Many of British art's most distinctive and characteristic contributions to world painting have taken the form of portraits, and histories of British art often tend to read like accounts of this unusual national devotion to a single genre. One or two eccentrics and a few major landscape painters apart, British art's pantheon sometimes seems to consist almost entirely of portrait painters: Holbein, Van Dyck, Lely, Kneller, Ramsay, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Lawrence (the list can be almost indefinitely extended).
But there is another, largely unwritten history of British painting, which is a history of artistic revulsion against portraiture and all that it represents: a history of revolt against the limited scope that the genre offers to the artistic imagination; a history of rebellion against the tyranny of philistine British aristocratic patronage that the genre came, for many British artists, to symbolise.
So it was that Benjamin Robert Haydon, a tragically hubristic would-be narrative painter without patrons or private means, could take such pleasure in the ineptness of the portraits he painted to support his essays in grandiose subject painting (arguably even worse, but not deliberately so). Before him, Hogarth invented a new form of popular narrative painting, the modern moral subject of the rake's and harlot's progresses, largely in order to avoid having to be circumscribed by portraiture. ('I am unwilling to sink into a portrait manufacturer,' he said.)
Blake fulminated against the injustice and arrogance of the British patron classes and their obsession with having their portraits painted, scribbling furiously in the margins of Joshua Reynolds' Discourses on Art what amounted to a shorthand version of the lament of an entire generation of British painters: 'Only portrait painting applauded and rewarded by the rich and great.'
Even Reynolds, Blake's target and the most successful and highly paid portraitist in the history of British painting, was plagued by self-doubt and self-recrimination. He admitted that he had spent his life as a portrait painter against his better judgement, and his only justification was that he had tried to turn portrait painting into something else, to lend it the borrowed grandeur of other and higher forms of art.
'If a portrait painter is desirous to raise and improve his subject,' he wrote, 'he leaves out all the minute breaks and peculiarities in the face, and changes the dress from a temporary fashion to one more permanent.' Reynolds painted portraits that aspired to the condition of subject painting. The history of British art is, on one level, the history of an obsession with portrait painting, but that obsession leads in two directions: to portraiture, of course; but also to anti-portraiture, quasi-portraiture, meta-portraiture, pseudo-portraiture.
Both strains survive, but only just. Anyone who wants to place their finger firmly on the pulse of the corpse of the grand British portrait tradition might do worse than visit the annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, which opened last week at the Mall Galleries in London. The old face-painter's art of flattery is still being practised.
There are a multitude of bizarre, anachronistic throwbacks to the age of aristocratic hauteur and mercantile bourgeois self-confidence: the walls are lined with limp testimonials to the survival of that species of vanity to which portrait painters have always (and perhaps always will) cater. And at the Whitechapel Gallery, an exhibition of Tony Bevan's anti-portraits demonstrates the extent to which what was once a subversive strain of resistance to the conventional portrait has become, itself, a global convention of kinds - one that has been taken to its expressive extreme by artists from other countries, masters of anti-portraiture like Munch, Kirchner or Picasso, to which the modern British painter seems able only to provide a feeble coda.
Bevan's paintings bear many of the hallmarks of 20th-century anti-portraiture. His subjects confront the viewer, head-on, but their clothing is nondescript and they are accompanied by none of the attributes (maps, atlases, distant country houses) that serve to announce importance, to locate identity and social class in more traditional portraiture.
Bevan's people are grimly anonymous, aggressively ordinary in appearance, and they are not located at all: the backgrounds of these paintings scarcely qualify as such, being, rather, plain mottled grounds of day-glo colour, red or orange or green.
This has led some commentators to assume that the painter himself must be making some form of socio-political point - that by painting unknown people in unspecified settings he must be celebrating ordinariness, deconstructing (as the jargon goes) the elitist attitudes of Royal Society of Portrait Painters-style portraiture. But this seems unlikely. Bevan's portraits are too calculatedly strange to be explained away by such a straightforward polemical ambition; and they are not in the least bit celebratory.
The core of the exhibition is made up of six paintings and one polyptych given the collective title The Meeting. Pictured both alone and, in the polyptych, as a group, several men and boys stare out at the viewer. They appear glassy-eyed and slack-jawed; their mouths are open and their attention seems to be wandering. They look like the victims of some kind of creeping neurological disease, and you need to consult the catalogue to realise that they are all meant to have been caught in the act of singing. This begins to suggest what it is that Bevan might be driving at.
The fact that his staring alienated figures are meant to be engaged in a form of communal activity is intended, presumably, to emphasise their actual solitariness, which Bevan underscores in other ways too - in the polyptych, by disposing different figures or pairs of figures on different canvases (so that each looks as if part of an imperfectly assembled jigsaw puzzle) and by isolating his figures in spreading, blank pictorial space.
Bevan's version of anti-portraiture, like most kinds of 20th-century anti-portraiture, is portraiture that wants to exceed its own traditional means. It is portraiture that is meant to carry some form of message about the human condition. These pictures might be said to announce a painter's sense of the death of community, for instance, or the inevitable solitude of existence: each of Bevan's singers is, distinctly, alone in a crowd. Or perhaps the paintings carry a different kind of message: perhaps they are meant to evoke the more sinister aspects of crowd behaviour, the inhumanity that people easily fall into when gathered together in large numbers. Maybe Bevan's mindless young men are meant to be seen as images of nascent fascism: not singing, but chanting.
The paintings themselves give little away: their starkness, their dumb blatancy, conceals as much as it reveals. Bevan clearly realises that ambiguity is more arresting than self-evidence (better to make people wonder whether you really are serving up what have become the cliches of anti-portraiture than equivocally to do so). There are other paintings in this show, and they too seem intended to provoke interpretations that cannot ever quite be confirmed: a pair of portraits of young boys gazing autistically into space, awkward and definitely non-cherubic; self-portraits seen from oblique angles, painted in a style whose peculiarly insistent use of heavy black lines to mark hair or creases in the skin suggests flaying or scarification; images of nervously clenched hands or the sole of a foot, its creases magnified and emphasised, made map-like, filling the frame.
There is a general aura of consequence, a sense that what is being painted is, always, somehow more than a person or a part of a person: these are images of frailty, of the fact of human loneliness and vulnerability, perhaps; or of the fact that when it comes down to it all we are is flesh, just bodies animated by sometimes hateful, sometimes sad emotions.
Or rather, that is what these pictures are meant to be. The trouble with Bevan's art is that it is fatally handicapped by the painter's own ineptness. Too many of Bevan's effects - the characteristically dumb, lifeless, mannequin expresssions of his figures; the emphatic painting of lines and folds in the skin; the scrofulous, scabby surfaces of paint - look as though forced on the painter by the exigencies of a limited ability. The impression is of a restricted talent attempting to make virtues of its own limitations, to make them invisible by playing them up to the point where they might pass for deliberate mannerisms.
Unable to paint the human face? Then paint pictures of man-as-automaton. Unable to model the human anatomy? Then turn your characteristic distortions into something that might look like a Vision of Humanity: scarred, twisted, we all carry our own special wounds, that sort of thing. Finally, wrap the products of the whole enterprise in an air of inscrutability.
It almost works, but not quite. Bevan's cackhandedness nearly looks as voluntary as he would like it to look, but nearly is the operative word. Like Haydon, he is a painter of anti-portraits, someone who would like us to believe that he takes an exquisite gratification in painting wretchedly. But it would be more convincing if we thought he was capable of painting any other way.
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