Bid on the Bard: Joanne Tod's Re-presentation of the Sanders Portrait
In May 2006 CASP researcher Maxwell Summerlee had a chance to visit Joanne Tod at her studio apartment in downtown Toronto to discuss her rendition of the Sanders Portrait and the eBay campaign she launched for the painting’s release.
Joanne Tod's 2001 rendition (left) of the Sanders Portrait (right) dated to 1603
Joanne Tod says she consciously makes an effort to keep abreast of what is popular and trendy. The large, colourful canvases that adorn her studio-apartment walls speak to this trend, offering life sized representations of Chinese runway models, Princess Diana and even David Eisenhower and Julie Nixon-Eisenhower shaking hands with Chairman Mao. Our conversation touches on the direction of pop music and the treatment of women in rap music videos, urban sprawl, and marriage; anything but the notorious portrait of William Shakespeare hanging in her studio storage space a floor below.
Joanne Tod in her Toronto studio
In 2001 a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario inspired Tod to paint her own version of the Sanders Portrait of William Shakespeare. When the owner Loyd Sullivan first revealed the Sanders painting as a possible genuine portrait of Shakespeare there was much skepticism about its authenticity. Since then, dozens of forensic tests have positively confirmed that the image was painted in 1603 making it a viable contender in the Shakespeare portrait authenticity debate.
It was the presentation of the Sanders Portrait in the media and the initial reaction by the public that inspired Tod’s ‘re-presentation’. Painted in only two days, the work screams of its modernity complete with ‘Ano 2001’ inscribed in the upper right-hand corner—the addition of the date being the modernizing factor, not the use of Latin. This representational painting isn’t out of character for Joanne Tod, who is well known for ‘re-presenting’ images and infusing them with political and cultural statements. Tod meant the painting to be a comment on identity and authenticity, not a farce on Sullivan’s authenticity claim. In fact, Tod has no doubt in her mind that the Sander’s portrait is the true likeness of Shakespeare, “I could tell that it was Shakespeare when I saw the red, wispy beard. I just knew.” Like many others, Tod spoke of the intensity of Shakespeare’s gaze in the Sander’s painting, something that translated well to a stark white canvas in 2001.
The release of Joanne’s painting of the bard was coupled with an eBay campaign, launched on 8 September, 2001. The campaign, entitled “Bid on the Bard,” was accompanied by postcards and ads with full colour reproductions of Tod’s bard but was quick lived due to the tragic events of that fall, “I withdrew the painting before the bidding period was even up. I felt silly”. Now, over five years later, Tod is in no hurry to re-release the painting, aware that this might be seen as commercially motivated, especially with the gathering interest surrounding the 2006 Searching for Shakespeare exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
A flyer from the 2001 eBay campaign
Although Tod is wary of inciting criticism for commercial motivation, her re-portrait of Shakespeare does invariably raise questions about commercial value versus cultural value, as well as issues of authenticity. Valuation and evaluation of art has always been problematic, especially since the advent of new and more advanced technology that allows for greater duplication and proliferation of art, the common example being the duplication of the Mona Lisa: more people have seen duplicated images of the Mona Lisa than have seen the original painting hanging in the Musée du Louvre. Thus, Tod’s painting comments on the questionable authenticity and questionable value of the Sander’s portrait: Does the Sanders Portrait represent a true likeness of William Shakespeare? If so, what value should be assigned to it: one that reflects the important cultural value or one that represents its commercial value and the endless spin-off profits? Some estimates have put value of the Sanders portrait in the tens of millions, but what does that reflect? Tod’s ‘Bard’ raises all these questions and more, specifically who will decide which portrait is the ‘true’ likeness of William Shakespeare and then, what kind of monetary value it will be assigned and what that value will reflect?
The ‘Bid on the Bard’ campaign most directly addresses traditional notions of who assigns value to art, who can buy it and how available it is. On the Internet there is no discrimination in the sale of art and by creating this virtual campaign Tod engaged a new and unique forum for valuing and selling high-art. The campaign also helped to distribute the Sanders image to a wider audience, exposing more people to yet another image of Shakespeare in the hopes of stimulating critical judgment about each contender’s supposed and asserted authenticity and value. Creating a re-portrait of the Sanders Portrait was a risk Tod was willing to make, clearly asserting her own opinion about its authenticity and value, by valuing her two-day duplicate at the significant opening bid of $1000.
The final price of the Sanders Portrait may never be decided upon as there is still so much doubt surrounding its authenticity. The claim hasn't been helped by the ongoing 'Searching for Shakespeare' exhibit, which has done nothing to shed light on any of the portrait's claims, making the quest for truth more and more like an impossible treasure hunt. Arguably, there is too much at stake (culturally) for the British to concede that a Canadian owns a true likeness of the Shakespeare and that perhaps, their own highly valued Chandos Portrait is possibly inauthentic.
We may never know which portrait is the 'real' Shakespeare, but perhaps that isn't important. After all, it is the Bard's language and words that have had the most profound effect on the cultures and societies that have studied him, not images of what he looked like. However, Joanne Tod’s campaign and painting does not comment on the language of Shakespeare but on the importance we as Canadians attach to Shakespeare’s image and the motivations behind that need, engaging the ever-growing debate about Shakespeare’s cultural capital versus his commercial value. As long as artists like Joanne Tod continue to bring interesting critical lenses to the debate, there can be some hope that people will be a little more critical of the need to authenticate Shakespeare's likeness.
Michael Dobson. "And That Rug!" London Review of Books 25.21 (6 Nov. 2003)
Ryan Vernan. "A new image of Shakespeare?"
Marie-Claude Corbeil. "The Scientific Examination of the Sanders Portrait of William Shakespeare."
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Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. University of Guelph. 2004.