We did a historical art analysis of Halsey’s 13-minute performance video at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here is what we found

Pop singer Halsey unveiled the artwork for her new album last week If I can’t have love I want power in a 13-minute video set at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The video shows the 26-year-old singer, who is expecting a child with screenwriter Alev Aydin’s boyfriend, strolling through the museum’s European art galleries wearing a silver bodysuit and ocher veil.

Throughout the video, she stops to observe various paintings, mainly of the Virgin Mary. Aside from the singer, the galleries seem empty and the only soundtrack is the ambient noise of the singer moving through the museum.

At the end, she appears at the foot of the museum’s main staircase, where she removes a red drapery to reveal a monumental-scale photograph of herself by photographer Lucas Garrido. The photograph captures Halsey seated on a golden throne, wearing a blue gown and an elaborate crown. One of her breasts is bare and a baby (not hers) is sitting on her lap.

The image is of course strongly reminiscent of the representations of the Virgin Mary that we have just observed in the rooms of the museum.

In a Instagram post, the singer explained that her fourth studio album, produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is “a concept album about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth.”

“It was very important to me that the cover conveys the feeling of my trip over the past few months. The Madonna and Whore dichotomy, ”she wrote. “This cover image celebrates pregnant and postpartum bodies as something beautiful to admire. We have a long way to go to eradicate social stigma around the body and breastfeeding.

Halsey isn’t the first musician to feature artwork, or even a museum, in a video. In January of this year, FKA Twigs debuted “Do not judge me,“which featured Kara Walker’s sculptural fountain Fons Americanus, exhibited at the Tate Modern in London. Most importantly, Beyoncé and Jay-Z filmed their 2018 music video, “Apeshit,”At the Louvre in front of (among other works) the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo (the video was also credited with high attendance at the museum).

Still, Halsey’s video is unique in that it focuses primarily on the artwork, not as a backdrop for her own musical performance. The weirdness of the video made us wonder what all this means.

We’ve identified a few observations from art history that may help you better understand what Halsey is looking for.


Tap into the worship of the Virgin (and her sacred and profane nature)

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child (ca. 1290-1300)

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Virgin and Child (c. 1290–1300)

Throughout Christian history, theologians have debated the dual human and divine nature of the Virgin, and works of art have often reflected these changing understandings.

As early as the 2nd century AD, the Virgin Mary was described as a so-called “second Eve” who, by accepting her anointed role as Mother of God, served to balance Eve’s original sin in the Garden of Eden .

While it may be simplistic to present Mary as “Madonna” as opposed to Eve as “whore,” these tensions have been combated by theologians for centuries, with debates over her sinlessness, virginity, and regeneration as a result. as a form of shifting idolatry. overtime.

During the 12th and 13th centuries (and largely inspired by the writings of theologians such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux), the Virgin Mary began to be seen as an accessible intercessor between sinful humanity and a just God, resulting in an overabundance of ‘Marian images that endured until the Renaissance (the proliferation of “Notre Dame” testifies to this period known as the cult of the Virgin).

Halsey stops to view several medieval and Renaissance works that capture this dichotomy of the maternal and ethereal qualities of the Virgin. The most notable is Duccio di Buoninsegna Madonna and Child (circa 1290–1300), a masterpiece of early Renaissance art that transforms the Virgin from a static and untouchable icon into an emotional figure – what Met curator Keith Christiansen described as his new “human dimension”.

Duccio imbues the work with his new humanity by emphasizing the dimensionality of his figure and the sadness of his face, linking his body to the bodily realm.

Giovanni di Paolo, Madonna and Child with Saints (1454).  Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Giovanni di Paulo, Madonna and Child with Saints (1454). Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The image captures what Halsey seeks to represent in itself. “Me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can coexist peacefully and powerfully, ”she wrote in her Instagram post.

Other works in the video similarly evoke these tensions between the divine and the human. In by Luca Della Robbia Madonna and Child with Parchment (ca. 1455), the artist tenderly depicts the Virgin and Child but uses white enamelled terracotta to recall classical antiquity and a kingdom from another world “out of reach”.

In the same way, that of Giovanni Bellini Madonna and Child (late 1480s) remove the “cloth of honor” – the cloth often draped behind the Virgin and Child in paintings — at reveal a landscape caught between winter and spring, an earthly metaphor of death and resurrection.

Reinvented heroines

Esther d'Artemisia Gentileschi before Ahasuerus.  Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery 621.

Artemisia Gentileschi Esther before Ahasuerus (1628-30). Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery 621.

Two of the images Halsey stops at are not depictions of the Virgin Mary, and both are worth noting.

One is that of Guido Reni Charity, which shows a nursing woman with three children in an ancient symbol of virtue. The other is that of Artemisia Gentileschi Esther before Ahasuerus, one of the artist’s most ambitious paintings of the 17th century.

Here, Gentileschi shows the Jewish heroine Esther passed out after begging her husband, King Ahasuerus of Persia, to avoid the slaughter of the Jewish people, a move that would put her in danger of death. Esther’s petition from the Jewish people has sometimes been interpreted as a precursor of the Old Testament to Mary’s intercession on behalf of humanity before God.

What’s interesting here is that rather than describing a historical event, Gentileschi turned the biblical tale into a contemporary theatrical tale, with a dramatic light cast on Esther, who wears an elegant 17th-century dress. In this way, Halsey interferes in The Gentileschi lineage of bringing historical heroines into the contemporary moment through a process of artistic creation.

A renewal of the breastfeeding Madonna

The album cover for

The “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power” album cover shows the 26-year-old singer as the Madonna and Child enthroned.

At the end of the video, Halsey appears at the foot of the main staircase at the Met and pulls down a red velvet coat to reveal her new album cover.

The Lucas Garrido the photograph strongly refers to one of the most memorable images in the history of art: The Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels of Diptych Melun by the French court painter Jean Fouquet.

In this strange picture, the Madonna is pictured on an elaborate golden throne, wearing an intricate crown and blue robe. One breast is bare and the infant Jesus is depicted on her knees.

This image, which is not in the Met’s collection but rather the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, is a special amalgamation of the “Madonna and whore” dynamic mentioned by Halsey in her Instagram post.

The Virgin in this image is seen as a disguised portrait of Agnès Sorel, the mistress of King Charles VII, who was considered one of the most beautiful women of her age.

Jean Fouquet, Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels (right wing of the diptych) also known as the Melun diptych.  Courtesy of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

Jean Fouquet, Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels (right wing of the diptych) also known as the Diptych Melun. Courtesy of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

The iconography of the image is also important in understanding Halsey’s album cover.

This image is known as virgin lactans—a representation of the breastfeeding of the Virgin. In the 12th century, virgin lactans became popular amid the rise of Marian imagery; the milk of the Virgin was often interpreted as the life-giving precursor of the blood of Christ, which grants eternal life.

Such pictures, painted at a time when most wealthy women hired nannies, aligned the Virgin with more ordinary women. Such imagery fell out of favor, however, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent for reasons of decorum – a change whose repercussions still exist to this day.

In this way, the topless image of Halsey is reminiscent of the earlier exhilarations of “pregnant and postpartum bodies as something beautiful to be admired “in its attempt, as she put it,” to eradicate social stigma around the body and breastfeeding.

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Patrick F. Williams

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