This April Cornell celebrates Sustainability Month for the thirteenth consecutive year. Interns at the Johnson are looking at works in the Museum’s permanent collection for the perspectives they offer about pressing environmental issues.

Bailey Regan ’21 is the Museum’s administrative intern for 2020–21 and one of our team of visitor services interns.

At first glance, Kathleen Gilje’s appropriation of Albrecht Dürer’s Portrait of Oswolt Krel appears to be nearly identical to the original painting. Both pieces depict the fifteenth-century merchant from Lindau, Germany, who averts his gaze from the viewer. While Krel and his dignified fur clothing initially captivate the viewer, it is not long before Gilje’s sinister adjustments to Dürer’s background begin to appear, recontextualizing the merchant’s portrait.

In Dürer’s original portrait, Krel appears in front of a red background that bears his full name and the date of the painting in gold lettering. However, in Gilje’s piece, the subject’s name is replaced with two words: global warming. Though the red background occupies the majority of the space behind Krel, the leftmost section of the painting exposes his surrounding environment. Notably, the lush green grass in Dürer’s painting is completely absent from Gilje’s rendition. The modern space is devoid of grass and color. Instead, it is filled with neutral colors and abandoned cars.

Kathleen Gilje—an experienced conservator—frequently “restores” well-known artwork by adding idiosyncrasies to her renditions. Some of her changes are lighthearted. For instance, in her piece Marriage of Arnolfini, Restored, the mirror that occupies the background of the original painting is replaced with a surrealist art piece by twentieth-century artist Joseph Cornell. Others, like Lady With an Ermine, Restored adopt a moral message, depicting Leonardo da Vinci’s subject with a tattoo that reads “animals are not ours to eat, experiment [on], or wear.” But few of Gilje’s works are as disturbing or relevant as Global Warming.

For instance, the red background—an aesthetic and perhaps practical choice in Dürer’s rendition of the painting—serves as a reminder of the unseen, impending implications of climate change. One could imagine an idyllic landscape hidden behind this original backdrop. However, it would seem that in Gilje’s piece the background conceals reality rather than enhancing the portrait. One might expect such a background to display the most appealing landscape accessible to the artist. If the location where Krel is depicted is filled with refuse, then how can we conceptualize the other spaces in Gilje’s imagined future?

Continuing to focus on the background of the painting, Gilje could have included the numeral 2013—the year when she completed the portrait—in the same way that Dürer places the “1499” behind Krel. However, her omission creates a sense of ambiguity regarding when the scene in the portrait actually takes place. As in many of her other pieces, Gilje manipulates time by inserting figures from art history into the present day. However, because the artist does not specify that her painting was created in 2013, the viewer is left to wonder how long it will take before the conditions depicted in the portrait will manifest in the real world.

While the effects of climate change—including more intense natural disasters, public health crises, rising sea levels, and other serious challenges to quality of life—are already apparent, the situation continues to grow closer to the visibly desolate scene illustrated in the portrait. At a 2019 United Nations General Assembly meeting on climate and sustainable development, General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés asserted that there were only eleven years before the effects of climate change would become irreversible. Artists like Gilje use their work to raise the immediacy of the climate crisis to the forefront of our minds. Krel’s personal identity and representation are subjugated by the unavoidable reality of climate change. Ultimately, by replacing Oswalt Krel’s name with the words “global warming,” the artist centers climate change as the real subject of the portrait.