Danaïdes / Dames

Victor Burgin


Stata Center (Building 32) lobby, Wang Fitness Center

London-based artist and art theorist Victor Burgin challenges conventional notions of photography. Considered one of the founders of conceptual art in the late 1960s, he went on in the 1970s to examine the hidden meanings and relationships in familiar images or experiences, within advertising imagery, street photography, or photojournalism, which he combined with textual commentary Burgin has described a central issue in some works as “patriarchal power relations and the ‘masculine’ identity which supports them.”

He expressed this concern through an archeology of familiar representations of women in famous works of art in which he traces the complex and unstable foundations of masculine desire in and for such images. 

Danaides/Dames, a complex, multilayered observation on the process of men creating images of women, was produced while Burgin was in residence at the List Visual Arts Center, and is based on his reading of John Singer Sargent’s The Danaides (1916-24), a mural above the main stairway at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Burgin’s multi-panel work with text expands upon the Greek myth of the Danaides (49 sisters who were condemned forever to fill a leaking urn for murdering their husbands), and upon the formal characteristics, history, and location of the Sargent mural.

The colors of Burgin’s painted panel were dictated by Sargent’s limited palette of yellow and blue, its thin vertical form by the geometric bands of the Kenneth Noland mural in the Wiesner Building where Burgin created the piece. The inscribed arc refers not only to the shape of the urn and the repeated gesture of bending and pouring, but also to the traditional architectural lunette shape in which Sargent worked. The arc is balanced by two pictograms, developed by the artist on a computer. The upper graphic suggests a reaching arm, the curve of a woman’s body or her hair, or the curl of a wave. The lower pictogram, an optical illusion, perhaps a ”masculine” contrast to the soft curves above it, conveys both the unending cycle of filling the leaking urn and the notion of paradox in images and, by extension, in meaning. The central photograph, a female figure, is positioned to mimic the pictograms and assumes the status of a hieroglyph. Her posture echoes the acrobatics of the Busby Berkeley dancing girls who are said to have modeled for Sargent’s mural, and alludes to Leonardo’s well-known drawing of “Vitruvian Man,” the codification of the human form into a set of geometric conditions.

Read more about Victor Burgin






Photographs and acrylic on panels


72 in. x 126.5 in. (182.88 cm x 321.31 cm)


Gift of the Artist (following his residency at LVAC)