Two Forms of Portraiture
"Who am I?" is the question located in the very centre of the meaning of portraiture. And the questions, actual or possible, of the form "Who is x?," where x is some concrete person, surround this core bearing in fact the same urgency and disquiet as the self-reflective question "Who am I?". Portraiture, then, is philosophical par excellence in its meaning.
Habits, repetition, normality and normalization of life - all that leads, over time, to obviousness about who we are, this obviousness marching forward hand in hand with the absence of any need to ask seriously: "Who am I?". There were, for everyone I think, periods where this was the case. And, at least for most of us, there were moments when the question "Who am I?" became felt and asked in various versions of it. Of course, these moments are related to the crises of our lives.
The importance of the life of an individual is something that fluctuates from almost zero to infinity depending on the context considered. Think of the life of a Soviet private who died during the Siege of Leningrad, his name never recalled after his death, his body never properly recovered and buried, his existence forgotten. And then think of Hitler, an unsuccessful aspiring painter who, at some point, moved from art to politics. What if he died in the Great War? What if he was accepted to the Faculty of Arts? In some such way we are estimating the importance of an individual life, considering it with regard of its role in the course of history.
Prima facie these considerations might seem to be only loosely related to portraiture, but there is a common element to them, relevant to portraiture, which I would like to emphasize. It is the uncertainty about the meaning and value of a person in a historical context. And related to this is the idea of the mystery of an individual life. Who would think of the young Hitler, an aspiring artist of questionable skills, to carry that horrific potential to enchant a whole nation, making it into a warmachine? That is, perhaps, a too radical example. However, it is a good example to show that the meaning and importance of a person is often not obvious at all, but in any case never entirely obvious.
Good portraiture depicts something unexpected and not obvious about the person portrayed - about her/him qua a particular, unique person, but possibly also qua her/him as someone belonging to a group, for example, a Czech, a European, a soldier or a human. Nonetheless, I believe that the power of portraiture lies for the most part in its ability to reveal something unique to the person portrayed (personality, history, relations, attitudes, some potential etc.). Plain seeing the portrait is not enough for such revelations. You need to entertain some story surrounding the person in the portrait. Let us consider an example. This is - some experts say - one of the most valuable pieces of art lost (in this case, read: destroyed) in the 20th century:
This huge painting was given as a gift to the retiring prime minister of GB, Winston Churchill. This gift was funded by donations from members of the House of Commons and House of Lords. The painter, Graham Sutherland, was commissioned to create a portrait and what we see above is how the job was eventually carried out. Neither Churchill, nor his wife who was eager to protect the positive image of her husband was satisfied. And the wife decided the painting must be destroyed, which actually happened - she ordered a servant to burn it. Now, if you know a bit about the history of Churchill's political career, you probably know that Churchill was not an angelic figure. He was not a man of debates and democratic decisions, but rather an authoritarian figure. This was quite a problem in his after-WW2 service as the British prime minister. Since the story of the portrait and Churchill's political career is available on wikipedia, I skip it here, pointing out that the portrait quite nicely articulates the dark tones of Churchill's uneasy character. (Churchill's service in African colonies belonging to GB should also be remembered.)
As a modern artist, Sutherland wasn't seeking an affirmation of the obvious. It wasn't the image of Churchill as a great figure Sutherland wanted to translate into the language of fine art. He wanted to unveil the problematic personality layer hidden behind the obvious image. He was raising the question "Who is/was Churchill?", suggesting clearly that there was some striking ambivalence of the character involved, and there was indeed.
This is, I think, one example of how a great portrait can be created. There is something obvious about the depicted person and the portraitist ventures to question this obvious element. An essentially visual principle is used to do that: a distortion of the subject's (visible) figure. A division is made between what is on the surface and what is lurking and twisting beneath. Everyone's personal identity has this structure - it has the contours of an elaborated image intended for others and it has dark, twisting underpasses beneath, often unknown even (or especially) to the person they belong to. The role of a portraitist could be to direct the audience's curiosity away from the surface image towards the wilderness of one's raw and often unflattering realness beneath.
This is, let's say, a very philosophical or psychological variant of a portrait. In the case of Churchill, it is very concrete, but often such portraits are presented without any intention to speak of the particular identity of the depicted person. An example of this can be a portrait shot by one of my favorite contemporary photographers, David Gaberle (https://www.instagram.com/davidgaberle/):
As far as I know, this portrait was not intended to tell something about the young lady captured in it. Rather, it was intended to depict - through her specific appearance - something about us humans in general - something essentially emotional, it could be said. In such a portrait, the audience is not asked to dig into the realness of the person depicted, but rather to sense the emotion and, with the help of the associations evoked by the content of the picture perhaps, relate to a story about someone outside of the portrait. This person could be the observer himself/herself. The observer can recognize the emotion as characterizing various moments of his/her life (the semiosis: x points to y).
A good portrait is definitely any one that successfully provokes you to think and question. And this is important: a good portrait is really not some description of what is interesting or typical about the person depicted. A good portrait is an artifact that stimulates your capacity to feel and interpret. A good portrait is an artifact that leads you to explore what is problematic, ambiguous and painful, difficult in one way or another, about the person portrayed and/or someone else who matters, including you.
[The purpose of art is not to please us, nor is it to disgust us. Its purpose is to make us interpret individuality, explore individuality in its immense variety; pleasing, disgusting or their combination are among the means utilized by the artist to stimulate, in some intended way, this process of interpreting. Interpreting individuality is opposed to interpreting generality which is essential to science. But serving the purpose of interpreting individuality is not sufficient for something to qualify as a proper work of art; it is just a conditio sine qua non. In this I might seem conservative: I believe that a proper artwork must embody an aesthetic form - this, in the first place, endows the act of making art with a dimension of mastery and craft (in every branch of Japanese traditional art this is very much emphasized). The importance of this, however, is obviously not in the fact that now artists receive their chances to show off (= not a stupid Chinese Shaolin show). The mastery itself does not matter, its subject does. What is it - this thing a master aims to create? It is the embodiment of an aesthetic form in an artwork. This aspect provides the artwork with the capacity to tell something in a non-linguistic way: A photograph is visual par excellence when it embodies a form of visuality whose meaningfulness is photographic; if the photograph does not embody some such form, it is reduced to a linguistic item, something we can, in principle, communicate by words or transfer without a loss into a binary code. -- It is confusing when 'aesthetic' is taken to suggest a requirement for beauty. 'Aesthetic' is derived from ancient Greek and it suggests a requirement for perceivability through a sense or more senses. This is why the aesthetic form of a photograph is something about its visuality, the aesthetic form of a musical piece something about its availability to our hearing and so on.]
As with many things, nonetheless, you cannot pick one idea or function and praise it as the only source of value. When considering things of the same sort, it is not impossible to pick any two of them and find out that they serve different purposes, i.e., are valuable in differing ways. Concerning portraiture, I think that some portraits are not philosophical at all, but they are great anyway. They are great, for example, for their strong ability to bring the reality of an important story to the perception of the audience. The following is an example of such a portrait, it is one of the past winners of the Taylor Wessing photographic Portrait Prize (the photograher: Cesar Dezfuli, see https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/taylor-wessing-photographic-portrait-prize-2019/exhibition/past-winners):
The person depicted is Amadou Sumaila, "one of 118 people rescued from an inflatable boat drifting 20 miles off the Libyan coast on a clear, calm morning in August last year." (For the whole story, see (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/18/taylor-wessing-prize-who-is-the-man-in-the-photograph). Now, most of us (at least those who live in Europe) heard stories about people trying to get from Africa to Europe. This includes some tragic stories. But I dare to say that all those stories as they were delivered by the news channels felt as something distant and rather unreal. A portrait like this, especially if accompanied with a pointedly crafted text, can make you comprehend the reality of these stories in much more powerful way. Looking into the eyes of Sumaila, you feel a real person there, you understand his desperation that turned into relentlessness and defiance - you can feel him as demanding that he is taken to be as valuable as anyone living in Europe. And you understand that this goes in a way beyond politics: nature is unjust in the sense that one person is born, for example, in a German middle class family while another in a poor family living in an unstable African region - Does nature, in this way, determines who deserves better? And can we say that, by doing this, nature determines blindly who is more of a human and who is less?
Nature is blind and does not determine anything in terms of values. Humanist values are not laws of nature, no values are. So, as such they cannot be just expected. They must be maintained and applied. And if you feel you they are not applied in your case, you must fight to challenge that. Looking into the eyes of Sumaila, we can think about this and many other things. You are motivated to do so because the portrait is great in charging the accompanying written story of the man with a more intense sense of reality.
Concerning the intense sense of reality, no amount of words could in this respect do the job successfully performed by a great photograph. Neither words, nor photographs are, of course, reality they represent (if they do represent some reality). There is, however, a difference between the power of a word and the power of a photograph. Understanding this helps us to appreciate one important dimension of portraiture.
We have explored two dimensions of portraiture. One is philosophical and psychological. Its purpose is to counterbalance the obvious image of the individual portrayed. In the other dimension, portraits serve to supplement a story with a greater sense of reality. Both forms of portraiture range, in their instances, from vulgar or otherwise flawed renderings to great, powerful pieces of art. And surely, if a portrait is great in one way, it still might be false or inappropriate in some other way. The power of a photograph to intensify our awareness of a story can be used, e.g., to deceive or manipulate (like the nazi films created in 30s so masterfully by Leni Riefenstahl).
Milan Soutor (@Wildflower_Samurai)
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