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Essence and Time in Portraits

The best known painting in the world is a portrait.

For great portrait painters, the challenge is to create a portrait that shows the paradox of the eternal essence of a person in a fleeting but immediate moment on the edge of transforming into a new facet of the eternal self.

The portrait shows a unique moment of the present: the now – and some of the best portraits ever seem to catch their subjects mid action, or at least about to inhale or exhale. The best portraits also imply the past simultaneously with the future.

The implied future in every portrait leads to another paradox involving the duality of life and death. To fully paint a person in a moment of life, the shadows of age and death always encroach the work as before the portrait is complete, the subject has aged.

A great portrait is not necessarily a perfect likeness, nor one that can be used to promote an agenda of fostering a person's position in life, as historically most portraits are.

Every president of the United States had his portrait painted.  These paintings are are on view at the White House and on its web site. We learn to recognize the earlier presidents, Washington, Jefferson, the Adams, etc., from their painted portraits. Since Abraham Lincoln, most people are more familiar with the photographic images (including movie and video images) than with their official portraits.

At the turn of the last century, having a black and white portrait taken by a photographer was a significant event. The portrait was cherished and passed down to family members.  In many families portraits continue to be passed down providing a rare record for current and future generations.

Photographic portraits, including videos and film of people, bombard us through print, TV, film, email, our phones, T-Shirts, mugs, billboards, etc. We see images of people we know, people we don't know and people we think we somehow know (like celebrities) and people who are not even people, are fictional characters. We humans seem to never tire of seeing images of our selves and others, as the people who create magazine covers and advertising executives know well.

Yet, the traditional painted portrait or sculpted bust continues, partially as a status symbol as it has been a hallmark of the rich and powerful since antiquity. Since ancient times, this kind of portrait has been one that is usually somewhat idealized, showing the prominence and often might of the subject. Successful pharaohs, emperors, kings, queens, CEOs all learned how to use the power of their own selected image to present themselves to gain and keep authority.

Alexander the Great used imposing heroic statues of his image and placed his portraits on coins to control and foster his vast conquered empire. With the exception of the portrait of John F. Kennedy, all of the portraits present their subjects as leaders of a great country and are posed, showing a static moment where the subject is presented at his best. 

Artists have painted themselves, their family and friends in more realistic or certainly less than heroic portraits since the Renaissance. They also painted images of people who were less than heroic in dramatic paintings that dealt with historic or mythical scenes. However, creating portraits that were less than flattering and unusual in their approach for any notable subject really begins with the emergence of photography.

Photography readily captures a physical likeness. The mechanical camera has a greater chance of accuracy as to proportions shadings and color relationships. Andy Warhol, who was trying to remove the artist and make his art somewhat as a machine, understood this.

The accuracy of photography encouraged artists to create portraits that revealed the personality and the reality of the person in the moment.

We are always in a state of being and becoming simultaneously, as one moment of being flows into the next. We are always transforming into who we are at the next moment.

One of the first and for me one of the best, portraits of is that new era is Monet's Camille Monet on her Deathbed. Monet, a master of catching the fleeting light, paints a transcending moment of a woman transforming from one moment into another. Although she is dying, barely present and seen as if in a mist, Monet manages to suggest the recently vibrant and young woman his wife was.

Van Gogh, who knew Monet and quite possibly had seen this painting before he moved to the South of France, paints two pictures that revolutionize modern and contemporary portraiture. He paints Vincent's Chair with His Pipe and Gauguin's Armchair. There insightful portraits of the two men, their painting styles, colors and occupations show van Gogh's perception of the differences between them, although he is kinder to Gauguin than himself. But, van Gogh never created a really flattering self-portrait.

Like Monet, van Gogh is capturing a moment in time, which definitely points both to the past and future of himself and Gauguin. On van Gogh's empty chair his pipe is in the process of being filled, while Gauguin's empty chair holds a lit candle and two books. Each man's chair is askew, as if push back and aside during a hasty and unplanned exit. As such, they are slightly turned away from each other, not companionably side by side nor facing each other for discourse.

A recent article, Questioning What is a Portrait -- in Chelsea covered works by contemporary artists that stem these portraits by van Gogh where what is depicted becomes a portrait of a person physically unseen. An excellent and relevant example of contemporary portraiture is Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party , where the plates and dinnerware depict the essence of the renowned women while the chairs are not just empty, but missing!

Picasso abstracted the images of the people, often his mistresses and wives, in his portraits, revealing more sides of their physicality and personality. Even when the subject seems posed, she seems to be in motion, the subject's past and future, which often seems to include sexual encounters, is implied.

Andy Warhol managed to obtain commissions for portraits that were not essentially flattering of their subjects. Many of his subjects were not then famous (but they were paying!) so he would take photographs and then turn his selected images into silk-screened images and paintings.

Warhol's work challenged the school of portraiture where the wealthy and renowned pose for a static, flattering, possibly imposing portrait that promotes their power and authority and even wealth. Instead, Warhol abstracts and simplifies the features of his subjects into black planes that are “enhanced” by and placed with fields of bright, even garish color. He takes his simplified black image and stamps it in row upon row of a canvas, changing the colors, altering the look and hence the time behind the ever unchanging image, creating icons that are both of there time and without real time, eternal and fleeting.

Warhol's greatness as a portrait artist is proven by the fact that when we recall most recent presidents we think of moving and still photographic images. However, more of us know what Mao Zedong looked like from one of Warhol's portraits than from the many photographs of him. Of course, by simplifying the images of Mao that were meant to inspire respect, recognition and even awe, Warhol made him very human and far less imposing and about as much a figure of perfect leadership as Warhol's Marilyn Monroe.

Andy Warhol was well acquainted with the work of the painter who created the portrait that was the best known painting in the world then and remains so now. That work does not glorify its subject, although it probably was a commissioned work, but simply presents a human being. Warhol actually seems to have revered this artist since he appropriated from that artist's work in some of his own later paintings.

It seems that when essential identity is revealed in a portrait, the fleeting eternal, which implies references to a fleeting past and future are inherently depicted, but when a subject is posed and the portrait flatters special qualities, the element of time becomes static, a mere advertisement for the image the patron and artist seek to present.

Those imposing, flattering portraits may be beautiful and skillfully present an excellent likeness of individuals and we may be impressed. Their splendor decorates museums, stately homes and board rooms. But, we do not love them. We do not travel to see them, put them on our mugs, shirts, posters and address books. They fail to communicate to us the way the portraits by artists such as Rembrandt, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso and da Vinci do.

The best known painting in the world is a portrait: the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci depicts a lady, looking at us but clearly thinking of something else, he captures the movement of her thought and in doing so we look and wait expecting her to breathe in or out or even blink. It is a painting of paradox of the eternal essence of a person in a fleeting but immediate moment at the edge of transforming into a new facet of her eternal self. Time and identity are brilliantly portrayed and we are intriqued and inspired.

January 9, 2008

 

"Change the way you see the world and change your life through art"


Judy Rey Wasserman
UnGraven Image
Founder & Artist



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