Look me in the face; and tell me you need me
The portrait is dead: oh yes it is, oh no it isn't. Iain Gale introduces the perennial debate, while Charles Saumarez Smith and Karsten Schubert take sides
Tuesday 11 July 1995
Today, aware of the hubris and prejudice inherent in the commissioned portrait, the artist must create an iconography for the "classless society" in which the sitter's presence is explained by something other than money or power.
What the portrait can no longer be is a portrait. It can be an archetype, or a means of existential investigation - but an image of a specific, nominated individual? Forget it. For the contemporary portraitist (there is such a phenomenon, think of Freud, Kossoff, Auerbach, and, more obliquely, Conroy or Koons) part of the challenge is to re-invent a purpose for the art. The face can still be a window on the soul, but it's better to concentrate on something altogether less particular.
Many of our lionised younger artists use their own bodies, yet eschew the idea of the self-portrait. Mona Hatoum's Tate installation in which a microscopic camera allows us to experience the interior of the artist's body, typically declares the very idea of the portrait false. Other voices, however, propose that portraiture is undergoing a renaissance. Below, both sides of the argument are rehearsed.
`Portraiture today is full-blooded and impressive'
CHARLES SAUMAREZ SMITH, as director of the National Portrait Gallery, is responsible for the nation's collection of portraits of notable men and women, dating from the 16th century to today:
The portrait today is full-blooded and impressive. We had 786 entrants under 40 to this year's BP portrait award. From these it seems that today's portraitists are more interested in painting themselves than in painting those around them. Only rarely will they paint people they don't know, ie public figures. Some will say that public portraiture is an historical anachronism but the National Portrait Gallery today is extremely lively and popular. I think the genre still offers a real challenge.
Take Lord Carrington's portrait by Tai-Shan Schierenberg. It's much more than a mere likeness and has a tradition extending back to Sargent. But the artist couldn't have painted it in the Sixties when any reputable artist was apologetic about portraiture. From the Second World war to the late Seventies - as society liked to think of itself as increasingly classless - portraiture, with its difficult questions about art, power and money, was eased out of the mainstream. But there were still plenty of portraitists of distinction: Freud, Bacon, Peter Blake. Freud, of course, undertakes commissioned portraits, but he declares that he prefers to paint people he knows. There are benefits when the artist empathises with the sitter: we have commissioned Paula Rego to paint Germaine Greer and she's happy because she knows Greer.
To say today that an artist is happy to undertake portrait commissions could threaten their potential public esteem. In the Nineties we have a narrowing of what is acceptable as public art. The Whitechapel, the Serpentine, the Tate and others consider it vital for Britain to remain within an international avant-garde. This is a problem for portraiture. The most extreme painting the NPG might hang is probably the recently- commissioned portrait of AS Byatt by Patrick Heron. Byatt says she's pleased that the result bears no physical resemblance to her, but that might be a problem for our trustees. We are after all a public commemorative gallery.
But, I believe that portraiture doesn't have to look towards abstraction to legitimise itself. We're moving towards a renewed engagement with figuration. Think of that image of Hugh Grant in the Los Angeles police photograph. That was very interesting: the mass dissemination of a contrary image of a film icon which itself now has iconic status.
`If you want an insightful portrait of somebody, send in a TV crew'
KARSTEN SCHUBERT the "cutting edge" London dealer with such diverse talents as Bridget Riley and Rachel Whiteread in his stable, is well-known for his outspoken position on contemporary art:
If someone asked me to recommend a suitable artist to paint their portrait, I'd be lost. Portrait painting was killed by photography. There's no longer a need for it as a way of documenting someone's appearance. If you want an insightful portrait of somebody, send a TV crew after them. Because portrait painting was so bound up with power and politics in the past we are quite suspicious of it and this may explain why so many contemporary commissioned portraits are so mediocre. Now portaiture smacks of vanity and an over-blown sense of self on the part of the sitter. The best contemporary portraiture takes account of this. Think of Warhol's portraits of the Seventies and Eighties. They are not about psychological insight but the conventions of portraiture. Someone once complained to me that she didn't recognise herself in her Warhol portrait. I think she missed the point.
The strange thing about interesting portrait painting is that it has nothing to do with how interesting the subject is. You can paint a very boring portrait of a glittering personality, think of the number of very dull portraits of Mrs Thatcher we have seen over the years. Likewise a great painter can turn an anonymous sitter into a breathtaking study in psychology. The greatest painters aren't primarily concerned with portraiture but with painting.
Think of Cezanne's admission that there was no difference between painting a pot, an apple or a portrait. (He probably preferred the pot and the apple because they would sit still.) Lucian Freud once said in an interview that for him the sitter needed to be interesting, but that after that, it just became a matter of painting. A portrait painting is only interesting because it is well painted. The sitter becomes secondary. Freud makes a point of this by omitting the sitter's name in the title. So his portrait of Lord Rothschild, the best contemporary portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, is just Man in Chair (1989).
Portraiture is also very much about projection. Howard Hodgkin's work is a good example. If you know James and Clare Kirkman, the resemblance of his painting Portrait of Mr and Mrs Kirkman"is uncanny. Likewise his DH in Hollywood (1980-4) tells you more about David Hockney than the most eloquent essay.
I don't think I'd ever have a portrait exhibition at my own gallery, but we had a show called Not Self-Portrait last year. It included works by artists who use images of themselves in their work, like Mark Wallinger, Gilbert & George, Matt Collishaw and Cindy Sherman. They weren't self- portraits in the classic sense but allowed the artists to act out a part, take on a role. There is a tradition of this in our century, from Duchamp to Beuys and Nauman, and it seems particularly topical now, in the Tate's Rites of Passage exhibition and the Venice Biennale's central show at the Palazzo Grassi,
The art of portraiture today is handicapped by the immense power of the electronic image and the National Portrait Gallery should acknowledge this fact. They should get on to the Los Angeles Police Department and get a copy of that Hugh Grant mug shot.
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