The Pageant of the Masters Portraits by Matthew Rolston at Laguna Art Museum

The Pageant of the Masters is an iconic part of summer in coastal Orange County, and a foundational cornerstone of art and culture in Southern California. Since the early 1930s, actors have recreated classical and contemporary artwork on a Laguna Beach stage. Known as tableaux vivants, or living pictures, the paintings, sculptures, and other works are vividly realized, thanks to the actors who remain motionless amid painted backdrops and sets. Theatrical lighting, a live orchestra, a compelling script, and dramatic narration complete the performances. The humanity and artistry of the Pageant and its actors is also on display a few blocks away at Laguna Art Museum, with the exhibition Matthew Rolston, Art People: The Pageant Portraits

Hittorff, La Fontaine des Mers (Neptune), 2016 (Courtesy of Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).
Hittorff, La Fontaine des Mers (Paredrae of Neptune), 2016 (Courtesy of Fahey/ Klein, Los Angeles).

The series, comprised of 23 high-resolution photographic works printed on a monumental scale, blurs the lines between painting and photography.

Rendered in archival pigments on cotton rag paper, these oversized prints are presented as individual portraits, diptychs, and elaborate groupings of participants juxtaposed against images of the Pageant’s makeup templates, which are used to model the performers’ final appearance. Each subject willingly yields their own subjectivity to the artifice of the image and the photographic qualities of light, hue and contrast that register the works with a touching emotional poignancy.

Canova, Tomb of the Archduchess Maria Christina (#1), 2016 (Courtesy of Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).
Canova, Tomb of the Archduchess Maria Christina (#2), 2016 (Courtesy of Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

Five years ago, Rolston was granted unprecedented backstage access to the Pageant, setting up a makeshift studio to shoot the fully costumed performers during dress rehearsals and intermissions. Over several weeks, Rolston photographed the volunteer actors, mostly Laguna Beach locals, in their Pageant costumes and makeup. Dressed as figures taken from works by da Vinci, Fragonard, Matisse, Rivera, Hockney, and many more, the performers posed for their portraits away from the painted sets and stage lighting of the Pageant, drawing attention to their unique human characteristics. 

Each photograph is activated through a deep sense of intimacy with its subject, utilizing painterly lighting and featuring Rolston’s mastery of color harmonies — all hallmarks of his practice, one that interrogates the nature of the subject and the space of photography to propagate overlapping narratives of both truth and fantasy.

In Rolston’s brilliant, richly hued portraits, the artist offers not only a deeply poignant and personal account of the Pageant of the Masters and its participants, but also underscores the uncanny ways in which these works bring out fundamental aspirations of the human spirit and its underlying impulse towards art creation.

Frishmuth, The Dancers (#1), 2016 (Courtesy of Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).
Frishmuth, The Dancers (#2), 2016 (Courtesy of Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

Growing up on Southern California, Rolston was exposed to both classical art and Hollywood imagery around the city and at area cultural institutions and festivals, including the Pageant of the Masters, which he first saw as an 8-year-old. 

Now a celebrated artist, photographer, and video director, Matthew Rolston (born 1955) was “discovered” by Andy Warhol while a student at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. His images of celebrities for Warhol’s Interview magazine, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and other publications won him acclaim as an heir to the tradition of Hollywood glamour photography. 

Rolston’s larger-than-life, strangely haunting photographs of participants in the Pageant also celebrate the broader history of art and photography that defines the cultural heritage of California. Rolston’s exhibition references both the “pictorialist” movement adhered to by Laguna Beach photographers of the 1930s, such as William Mortensen and George Hurrell (and later, the works of Laguna-based photographer Paul Outerbridge, Jr.), and the opposing aesthetics of the Carmel group, which featured the so-called “purist” photographers of f/64, such as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham. Rolston’s series Art People, a contemporary work, is situated between and informed by the two opposing aesthetics.

Rubens, Brueghel the Elder, The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man (Eve), 2016 (Courtesy of Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).
Valera, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (Sancho Panza), 2016 (Courtesy of Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

Accompanying the exhibition is a lavishly illustrated museum catalogue with essays by cultural critic and journalist Christina Binkley, Pageant of the Masters scriptwriter Dan Duling, and classical scholar Nigel Spivey, alongside carefully selected images from art history that contextualize the work in the exhibition. Designed by Laguna Art Museum in collaboration with Rolston, the catalogue is offered in two versions: a luxurious trade edition as well as a deluxe, limited and numbered collector’s edition featuring a signed print by the artist enclosed in a folio. 

Art People: The Pageant Portraits is Rolston’s first solo museum exhibition on the West Coast, and was curated by Dr. Malcolm Warner, Laguna Art Museum’s former executive director.  

Art People: The Pageant Portraits | Through September 19, 2021 | Laguna Art Museum | 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach | 949.494.8971 |

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