A breed apart

Tina Barney’s The Europeans is a fascinating insight into an aristocratic world that is rarely seen by anyone but its inhabitants.

Then there are the sumptuous interiors, the lavish surroundings that Barney’s subjects inhabit. Environments loaded with art and antiquities. Her approach reflects a profound interest in people, but also a love of interiors and objects. The daughter of a fashion model turned interior designer, Barney grew up in a world saturated with objects, textiles, furniture, culture and taste. Little wonder she views these early experiences as extremely important in shaping her style and choice of subject matter.

In America these images will serve to reinforce notions of continuity, lineage and heredity. They reflect old money and tradition. Barney claims she does not view these Europeans as rich or upper class, but as people first and foremost. For her, these portraits reveal the American ‘dream’ of Europeans – the interiors, the antiques, the dress codes, and the whole photographic package confirms that these are indeed the ‘best’ of Europe. They are a reinforcement of a cosy continent steeped in a particular kind of history and heritage.

Here, in London, The Europeans may well be viewed quite differently – in a time of massive change, where old regimes crumble, nationalism resurfaces, patterns of work are disrupted and huge numbers of people are on the move. A similar sense of difference will have been felt by many who witnessed the visit of US secretary of state Condoleeza Rice to ‘old Europe’.

Yet we can be forgiven for seeing Barney’s images as the antidote to Boris Mikhailov and the endless grey and depressing images that photographers continue to bring back from the hill villages and ghost towns of Eastern Europe.

The Europeans presents us with the old order and some uncomfortable truths. Tina Barney’s photographs have often been described as disquieting. We feel uneasy because we are privy to personal and intimate scenarios, however artificial they may be. They are stilted, yet strangely compelling too. But I for one am glad they exist. We need to see inside these exotic and alien environments – this other country. See for yourselves.

Tina Barney: The Europeans is on show at The Barbican Art Gallery, Silk Street, London EC2Y, from 17 February to 2 May 2005

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