, 2017.

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Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait: Smithsonian: National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, November 18, 2016May 7, 2017.

Bill Viola, one of the most sought-after artists internationally, early selected a contemporary medium to address broad humanistic questions. Embracing global perspectives that include Christian theology, Zen Buddhism, and Islamic Sufi mysticism, his videos address our hybrid existence as matter and thought, our memories, empathy with others, and transitions through birth, death and aging. Organized by Asma Naeem, curator of prints, drawings and media art, in consultation with Viola’s creative partner, Kira Perov and the Bill Viola Studio, the exhibition displays eleven works that span the artist’s early career to the present. Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, expressed his delight in inviting “visitors to enter the museum’s newly created media galleries to experience portraiture in its most telling and current form: moving revelations of the human body and spirit that befit our digital age.” In the accompanying 20-page brochure, Naeern provides a contextualizing overview; the artist comments simply on the action in each piece. The viewer is encouraged to make associations, a direction Viola advocated in an earlier interview: “images have their life because they’re untethered and free floating”

Bill Viola and the making of Emergence by Mark Kidel, 2003.

Part 1


Part 2

Viola’s understanding of European and Eastern religious sensibilities is profound, thus his works transcend the superficial or didactic. They enable encounters among cultures – distant in time or geographic location – and ourselves. He grew up in the environs of Metropolitan New York and in 1973 received a BFA in Experimental Studies from Syracuse University. After an eighteen-month residence in Florence as technical director of production for Art/Tapes/22, one of the first video art studios in Europe, he recorded traditional performing arts in the Solomon Islands, Java, Bali, and Japan and was subsequently awarded a U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellowship. For a year and a half Viola and his Australian-born wife Kira Perov, an arts director, lived in Japan and studied Zen Buddhism under Master Daien Tanaka. Viola’s work has always been a reciprocal exploration of the creative and technical, a direction that was supported by a subsequent stay as artist-in-residence at Sony Corporation’s Atsugi Laboratories. Viola and Perov returned to the U. S. at the end of 1981 and settled in Long Beach, California.

This trajectory associates Viola with another artist, the British sculptor Antony Gormley. After graduating from Trinity College in 1971 Gormley traveled through Turkey, Syria and Afghanistan to ultimately spend almost three years in India. He considered becoming a Buddhist monk but made the decision to “come back to my own culture and bring into it whatever realizations that I had had” (Imagine: Antony Gormley – Being Human). Gormley won the Turner prize with a collection of his work, including Field where ultimately thousands of small humanoid images were molded in clay by individuals globally. For both artists, imaging the self (Gormley used body casts in many works) is a means of connecting to the universal. Both often set the human body in landscape and evoke the ancient four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. For example, Viola’s Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) of 2014 is now in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Gifted to the Tate Modern by the Viola Studio, the work is on long-term loan. American audiences this fall were able to see the series at the Presidio in Francisco.

Water, however, may be Viola’s most familiar element, used as both medium and symbol in many of the works on view in Washington. The exhibition’s earliest piece, The Reflecting Pool, 1977 – 79, is a self -portrait exploring the notion of the perception of reality and of the passage of time. Grainy and in soft focus, it also reminds us of the innovations developed by Viola and his team that now include high-definition LCD and plasma screens. A room-sized work, The Dreamers, 2013, uses seven plasma screens to portray people underwater in repose, fully clothed and with their eyes closed; calm, peaceful, yet somehow vital and self-possessed. In conjunction with the exhibition, The Portrait Gallery has purchased Viola’s Self Portrait, Submerged, 2013.

The Raft, May 2004, Video/sound installation. Photo: Kira Perov © Bill Viola.

The Raft, May 2004, Video/sound installation. Photo: Kira Perov © Bill Viola.

Théodore Géricault (Rouen, 1791 - Paris, 1824) The Raft of the Medusa, oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre.

Théodore Géricault (Rouen, 1791 – Paris, 1824)
The Raft of the Medusa, oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre.

The Raft, 2004, portrays water as a protagonist. Individuals of different races ethnicities, genders and ages appear to be waiting for urban transport. Some arrive later, pushing aside several who were already waiting; one woman greets another. The group is suddenly battered by torrents of water; some individuals fall to the ground, other struggle, and ultimately these separate persons coalesce in compassionate interaction. The Raft’s compositional structure evokes a touchstone of nineteenth-century painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1881-1819) by Théodore Géricault, now in the Louvre. 1.

Viola’s interest in medieval and Renaissance art, nourished in Florence, was augmented by a 1998 guest scholar residency at the Getty Research Institute. The artist recalls his attraction to the multivalent complexity of paintings such as Dieric Bouts’ Annunciation, c. 1445-1455, or The Dream of Pope Sergius, Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, late 1430s, where we encounter a protagonist in different actions and places simultaneously. In 2003, the Getty Museum exhibited Viola’s subsequent works collectively entitled “The Passions.” Four of the series are in the Washington show, including Dolorosa and Catherine’s Room, both from 2001.

Dolorosa, 2000. Video diptych © Bill Viola. Photo The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu.

Dolorosa, 2000. Video diptych © Bill Viola. Photo The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu.

Dolorosa evokes the devotion diptych tradition where the sorrowing Mother of God (Mater Dolorosa) confronts her wounded son. The youthful woman with russet hair and the darker male broaden the traditional theme of reciprocity of male/female, mother/son, and creator/created to one of ethnic inclusiveness.

Catherine’s Room, 2001. Video polyptych. Photo Kira Perov © Bill Viola.

Catherine’s Room, 2001. Video polyptych. Photo Kira Perov © Bill Viola.

Catherine’s Room, consisting of five small screens, evokes Italian quattrocento narratives. Viola has cited a series of paintings by the Sienese artist Andrea di Bartolo.2 Catherine is both a contemporary woman and Catherine of Siena, the fourteenth-century mystic who mediated between the people and the papacy. The eighteen-minute work presents four traditional stages of the day, morning, noon, afternoon, and evening that simultaneously depict the passage of the seasons and stages of life. In the fifth scene Catherine goes to sleep, an addition that suggests transcendence and an ultimate detachment from the cycle of mortality.

This reciprocity with the past will be highlighted in a retrospective of Viola’s work from March 10 through July 23, 2017 at the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. The city’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo will extend the venue by exhibiting Observance, 2002, a piece that considers the grief prompted after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and Acceptance, 2008 which addresses suffering. The two videos will be in dialogue with two iconic works of Renaissance sculpture, Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene and Michelangelo’s Bandini Pietà

One of Viola’s most contemplative pieces in the Washington exhibition is Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity, 2013. We see full-length images of an elderly woman and man projected onto two separate slabs of black granite. They examine their naked bodies with a small light. In an interview with Jean-Jacques Gay (May 20, 2014, Turbulences Video) Viola spoke his fascination with the essential nature of transformation. Although it continually operates outside of our perception, it permits us to evolve. This process is conditioned by what we see, what we say, what we know, and above all through the errors we make. It is our recognition of these errors that allows us to mutate and become something more. In Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity, for almost nineteen minutes we see ourselves as ephemeral projections merging with the gleam of polished stone. The minute examination of the body is reflective of our limits, but also possibilities. However we reach outward in the search for understanding, the process starts with the self. Ultimately the figures pause, then fade in hue to merge with the grey-black granite. Viola states that “thankful for life, they gradually dissolve back into the stone from where they came.” (Brochure)

For further study see:

the Website – Bill Viola
as well as pubications: Kira Perov editor, John Hanhardt, author, Bill Viola, 296 pages 400 plus illustrations, Thames & Hudson, 2015. John Walsh, with discussion between Hans Belting and the artist, Bill Viola: The Passions, Oxford University Press, 2003.
Michael Mack, ed., introduction and chapter texts by Antony Gormley, Antony Gormley (Göttingen: SteidlMack, 2007).


  1. Such crossovers have long been a part of Viola’s art. The Greeting, 1995 (Whitney Museum of American Art, not in Washington) that shows two women in colorful, flowing garments embracing was inspired by Jacopo Pontormo’s Visitation, the pregnant Mary greeted by her cousin Elizabeth, painted about 1528 (Church of San Michele Arcangelo, Carmignano)
  2.  examples of his works reside in the National Gallery.
About the author

Virginia Raguin

Virginia Chieffo Raguin, Ph.D. Yale University, is professor of Art History at the College of the Holy Cross. She has published widely on religion, stained glass and architecture including Stained Glass from its Origins to the Present with Abrams (USA) and Thames and Hudson (GB) in 2003. A member of the International Corpus Vitrearum, she has co-authored Stained Glass before 1700 in the Midwest United States (Harvey Miller Press, London, 2002). Most recently she edited Art, Piety, and Destruction in the Christian West, 1500–1700, Ashgate, 2010. Her museum exhibits have included Glory in Glass: Stained Glass in the United States: Origin, Variety and Preservation 1998-99, and Reflections on Glass: 20th Century Stained Glass in American Art and Architecture, 2002-03, at the Gallery at the American Bible Society, and, most recently Pilgrimage and Faith: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam a traveling exhibition to appear in Worcester, Chicago, Richmond, and The Rubin Museum of Art, New York from 2010 through 2011. She also wrote the catalogue essay for Kiki Smith’s recent exhibition in the Pace Gallery, New York: Kiki Smith: Lodestar, 2010.

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