Arts Quarterly
Double Vision
Twins in Art
July 2002
By Judy Cooper
Staff Photographer, NOMA and photograph by Mary Ellen Mark

There is something fascinating about twins, especially identical twins. Certainly, the rarity of the phenomenon is a large part of our wonder. Twin births number only one per eighty-six single births and identical twins births are even rarer, roughly one-third of all twin births. But it seems that the phenomenon of identical twins resonates on a deeper level than mere curiosity at something different from the norm.

Twins by their very existence challenge our notions of individual identity and uniqueness. At the same time, twins represent something for which we singletons have always yearned, a true soul mate, an alter ego. Their duality symbolizes both sameness and difference, harmony and conflict.

In some cultures, twins are seen as divine and are revered. In other cultures, twins are considered demonic and are put to death. In one Native American tribe, twins were thought to be caused by an evil spirit or witch. Several measures would be taken, including making the infants drink the urine of the mother, to counteract the evil influence.

Twins are present in all forms of literature, from folklore, classical mythology, the Bible, and Shakespeare to the present day. It is not surprising that visual artists also have exhibited an interest in the phenomenon of twins since its manifestation is so visual in nature. On the most basic level, the use of repetition is a fundamental technique of composition and design, as well as being a common device of humor.

The best known of all representation of twins in art is undoubtedly the fifth-century bronze statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf. As the mythical story goes, they were thus saved from drowning after the king had ordered them killed. Purportedly Sons of Mars, they grew into strong and ambitious young men. They determined to build a city on the site where they were discovered. In an argument over which one was to give his name to the city, Romulus killed Remus and the city was called Rome. This myth illustrates the use of twins to symbolize duality as difference or even conflict. What more heinous crime can be imagined than that of killing one's twin?

The mythological twins Apollo and Diana (Artemis is the Greek equivalent) were the subjects of thousands of paintings, statues, engravings, etc., in Renaissance and Classical art. However, the famous twins appeared separately much more often than together. The artists of these periods were apparently more interested in the individual attributes of each, e.g., Apollo, the Sun God and Diana, the huntress, than in their relationship to one another. Perhaps, since they were fraternal twins, their duality did not seem so important. Or perhaps it took the post-Freudian, post-Jungian intellect and sensibility of the twentieth century to be more interested in the symbolism of identical pairs.

A more modem treatment of twins is by the noted New York portraitist Alice Neel. Her painting The De Vegh Twins (fig. 1) has recently been included in an exhibition titled Duos at the Naples Museum of Art in Naples, Florida.

Photography seems to be the artistic medium most suited to portraying twins. Its visual verisimilitude allows us to see at a glance the degrees of similarity and difference between the two subjects. Jacques Henri Lartigue, the French photographer who provided a delightful and intimate portrait of French society of the early twentieth century, photographed the Famous Rowe Twins of the Casino de Paris (fig. 2) in 1910. His German counterpart, August Sander, whose ambitious goal was to compile a photographic encyclopedia of the "People of the 20th Century," included several photographs of twins in his life's work.

The most famous photograph of twins to date is undoubtedly the one by Diane Arbus: Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ (fig. 3), which was used as the cover of the Aperture monograph of her work published in 1972. It is a fitting representation of her work in its seemingly guileless, but at the same time unsettling, portrait of the young girls. One smiles slightly, the other does not, but they both fix us with the unflinching gaze of their big, light eyes. The perfect symmetry of the two figures counterbalanced with the strong contrasts of light and dark provide an apt visual statement of the symbolic themes of twinship.

In 1976, just a few years after Arbus' death, an annual festival of twins called Twins Days was established in Twinsburg, Ohio. In the twenty-five years since its inception, Twins Days has grown into the world's largest annual gathering of twins with an attendance of almost 3,000 sets of twins. On the first weekend in August, twins come from around the country and even from outside the United States to socialize in a small-town fair setting complete with rides for the kids, food booths, crafts displays, talent shows, look-alike contests, and fireworks. The festivities are kicked off on Saturday morning with a long parade of twins. Thanks in part to the parade and the look-alike contests, most of the twins at the festival dress alike. Many, in fact, costume.

Arbus did not get to photograph in Twinsburg but another important American documentary photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, has made the photographic pilgrimage there. She first went to Twins Days in 1998. Working with black and white film, she used several cameras of different formats. She was most satisfied with the images made with the larger format cameras. She explained that "it's really about the detail," which allows us to see all the nuance of similarity and difference between the two subjects. The image of the twins with hobby horses (fig. 4) was made with a 4 x 5 camera. In this photograph, the combination of similarities and contrasts provide a humorous result. The girls sit on metal folding chairs holding their hobby horses as if riding; their dour demeanor contrasts to their fanciful costumes and props.

Figure 4 Mary Ellen Mark (American, born 1940)
Tashara Tanesab Reese, Twins Days Festival Twinsburg, Ohio, 1998
Silver gelatin print
Courtesy of the Artist

Since 1998, Mark has begun working with a 20 x 24 Polaroid camera that produces a 20- x 24inch print from a negative of the same size. All the better to show the details, of course. It seemed a natural to continue the twins project with the new camera. Mark returned to Twins Days in 2001. It seems certain that we will get to see many more examples of Mary Ellen Marks' photographs of twins in the near future.