Iconography / Making the right faces: Tom Lubbock visits an exhibition of Jane Bown portraits and reflects on the alchemical process of making public images

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The Independent Culture
Roy Hattersley is a poet. You didn't know that? He's a columnist, a novelist, an autobiographer, that's known. He likes poetry, that's known also, he likes Philip Larkin for instance. A poet himself, though? Admittedly the evidence at this stage is strictly pictorial. But look at Jane Bown's portrait-photo of Hattersley, taken in 1991 and now on display at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery. It tells you straight: this man is a poet. And it looks pretty convincing. But surely, if Roy Hattersley is a poet, then that can only be another tribute to the camera's power to make chalk cheese, sows silk and night day - perhaps, on reflection, they ordered these things better in the former Soviet Union.

Only the Communists seem to have got the art of public portraiture absolutely sorted out. Or at any rate ironed out. Think of those official head-and- shoulders portraits with which the Soviet leadership exhibited themselves in the pre-Glasnost era. There was a photograph in there somewhere, a remote though firm guarantee that this was a real image of a real person. But the picture was so retouched as to qualify almost as pure painting. The features were reduced to stark black-and-white stencils. The hairline was drawn in, the shadows crudely sharpened, and from the flesh of these already expressionless faces every blemish and nearly every trace of texture was expunged, leaving a rank of heavy-jowled porcelain dolls.

This had its obvious uses. Stalin's pocked and pitted skin was entirely re- conditioned for public circulation. Mikhail Gorbachev's birth-mark was tactfully cleared up. And in the early days of Glasnost there was a striking and faintly embarrassing contrast between the real Gorbachev, doffing his trilby to the world's cameras, and the Gorbachev who was still represented back home by his bleach-browed icon. But the intention wasn't simply to flatter, or to make them look heroic. It went quite the other way. It was to produce a head from which, so far as possible, all character had been effaced, and which repelled any psychological speculation on the part of an inquisitive beholder.

These men existed one-dimensionally. The brute fact of their existence was practically all that the pictures asserted. Members of the politburo were individuated only in the most blunt, schematic ways (which recalled those line-ups of Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin, with their simple identifying formulae: the one with the bushy beard, the one with the long beard, the one with no hair and the pointed beard, the one with the moustache, easily replicable throughout the communist world). But this was nothing to do with them being themselves anonymous bureaucrats or soulless Communists or anything like that. If you perform the pictorial operation on anyone - on for instance a lively and free-thinking figure like Roy Hattersley himself - the result is still the same. A total blank.

It's significant of course that the politburo should want to appear this way, and the gambit could only work in a society whose leaders weren't well known to the public through frequent and unguarded media appearances. But it goes beyond questions of likeness. The statement is the main thing, an imposing, intimidating statement, but in its way an egalitarian one. It said: the politburo rule, not through any personal genius or charisma, but as office-holders, functionaries; their identities aren't important. At the same time, this type of image was itself a badge of office, another addition to the rows of medals these men habitually displayed. The public man is the public man. The face on the coin. Read nothing in. Enquire no further.

But now move from Hattersley the politburo-member to Hattersley the poet. The situation - like the man - is changed utterly. Jane Bown's art lies at the opposite extreme to that of the Kremlin's re-spray team. They aimed to produce a pure, impermeable surface. She sets her sights beneath a surface that we know all too well, to winkle out an inner man, a hidden side, something more reflective and soulful, more real maybe. And for this particular sitter, presumably, it's a welcome antidote to that rebarbative puppet, his voluminously spitting Spitting Image.

For Jane Bown, on the other hand, the existence of such caricatures is part of her working context. She isn't bringing home any news about what somebody looks like. Almost all her sitters are public figures, well recognised from circulating news photos, caricatures, TV appearances. And not only do we know what they look like, we've invested their faces with what we know of their characters. The one automatically sparks off the other. And Bown, as a re-interpreting photographer, has to work against this current, to turn a face already full of associations into another light.

Sometimes it's almost a form of caricature itself, as in her famous photograph of David Owen with caped collar and curled lips, over which no viewer can resist mentally graffiti-ing a pair of vampyric fangs. Archbishop Carey's features, meanwhile, prove quite unredeemable in any direction, and the picture is reduced to a quiet joke about an anxious pudding in a cope and mitre. And Salman Rushdie is elegantly de- psychologised, presented in a hieratic, Egyptian profile.

But on Hattersley she does a perfect deepening job. You see the transformation. Half-lose the face in shadow and thought. Down play that lip. Bring up the boyishness. Lend a keen translucence to the eyes. Face facts, though. It may be a convincing poet, but as a portrait of Roy Hattersley, it's rapidly approaching being unrecognisable.

So why should we believe it? It isn't just faith in the camera's honesty. The truth is, this complete Hattersley volte- face doesn't run entirely against the current of public expectations. Rather, it makes the natural next connection. The new image isn't only a welcome change for the sitter. We welcome it too - it's the kind of news we want to hear. You don't want a photograph which tells you what you already know about a politician - chiefly because what you know already is profoundly unsatisfying.

Think again of Hattersley's Spitting Image effigy. A revolting thing, but it isn't a random libel. The caricature is only an emphatic version of the stolid, assertive, emphatic persona which Hattersley himself projects. It's not much more two-dimensional than the characters which Hattersley and most other politicians present daily to public view. Caricature plays along with this low-level dramatisation. But then so does reportage. John Major speaks in his special cross voice; 'An angry John Major yesterday lashed out . . .' Or it might be 'a confident John Major', or again 'a worried John Major.'

Andrew Marr has argued recently in this paper that while some politicians gratefully embrace their reported or caricatured images, others fall into an opposite danger, and re-caricature themselves in reaction against them. But either way, the acts don't get more interesting. Sincere or assumed, the repertoire of recognised political emotions is extremely restricted. And the political stage is peopled with unbelievably flat and simplified characters who would disgrace the theatre proper.

No doubt it's hard for politicians to avoid this. And no doubt the political process doesn't require a complicated psycho-drama to keep it going. Quite the reverse: choices must be made, and if a fine discrimination of feeling and motive became the order of the day (if for example psychologists were invited on television to explain how the Prime Minister might be expected to be feeling at this moment as is done with troubled Royals and newly released hostages) it might liven up Newsnight but things would get out of hand. Best to stick with the act that's offered.

The point though is that this act is unbelievable, and inevitably invites a backlash. It is unimaginable that any man could be the John MacGregor we view and hear, and only that John MacGregor. What you see can't possibly be all there is. But you're not dealing with the absolutely stone-walling faces of the Politburo. You have something that pretends to be a personality but simply falls far short. So the imagination is provoked. You're incited to think there must be more going on. You credit almost anything. And given the extraordinarily unrealistic characters on public display, the more far-fetched the hidden man, the more plausible.

Take the case of Kinnock's specs. There was a revealing moment during the lead-up to the last election when Neil Kinnock appeared in a Commons finance debate wearing a pair of glasses, the thin-rimmed kind. And the real revelation was not the total transformation that this elementary disguise accomplished, but how utterly convincing it was, at least while it lasted: one felt one knew it all along, the bluff exterior was just a cover - the man is an economist, more than that he's a mathematician.

In the same way, the rumoured rumours of John Major's romances obtain most of their charm through direct role- reversal. He couldn't possibly be the dull fish he appears. Hidden depths there. Some politicians play the game themselves, like Denis Healey and his often disclosed secret hinterland, the bruiser's mask lowered to reveal the aesthete. Others are probably lucky to keep their fronts intact. But in our efforts to create some vaguely convincing personality out of the unpromising matter which politicians supply, we're always liable to turn up such imaginings as Major the philanderer or Kinnock the mathematician.

And with a nudge from Jane Bown's camera, the poet Roy Hattersley. Well, of course. Why not. Very likely. In fact, I bet he does write poetry. It's probably a bit like Larkin, but not so right wing. Come to think of it, didn't Hattersley actually publish a slim volume quite recently? No. Think of any politician and try saying of them, 'Apparently, in private, a poet.' It mostly works.

The portrait photo doesn't need props or rumour. Working alongside it, there's this great will to believe whatever more it might reveal. And this picture, and our ready acceptance of its claim, is just more evidence of a state of complete psychological instability. But if you don't want these awkward lurches into the third dimension, with unsoundable depths opening up and perhaps quite imaginary inner men being outed at every moment, then turn back to the politburo with its implacable non-identity parades. They understood the value of a stubborn silence, and much thanks they got for it.

Jane Bown's Portraits can be seen at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery, 8 Cecil Court, London, WC2, (071-836 0506), until 26 February.

(Photograph omitted)