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The Making of a Myth

Published 5 Mar 2015 at 10:26 by Basje Boer

How do you create a myth? With words and allegorical narratives. Or you use image, with icon paintings, formal portrait photography, shocking selfies. This month I delved into divergent templates of myth-making found within the We Are Public programme, suddenly causing Scarlett Johansson’s buttocks to be intrinsically related to Amsterdam’s famous regent family and Hansel and Gretel.


With its soft colours and references to the tradition of painting, this photograph holds elements that are undeniably classic. The mirror. The female nude. The self-portrait.

Scarlett Johansson’s butt-shot belongs to the honoured gallery of selfie-classics. The actrice composed her photograph by pointing her phone towards the mirror, including her face with closed eyes on the right and her naked backside on the left: an immaculately shaped back and buttocks, her reflected legs disappearing behind her own shoulder.

At first I only saw the buttocks. I wrote the photograph off as cheap, and Johansson as attention-seeking. Only now, years later, am I able to see past the nudity. Maybe it’s because I’m more used to selfies now, also those featuring naked buttocks. Now I can see the paradox of triviality – the crooked lampshade, the spot on Johansson’s forehead, the poor quality of the phone camera – and the exceptionalism, coming from the beauty of the subject and the play with reflection.

The evening The romance of the selfie-generation is not just about the photography phenomenon; the selfie is used to typify a generation. A generation that looks at itself, a generation that is hyper-aware and self-centered. This is myth-formation in action: this is the stereotype that will define our generation, just like Scarlett Johansson’s selfie guaranteed her mythical status.

hans grietje

The theme of food forms a red thread throughout Hansel and Gretel, the tale originally written by the brothers Grimm with many different published versions. The heroes of the story, a brother and sister, are abandoned by their parents because they don’t have enough food to feed the entire family. A strategy using stones leads the way home, but the same strategy fails the next day when their trail of breadcrumbs gets eaten by birds.

Feeling faint and famished, Hansel and Gretel eventually find a house made entirely of bread and candy: an oasis in the world of the ravenous. The house turns out to be a trap, made to lure children in and be eaten by a cannibalistic witch. But the children outsmart the witch, managing to trick her into the very oven she had kindled to roast them in.

Mythical figures and stories lend themselves to interpretation. Think about fairy tales and historical figures, but also stereotypes and contemporary celebrities. Widely known personalities and one-dimensional plots are interspersed with personal insights, ideas, tastes and agendas. It is in the way that the story deviates from the original that you find the author. Hansel and Gretel have been reinvented many times; the example of Alex van Warmerdams Grimm suddenly springs to mind. The theatre group Orkater used the brother and sister tale for a wild theatrical rendition, with Annet Malherbe starring as the witch.

Machteld, Yvonne and Maurits van Loon, approx 1925, Jacob Merkelbach, courtesy Museum Van Loon

Machteld, Yvonne and Maurits van Loon, approx. 1925, Jacob Merkelbach, courtesy Museum Van Loon

Three children – two sisters and their younger brother – captured in the style of the nineteen-twenties. The girl on the left, with the resigned look of an oldest child, has hair that frames her face like a helmet, with a neat middle parting. Her sister, a Jennifer Lawrence avant la lettre, has her hair combed right across her head, with a bobby pin keeping it in place. And then the boy upfront of the photograph, his body turned so he can take refuge in the warmth of his sisters, has a short fringe. The back of his head has been neatly shaven.

The subtle signs of a smile on the face of the sister on the right speaks volumes: the mouth, the cheeks, the eyes, even the chin. The grin reveals that she’s not taking this all too seriously. The boy, his chin low, eyes wide, looks as sad as a sulking gypsy child. His sisters both place a compulsory hand above his: ‘That looks nice,’ says the photographer.

The three have been photographed close to the wall; their hair and shoulders make shadows against the white background. It makes the image flat: these are not people, but pictures. They are drawings from a children’s book, myths from the very moment the photograph was taken.

Like most important families in Amsterdam of the time, regent family Van Loon had themselves portrayed in images regularly. At first this was done by painters, and later on by photographers. Their house became a museum, and their portraits became art. Photography Museum Foam, partner of the Museum Van Loon, will exhibit these family portraits this month, all taken by the most famous photographers. The question of how to create a myth suddenly seems easily answered: by capturing your image. But how does that work in today’s world, now that your selfie gets lost in sea of selfies?

The exhibition A Family Portrayed in Foam can be visited during the weekend of 7 and 8 March for free by We Are Public members.

The performance De terugkeer van Hans en Grietje (The Return of Hansel and Gretel)by Orkater will take place on 26 March in De Meervaart and is free for We Are Public members. This performance will be in Dutch.

De romantiek van de selfie-generatie (The romance of the selfie-generation) is an evening by De Nieuwe Liefde (The New Love) and will take place on 26 March in the Felix Meritis, free for We Are Public members. This debate will be held in Dutch.

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