top of page
Featured Review

Pictures of 'pastness'

Olivier Rieter

Sir Gawain and Morgause by Gordon Napier (See his art gallery here and an interview on Barbarus here)

In western society the visual dominates everything. In scholarly articles the ‘’pictorial turn’’, a term developed by W.J.T Mitchell, is discussed. Postmodern and postpostmodern writers acknowledge that we can’t escape pictorial culture. We have been replaced from the prison of language to the prison of the image it seems. We live in a culture of extreme postmodernism, which could be called ultramodernism.

We also live in a culture of recycling. On the internet almost all images (but also sounds) that were ever created are stored and used in new contexts. Type ‘movie poster cliches’ on Google images and see the memetic power of the pictorial. Creativity from popular culture is being re-used all the time. The recent past is everywhere.

But in the present we also see all kinds of representations of the past that are more inventive. In these visualizations the past is recreated. With the help of the imagination of painters, comics artists, movie makers and game creators a vision of the past is developed that doesn’t have much to do with the historical facts, but that is very appealing to image consumers nevertheless. These non historical versions of the past are forms of ‘pastness.’ Pastness is a term used by scholars (like Peter Fowler, Paul Grainge, Frederic Jameson) to indicate that a cultural product refers to a version of the past that has not necessarily much to do with historical reality. It is a term in the tradition of the semiotician Roland Barthes, who wrote of ‘’Italianness’’ (or ‘Italianicity’) and related words. Pastness means a representation of the fictitious past in the present, without much (or any) respect for historical facts.

Often a ‘’better’’ version of the past is created. This has been called hypnagogic (Guesdon and Le Guern in: Niemeyer, Media and nostalgia). The past is being recreated in media products in a way that seems to be more complete than the real past: the past is being improved. A version of the past is created that is supposed to be more representative of a bygone period, than the cultural products of this period were or are themselves. Sometimes however the past is also being made less appealing than it actually was, with graphic representations of violence or injustice. But in most pictures of pastness a certain ‘’awesomeness’’ is used.

In this essay I’ll go into the questions what different forms pictorial pastness has in the present and what the meaning of their existence is.


The most popular version of pastness is fantasy. Many media consumers don’t see much difference between a version of the past in Game of Thrones or in a movie or series that is set in a ‘’real’’ medieval past, e.g. fiction about the crusades. They don’t see much difference between sword fighting in Lord of the rings and fights between knights who have actually existed. That difference is not relevant for them: they just want to watch exciting stories set in a world very different from our own. The past is seen as colourful and extreme and that makes it attractive.

Boban Savic’s Tolkien illustration

For an interview with this artist click here

In some subcultures the fantasy version of the past is being actively relived in cosplay, costume play: young men and women dress up in clothes that refer to fantasy worlds. Cosplay is related to living history. The difference is that in living history an actual historical period is being recreated, whereas in cosplay there is no claim of historical awareness amongst the players. However living history organizations like the Society of Creative Anachronism ( are not that much different from cosplay groups. It is for its members all about enjoying the past. Like the name of this organization indicates, the past is used in an imaginative way: it is about the past as it should have been.


Fantasy games are a very important aspect of current pastness culture. In times when concepts like the ‘gamification’ of all aspects of live are being discussed widely, games are big business and seem to have even surpassed the movie industry in economic relevance. In many games (from first person shooter games to strategy games) there is referred to the past. Or to a time period that looks like the past.

There are literally countless games that have a historical or historically minded theme. A top ten of historical games one can find here:

These games all have some connection with the real past. But there are other examples too. Games like World of Warcraft or Grepolis don’t have much to do with the historical reality of the past, but they do enable the players to picture themselves, in a way, as actors in a décor of pastness. With virtal reality becoming more prominent in society it will be increasingly possible to escape into imagined worlds that make people think they can experience how the past felt.


Feelings are also very important in another pastness phenomenon: nostalgia. Nostalgia is an emotional way of looking back in a very positive way to the personal past or the past of the group one belongs to. Nostalgia has been described as a universal emotion, but others see it more as a reaction to the stressfulness of living in modernity (with its digitization, globalization and social acceleration). Nostalgia mixes a pleasant feeling with sadness that the past can never really return. For some people in the present however it seems that they can really escape to the past for a while e.g, live the slow life in the French country side. This one could call practical escapism.

The German retro model Rina Bambina poses in dresses that refer to the recent past.

(For an interview with her on Barbarus see here) Photographer - Nouve Fotografie Make up & Hair - Miriam RegitzDress - Atelier Belle Couture


This practical escapism can be referred to as a form of ‘nostalgizing’. It has been remarked that in the present an active way of using the past in a glowing way has come into existence. (See here)

Whereas nostalgia is passive ‘’to nostaligicize’’ is much more active. The present is being transferred into the past (Gil Bartoleyns in Niemeyer), instead of that the past is placed in the present. A known example is to put a sepia filter over present day photos to make them look ‘’old.’’

Photo: Maria Wermenbol

Pin up

Another example of nostalgizing is the retro pin up. Pictures of pin up girls were popular in the 1940s and 1950s. To the modern onlooker these pictures seem remnants from more innocent times. The media consumer of today can watch all the porno they want on the internet. Knowing this, one is endeared when one sees erotic pictures from the past. Some contemporary retro artists, photographers and models try to recreate the pin up culture of this past. They want to combine visual attraction and aesthetics with a time period that is supposed to have been more pure and less corrupted. (For more on Barbarus about pin ups see here)

Artist Gil Elvgren has been an inspiration for many of these present-day artists, e.g. for Fiona Stephenson, one of the women artists in a field that is crowded with men..

Fiona Stephensons art. For an interview on Barbarus with her see here:


Related to pin up art is the burlesque phenomenon. Burlesque is seen in the present as a form of cabaret in which women undress in an artistic way, being watched by an audience. (See for more on Barbarus about Burlesque here. )

This art form has existed for a several centuries. It has been a combination of humour and erotic appeal, although real nudity was uncommon in past burlesque shows. There has been a revival of this art form called Neo-Burlesque

( with performers like Dita von Teese becoming quite famous even outside the burlesque subculture.

Many women try to emulate her success. The contemporary Paris Showgirl Scarlett Diamond for instance performs a retro show, that brings back memories of Mata Hari and other erotic performers. (For an interview with her on Barbarus see here)

Irony and retro

Like we saw humour is important for burlesque. One specific form of humour is irony. In retro media products irony is often used. Retro is the referring in the present to past styles from the 20th century in fashion, photography and movies. The writers and artists that create these retro products are smiling about the past. They enjoy playing with it. They like the past but are not very serious about it. In a sense they do not totally respect it. In a movie like The Hudsucker Proxy by the Coen brothers a satirical version of the past is represented. A naïve man succeeds in life against all odds.

Also in recent music videos there is often made reference to the past in an ironic way. For instance in the clip Cheap thrills from singer Sia (together with Sean Paul) one can spot ironic retro. People of a more naïve time period are shown, lovingly in a sense, but they are also looked down on a bit. These people have not yet come to see the world like we can, is the message behind these kind of videos. See here.

It has been stated that pop music doesn’t renew itself anymore. I accept this as true, and therefore it doesn’t surprise me that there is now already a tradition of retro videos of which ‘Music sounds better with you’ by Stardust from the nineties is a fine example. In this clip we see an innocent boy with a model air plane. The youth of the boy is a metaphor for the way many people look to the past: with a feeling of loving superiority.

Ironical use of historical styles.

Apart from movies and music videos there are other examples of ironic representation of the past. The pictures of artist and illustrator Mahendra Singh e.g. look like they are ‘’old’’, yet they could not have been made in the time they refer to. A cross-hatched technique is used that brings back in memory the art of the 19th century, but Singh does something clever: he uses 21st century humour and places it two centuries in the past. This is not a hypnagogic use of or improvement of the past, but an ironic commentary on it.

Illustration by Mahendra Singh in: Gilbert Alter Gilbert, Poets ranked by Beard Weight. For an interview on Barbarus with Singh see here.

Also other historical styles are apt for ironic use. Dutch comics artist Erik Kriek created the silly superhero Gutsman and his girlfriend Tigra. Kriek made visual stories about this duo that are funny and that make the reader think about why he or she is amused. These stories are about a present day view on popular culture from a few decades back.

For an interview with Kriek (in Dutch) see here.

Picture from Lokefeer by John Rabou. For an interview with the artist on Barbarus (in Dutch) see here.

There are many other styles and periods that lend themselves to ironic re-uses, e.g. the Middle Ages. For an inventive artist the past with all its styles is a treasure cove.


The versions of the past that are popular in the present tell us more about the present than about the past. For a cultural historian of the future the ways in which the past was used or played with in the early 21st century will be an interesting research area. It is difficult (read: impossible) to foretell the conclusions of future research, but possibly this cultural historian will conclude that the past was an essential element of image culture in our era. True knowledge of the past seems to be less important than playful interaction with history nowadays.

One historian, Gertrude Himmelfarb, has written negatively about the ‘pleasure principle’ amongst postmodern historians. They play with the past for their own amusement. Maybe people from our age of ultramodernism are all such historians in a way. ‘’Historians’’ for whom emotion and irony are more important than facts. The past is very relevant in the present, but it is a usable past; the hardships of history, the social processes, are seen as uninteresting. The interest amongst non-historians for days gone-by is all about colourfulness and stylistics. In a sense the past is used without real respect for it. But one can look on it from another perspective too. In visual media representations the past is celebrated. Even people who hate(d) history class in school acquire some knowledge about and empathy for the past through the pastness culture. It is probably better that they are fascinated by a distorted version of the past, than that they don’t care about it at all.

Selective bibliography

K. Niemeyer (ed.), Media and nostalgia. Yearning for the past

P. Fowler, The past in contemporary society: then, now

P. Grainge, Monochrome memories

J. de Groot, Consuming history

K. Jenkins (ed.), The postmodern history reader

For an article by Olivier Rieter about nostalgia on Barbarus see here.

Tag Cloud
bottom of page