Essays by James Hyman

Contemporary Portraits real and imagined

Contemporary Portraits real and imagined


Catalogue essay by James Hyman

Including work by Craigie Aitchison, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Gwen Hardie, Leon Kossoff, Ansel Krut, Peter Layzell, John Lessore, Deborah Macmillan, John Napper, Jean Palmer, Tai-Shan Schierenberg, Paul Storey and Glenn Sujo


Forty years ago this month, in March 1953, an exhibition opened at the ICA in London entitled The Wonder and Horror of the Human Head. In the Foreword to the catalogue, Roland Penrose wrote that the exhibition was conceived `in the hope that it may stimulate poetic reflection upon our human condition'. Today the wording of this statement might seem grandiose, but Contemporary Portraits is, at least in part, stimulated by this same aspiration. However, while the ICA exhibition spanned history - from the daubs of the caveman to the latest photography in order to present a collage of cultures and media - Contemporary Portraits is more specific. It does not wish to argue a historical case. Instead it presents a cross-section of living painters to demonstrate the continuing importance of the portrait and the diversity of contemporary responses to this subject.

Contemporary Portraits is not concerned with the head as such, but rather with the face itself, a subject that is more particular, potentially more personal arid therefore altogether riskier. Whether the portraits included are full length, three-quarter length or head and shoulders, it is the face that draws our attention. This is unsurprising. After all, it is the face that defines us. It is the face before all else - before the mind or body - that differentiates one person from the next. It is the face that makes each person appear unique and separate and special.

In this exhibition known, or more usually unfamiliar sitters are presented, perhaps as they were in the past, as props in a constructed costume drama. In such cases character is built up and a commentary supplied through the accumulation of genre details. But often the backgrounds are neutral arid the location is ill-defined so that it is the face that holds our attention.

The scarcity or undesirability of portrait commissions has divorced today's artist from the need to flatter or aggrandize the sitter. Such detachment allows new freedoms. Genre details may be dispensed with to give prominence to the subject not the setting. A frontal pose and close-up approach may add directness. The success of the picture becomes dependent not on the fame but on the life of the subject and above all on the transformative power of the artist. A new freedom is possible. Presenting unknown sitters - or rather sitters who are known to the artist but not the viewer - encourages us to view the portrait as symbolic. As a result of this freedom, it is hut a short leap to conclude that the subject need not even be actual.

The subject may be the dreamed or imagined inhabitant of a twilight ness world. It may be the flickering spectre of remembrance and photography. It may even range from animals, lovingly recorded, to nightmares of mutation and metamorphosis. For the artist there are few challenges greater than painting a portrait from life. We feel we know how a face, any face, should look and are especially aware of our own appearance `; or at least we think we are as we scrutinise our face as it reflects back at us from a mirror. Our self-awareness and by extension our awareness of others is so pronounced that if a portrait does not conform to expectations or does not reflect our notions of the norm `; if an eye is out of place, a mouth enlarged or an ear turned frontally `; we will spot this immediately. If, on the other hand, a tree branch is twisted or a limb contorted this may not even be picked up. it does not confuse or detract or distort. It may even add to the formal strength of the image. But a portrait is different. It is always more than simply an image, more than merely oil on canvas or charcoal on paper. Somehow it does more than just show the subject. Part of the experience of looking at a portrait is a sense of recognition, an identification with the subject or a confirmation of our own feelings. The viewer can establish a relationship or rapport with the subject that is based - above all else - on a response to the face itself. Is it open, sly, happy, sad, tired, brutal, kind...? The possibilities are numerous. So closely may we identify with the sitter or the emotions shown that an attack on the subject becomes an attack on us. If an artist scars a face or distorts a head this is more than a matter of style or of artistic license. Such is our reverence for
appearance that to assault in this way poses questions that go beyond the picture frame, questions about the artist's relationship to the sitter and beyond that to other people. To expose deformity is to suggest, at the least, disrespect and at the worst, violation.

Paradoxically,it may suggest cruelty or tactlessness or may denote a deep respect. To record every blemish, every pock and pore, is to be faithful, if not necessarily kind: to love the person warts and all. To do the reverse, to turn the sitter into a type is to deny their uniqueness. To render the subject anonymous - literally to de-face - is to challenge his or her individuality.

In other works intimate relationships and tender emotions are exposed. The relationship between sitter and artist is everything, guiding every mark of the brush, pencil or etching needle. A sense of time - lacking from the snap-shot - is built into the experience of making and viewing such work. A portrait may form part of an on-going dialogue or be the epiphany of a fleeting moment. The pose may be static or on the point of collapse. The sitter maybe reflective or distracted, perhaps willing to address the artist and in turn the viewer or perhaps turned away, preoccupied, eyes closed or darting elsewhere. At other times the sitter seems to be on show: self-conscious or self-composed; on other occasions the sitter appears unguarded, with defences down. In some cases the intensity of this exchange between artist and subject may even preclude the presence of an onlooker: to view is to intrude.

Portraiture, then, is more than the recording of appearance. For a portrait to succeed it needs to be more than a likeness. It depends on more than simply visual recognition or resemblance. The painter must remake his or her subject. In the century and a half since the birth of photography, the representation of the visible world has changed fundamentally. As this exhibition demonstrates, nowhere is this change more evident than in Portraiture. In the forty years since The Wonder and Horror of the Human Head; the Portrait has flourished. Having freed itself first from photography, and then from academicism, the Contemporary Portrait has gained a new lease of life. This exhibition does not claim to present a balanced survey of Portraiture today, what it does do, however, is give a taste of its range. Above all this exhibition is a celebration of the remarkable vitality of the Contemporary Portrait.

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