At first glance, it's pure Gericault: The heap of writhing figures mimics the perfect, triangular composition of the French artist's iconic 1819 painting "The Raft of the Medusa."
Look closer and you see a pierced and tattooed multicultural crowd clothed in logo-emblazoned tatters, striving not toward the elusive shoreline but toward a smudgy Hollywood sign and the Eiffel Tower floating in the distance.
While Theodore Gericault's masterpiece brought to life a historical shipwreck, French photographer Gerard Rancinan's reworking grapples with the issue of immigration, capturing the plight of the boatloads of desperate people who wash up onto Europe's shores daily.
The large-scale photo is part of a new Paris exhibit, Metamorphoses, that draws on the paintings of the Old Masters to make biting commentaries about contemporary society's hot-button issues.
"There's really no difference between an artist of the 15th century and a photographer working today," Rancinan told The Associated Press in an interview. "Our job is to be witnesses of what's happening in society and show it to the world."
In the show, which opens at Paris' Palais de Tokyo on Tuesday, Rancinan takes on Western culture's obsession with youth, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Muslim veil and the worldwide wave of obesity.
The images are appealing, seducing the viewer's eye with their eye-popping color and profusion of perfect, highly stylized detail.
‘The Big Supper’
You could stand for hours before Rancinan's take on the Eugene Delacroix' 1831 painting "Liberty Leading the People" — which features a bare-breasted woman standing on a body-strewn barricade and brandishing a tricolor flag — without soaking in all the visual winks and the profusion of evocative, even provocative details.
Rancinan swaps the semi-clad Liberty for a woman in a black niqab and replaces the original street urchin by her side with a child soldier holding a Kalashnikov and a can of Coke. Television screens flickering with images the Iraq war, Mickey Mouse and a TV evangelist are scattered among the detritus, which is also strewn with handcuffed corpses. McDonald's golden arches glow out from a background of post-apocalyptic haze.
In "The Big Supper," the re-staging of Leonardo Da Vinci's 15th century mural "The Last Supper," a reed-thin burger flipper takes Christ's place, presiding over a table that groans beneath the weight of a banquet of super-sized junk food and 12 obese Americans — stand-ins for the 12 apostles.
Asked whether he had faced criticism for reinterpreting this sacred image, Rancinan responded, "Why? This isn't blasphemous. We're just moving from one dinner to another — separated by 2000 years. With Christ, there was just bread and wine on the menu. With the burger flipper, it's the cheapest, fattiest and also most addictive foods imaginable."
Other works include takes on Henri Matisse's "Dance," Renaissance paintings of the arrow-pierced Saint Sebastian and Diego Velazquez's 1656 masterpiece "Las Meninas" — which Rancinan transforms into a biting satire on the quest for eternal youth, with a latex-clad nurse serving up a cocktail of syringes and beauty potions to a dilapidated looking Marilyn Monroe.
"It sounds pretentious to say that I'm doing the same thing as Picasso when he reinterpreted 'Las Meninas,' but that's truly it — though perhaps I'm doing it less well. Artists don't ever reinvent the wheel, we just cannibalize," he said.
The photos are major productions, and shoots last days and involve up to 40 people, said Rancinan's longtime collaborator, journalist Caroline Gaudriault. Most of the models are professionals, though sometimes the team works with people off the street, she said.
The son of a newspaper typesetter from the southwestern port city of Bordeaux, Rancinan began as an apprentice at age 15 for the paper's photo department, covering everything from car crashes to rugby matches to local politics. In his 20s, he joined the Sipa photo agency and covered breaking news in Africa and beyond. In recent years, he has turned his attention to celebrities, shooting stars including Bill Gates, Desmond Tutu and model Claudia Schiffer.
He insisted that everything that appears in the Metamorphoses series was in the original shoot and that retouching was kept to a bare minimum. Each of the nine photos is paired with images of fanciful insects — a grasshopper with butterfly's wings, a bee with an ant's head.
The show, which runs in Paris through the end of November, is expected to travel to New York, London and Saint Petersburg.