We did an art historical analysis of Halsey’s 13-minute performance video at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here’s what we found


Last week, pop singer Halsey unveiled the cover art for her new album If I can’t have love, I want power in a 13-minute video set at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The video shows the 26-year-old singer, who is expecting a child with her boyfriend screenwriter Alev Aydin, strolling through the museum’s European art galleries dressed in a silver bodysuit and ocher veil.

Throughout the video, she stops to observe various paintings, mainly of the Virgin Mary. Aside from the singer, the galleries seem empty and the only soundtrack is the ambient noise of the singer moving through the museum.

At the end, she appears at the foot of the museum’s main staircase, where she pulls back a red drapery to reveal a monumental-scale photograph of herself by photographer Lucas Garrido. The photograph captures Halsey seated on a golden throne, wearing a blue dress and an elaborate crown. One of her breasts is bare and a baby (not hers) is sitting on her lap.

The image of course strongly recalls the representations of the Virgin Mary that we have just observed in the halls of the museum.

In a Instagram post, the singer explained that her fourth studio album, produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is “a concept album about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth”.

“It was very important to me that the cover conveyed the feeling of my journey over the last few months. The dichotomy of Madonna and Harlot,” she wrote. “This cover image celebrates the bodies of the pregnant woman and postpartum as something beautiful, to be admired. We have a long way to go to eradicate the social stigma around bodies and breastfeeding.

Halsey isn’t the first musician to feature works of art, or even a museum, in a video. In January of this year, FKA Twigs debuted”Do not judge me,which featured Kara Walker’s sculptural fountain Funds Americanus, on display at the Tate Modern in London. And most famously, Beyoncé and Jay-Z filmed their 2018 music video, “Apeshit,at the Louvre in front of (among other works) the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo (the video has also been credited with boosting museum attendance).

Yet Halsey’s video is unique in that it focuses primarily on artwork, not as a backdrop for her own musical performance. The weirdness of the video has us wondering what it all means.

We’ve pinpointed a few art history observations that may help you better understand what Halsey is looking for.

Tap into the cult of the Virgin (and her sacred and profane nature)

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child (circa 1290-1300)

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child (circa 1290-1300)

Throughout Christian history, theologians have debated the dual human and divine nature of the Virgin, and works of art have often reflected these changing understandings.

As early as the 2nd century, the Virgin Mary was described as a so-called “second Eve” who, through acceptance of her anointed role as Mother of God, served to balance Eve’s original sin in the garden of Eden.

Although it may be simplistic to present Mary as “Madonna” in opposition to Eve as “whore”, these tensions have been fought by theologians for centuries, with debates about her impeccability, virginity and regeneration as a form change of idolatry. overtime.

During the 12th and 13th centuries (and inspired in large part by the writings of theologians such as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux), the Virgin Mary began to be seen as an accessible intercessor between sinful humanity and a just God, which led to an overabundance of Marian images which lasted until the Renaissance (the multiplication of “Notre Dames” testifies to this period known as the Cult of the Virgin).

Halsey pauses to observe several medieval and Renaissance works that capture this dichotomy of motherly and ethereal qualities of the Virgin. Most notable is by Duccio di Buoninsegna Madonna and Child (ca. 1290-1300), a masterpiece of early Renaissance art that transforms the Virgin from a static, untouchable icon to an emotive figure – as Met curator Keith Christiansen has described as its new “human dimension”.

Duccio imbues the work with his new humanity by emphasizing the dimensionality of his silhouette and the sadness of his face, linking his body to the corporeal realm.

Giovanni di Paolo, Madonna and Child with Saints (1454).  Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Giovanni di Paolo, Madonna and Child with Saints (1454). Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The image captures what Halsey aims to represent in itself. “Me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can peacefully and powerfully coexist,” she wrote in her Instagram post.

Other works in the video similarly evoke these tensions between the divine and the human. In by Luca Della Robbia Madonna and Child with Scroll (ca. 1455), the artist tenderly depicts the Virgin and Child but uses white glazed terracotta to recall classical antiquity and an otherworldly realm “out of reach”.

In the same way, by Giovanni Bellini Madonna and Child (late 1480s) removes the “cloth of honour” – the cloth often draped behind the Virgin and Child in painting reveal a landscape caught between winter and spring, an earthly metaphor for death and resurrection.

Heroines reinvented

Esther of Artemisia Gentileschi before Ahasuerus.  Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery 621.

Artemisia Gentileschi Esther before Ahasuerus (1628-30). Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery 621.

Two of the images Halsey pauses before are not depictions of the Virgin Mary, and both are worth noting.

One is by Guido Reni Charity, which shows a nursing woman with three children in an ancient symbol of virtue. The other is that of Artemisia Gentileschi Esther before Ahasuerusone of the artist’s most ambitious paintings of the 17th century.

Here, Gentileschi shows the Jewish heroine Esther fainted after pleading with her husband, King Ahasuerus of Persia, to stop the massacre of the Jewish people, a move that would put her life in danger. Esther’s petition on behalf of the Jewish people has sometimes been interpreted as an Old Testament precursor to Mary’s intercession on behalf of mankind before God.

What’s interesting here is that rather than depicting a historical event, Gentileschi has transformed the biblical narrative into that of contemporary theater, with a dramatic light cast on Esther, who wears an elegant 17th-century dress. In this way, Halsey intervenes in Gentileschi’s line of bringing historical heroines into the contemporary moment through a process of artistic creation.

A Revival of the Breastfeeding Madonna

The album cover for

The album cover for ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power’ showing the 26-year-old singer as the enthroned Virgin and Child.

At the end of the video, Halsey appears at the foot of the Met’s main staircase and pulls down a red velvet coat to reveal her new album cover.

The Lucas Garrido photograph strongly references one of the most memorable images in art history: The Virgin and Child surrounded by angels from Diptych of Melun by the French court painter Jean Fouquet.

In this strange image, the Madonna is pictured on an elaborate golden throne, wearing an intricate crown and blue robe. One breast is bare and the child Jesus is depicted on her lap.

This image, which is not in the Met’s collection but rather the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, is a particular amalgamation of the “Madonna and whore” dynamic mentioned by Halsey in her Instagram post.

The Virgin in this image is believed to be a disguised portrait of Agnès Sorel, the mistress of King Charles VII, who was considered one of the most beautiful women of her age.

Jean Fouquet, Virgin and Child surrounded by angels (right wing of the diptych) also known as the Melun diptych.  Courtesy of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

Jean Fouquet, Virgin and Child surrounded by angels (right wing of the diptych) also known as Diptych of Melun. Courtesy of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

The image’s iconography is also important to understanding Halsey’s album cover.

This image is known as virgo lactans—a depiction of the breastfeeding Madonna. In the 12th century, virgin lactans became popular amid the rise of Marian imagery; the Virgin’s milk was often interpreted as the life-giving precursor to the blood of Christ, which bestows eternal life.

Such images, painted at a time when most wealthy women hired nannies, aligned the Virgin with more ordinary women. Such images, however, fell out of favor in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent for reasons of convenience – a change whose repercussions still exist to this day.

In this way, Halsey’s own topless image recalls the earlier exaltations of “pregnant and postpartum bodies as something beautiful, to be admired” in her attempt, as she put it, “to eradicate the social stigma around bodies and breastfeeding”.

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Patrick F. Williams