COMIC-BOOK HEROES have all but devoured summer cinema, and have become so pervasive in our diluted, infantilized culture that actors who get to play them have more or less won the lottery. For many Western schoolkids and teens, particularly males, they are closer to adored deities than anything that religions originating in ancient tongues and creeds can deliver. Their superpowers are exhilarating and seductive to youths constrained by adult edicts and boundaries. Unquestionably, they are a primary response to a desire, spread across social planes, for symbols of justice and do-good potency. Universally rendered in the crisp, reductive idiom of modern graphic novels, these sexy demigods are tightly calibrated to reveal whatever humanness their creators feel is necessary for addictive storytelling. They are almost too pop to be flesh, even when, as with Batman, they betray psychological depths. In his series Super Flemish, Paris-based Sacha Goldberger gives that airtight, heavily franchised world a wry twist by imagining these iconic heroes as if they had been portrayed by 16th- and 17th-century Flemish masters.

Goldberger is playing with time — historical time — and an irreverent anachronism that throws in stark relief the tropes of one era against those of another, to the point of making one seem quite alien. Ours perhaps. In translating contemporary animation and comic-book art — hard edges, pulp framing, schematic hues — into images as subtly textured as brocade fabric, he’s mixing two very different realities: one mechanical, digital, cool; the other caste-defined, opulent, tactile. Ours feels cerebral, theirs emotional. By retooling modern myth, Goldberger’s images succeed in making the heroes more vulnerably human. They make one think of Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, where an angel descends from the purity of divinity to the chaos and moral tension of being alive.

Goldberger likens his storytelling instincts to those of Edward Hopper, in that he plucks a moody and revealing moment from an imagined sequence of events. But his own personal superhero is Rembrandt, whose dramatic lighting in darkened settings he lovingly mimics. He was drawn to the Flemish Renaissance painting style not only for its innovative depiction of light and perspective, but also because it was then that kings and holy figures began to be replaced by lay citizens as subjects. Portraiture included people with whom anyone could identify. Goldberger wants us to see ourselves in our consumer-anointed gods.

After 15 years as a successful art director, where he absorbed the lessons of telling stories economically, Goldberger produced a small text-and-picture book titled the little book of i love you. Not satisfied with his visuals, he went back to school to master photography, at age 35. An art director is, in one respect, a conceptualist. Goldberger was able to draw on his experience orchestrating images compatible with editorial tastes, and bring it into his second career as a fine-art photographer working on his own concepts. “When you’re an art director, you have to find ideas for a brand, and I love that. But you have to hand those ideas over to a photographer, and he does his own personal interpretation of the idea. I thought I should try my own images.”

His first foray into the realm of the superhero was a humorous series with his 95-year-old grandmother, who modeled his notions of what happens when a superhero becomes geriatric. “It was a way of showing that even superheroes can be weak and get old.” This focus on the frailty of our modern gods made the agonized character of Batman (as in The Dark Knight) of particular interest to him. Goldberger, himself Jewish, was also interested in the connection between superheroes and the Jewish artists who created them — people like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who famously gave birth to Superman in 1938 — a response in part to the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, and the subsequent powerlessness of Hitler’s victims.

Hyperrealistic costume is what enables Goldberger’s photographs to bring to life the relatively simple concept of the Super Flemish series. The lush fabrics soften these characters, thaw them out of their cartoon chill and into the room temperature of our own lives. The rich materials used to invoke that distant era of a plumaged aristocracy oddly rescue these globally known characters from their superhero pretensions. Though the clothes were once signifiers of rank, gentility, and status, when used to dress our über–crime fighters they make them more earthbound by sheathing their anatomical perfection and suggesting lives intricately immersed in the style and mores of a specific time and place. The result is at once comedic, provocative, and memorable — like the best ads.


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