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TOM HUNTER – Living in Hell and Other Stories

Currently exhibiting at The National Gallery is an east London artist depicting real life stories taken from The Hackney Gazette.

Tom Hunter tells these stories using carefully staged, large format photographs, restaging them in compositions that often directly refer to classic paintings of the past, many of the paintings to which Hunter has referred for his compositions can be found in the National Gallery. Using his friends as models, Hunter directs them to use gestures, body language and facial expressions in the same way as the characters seen in paintings by historic artists.

For Batter or Worse by Tom Hunter
Left: The Fight between the Lapiths and the Centaurs piero di cosimo c. 11500-15 (The National Gallery, London)

Hunter first came to public attention in 1998, when he won the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award, with a photograph entitled Woman Reading a Possession Order. With its meticulously arranged composition and sensitively captured light, it is a direct quotation from Vermeer’s painting, A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden). Hunters reputation was further established with a series of engaging, puzzling and compelling photographic re-workings of other paintings from the past. They provoke thoughts about issues that are relevant in our everyday lives, however shocking.

Girls’ Sex Acts in Club: Court. Cop ‘It can only be described as having sex through clothes’

Living in Hell and Other Stories continues Hunters’ interest in the stories of inner-city life that take place in his own locality, having lived in Hackney since the age of 19. Tom Hunter is not a photo journalist. His photographs are not literal reconstructions of the actual events. It is not the specific details of the story that attract him; rather it is the idea of a story that is provoked by the eye-catching headline. The idea of turning to his local press as a source for inspiration was suggested by the example of Thomas Hardy. Thomas, like hunter, was born and brought up in Dorset and would trawl through back copies of his local paper to find the stories of public hangings, wife selling and other unlikely events that he eventually wrote about in his novels.

Murder: Two Men Wanted

‘Living in Hell’ was the headline printed in The Hackney Gazette above the story of a 74-year-old woman whose house was infested with vermin. Borrowing from the National Gallery’s Four Figures at a Table by the Le Nain brothers, Hunter composed a photograph with the help of a retired actress and several hundred cockroaches bought over the internet. The Le Nains’ paintings of around 1643 show a woman and children in a modest peasant interior. She has the expression of a care-worn older woman tempered with a quiet sense of self-respect; in Hunters 2005 version the woman has no companions, she is alone. She sits wrapped up against the cold, the electric heater switched off. The sofa is filthy and worn, decaying food lies uneaten. A naked electric light bulb illuminates the room and shows literally hundreds of cockroaches crawling over every surface. This harsh lighting starkly reveals her shocking fate. The Le Nain’s dignified poverty is ripped from its original 17th century context and in 2005, becomes brutally undignified.

A Satyr mourning over a Nymph

National Gallery paintings depict the eternal themes of love, sex, violence, life and death and Tom Hunter has used these and reflected on them in an uncompromisingly contemporary way. He has turned newspaper headlines into commentaries on both the modern world in which we live and the classic themes seen represented throughout the National Gallery.

Cupid complaining to Venus by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1525
(the National Gallery, London)
Girls’ Sex Acts in Club: Court. Cop ‘It can only be described as having sex through clothes’

Tom Hunter : Living in Hell and Other Stories
Until 12 March
The National Gallery
Trafalgar Square
London, WC2N 5DN
Tel: 020 7747 2885
Admission Free



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