In the early 1980s, after returning from Europe and confounded by the dearth of female artists included in European exhibitions of contemporary art, Julie Rrap created the (now renowned) photographic series Persona and Shadow, parodying stereotypical depictions of women in art history. Playing from the works of acclaimed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, which were finding new popularity at the time among European painters, Rrap restaged the outlines of Munch's centralised female figures, gridded them and placed a photograph of herself into each section. "The rule was that the outline of the original [work] stayed complete, because you can't really change history in that sense, but … it had this effect of fracturing my figure," she says.
When the works were first shown in 1984, the National Gallery of Australia bought two. In 2020, the remaining seven were acquired to be included alongside the work of about 300 other women artists in the major exhibition Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now.
For Conception, Rrap turned Munch’s The Day After (1894-1895) on its side. In the Munch painting, a woman is spread across the edge of a bed, asleep. In this work, Rrap’s self-image fills the Munch shape to its very edges. By twisting Munch’s original image into a vertical format to match the rest of her series, Rrap distorts it even further, flattening it out, so that it appears as if we are above the bed, looking down. The woman in Munch’s painting lies near a half-filled glass, a bottle of wine, and a bottle of water or spirits; these objects and her languid pose suggest a night of sexual and drunken behaviour. For Rrap, to change the title of the work from The Day After to Conception, gives agency to the object of desire in Munch’s original. Not only does Rrap introduce a second role for the sleeping woman – that of the mother – she also touches on a much more topical debate at the time her work was produced – artistic ‘conception’ or authorship. Who conceives of an idea, who owns an image and who is the author of a work?