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

As the portrait takes centre stage, with the annual BP portrait awards just finalised, its day, some argue, is over. Iconic significance eroded, documentary value superseded, the portrait as an art form is redundant. Or is it? While the head of the monarch still decorates our coins and stamps, we increasingly carry our own images in a growing profusion of ID cards. The portrait is not dead. It has simply adapted itself to meet the moral and political requirements of a new age.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all