Head and shoulders above the rest

The portrait bust, once one of the spoils of fame for the great and good, has been in eclipse as a significant artform for more than 50 years. Is it time for a revival?
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A New Look at the Portrait Bust' is a truncated exhibition about a truncated artform. Its earliest work is John Cheere's angle-poised Cicero, mass-produced in painted plaster around 1745 for use in libraries, and the most recent is Jacob Epstein's bronze of the ophthalmic surgeon George Black from 1942. The organisers contend that after Epstein, the portrait bust ceases to be a significant artform. The main purpose of this enjoyable and stimulating show is to make us regret its demise.

A New Look at the Portrait Bust' is a truncated exhibition about a truncated artform. Its earliest work is John Cheere's angle-poised Cicero, mass-produced in painted plaster around 1745 for use in libraries, and the most recent is Jacob Epstein's bronze of the ophthalmic surgeon George Black from 1942. The organisers contend that after Epstein, the portrait bust ceases to be a significant artform. The main purpose of this enjoyable and stimulating show is to make us regret its demise.

There are just over thirty busts in all, displayed thematically. The opening section looks at the places in which busts might be displayed, such as libraries, town halls and galleries, using appropriate photographic backdrops. Joseph Gott's marble bust of George Banks (1828), made for the town hall, transforms this Leeds cloth merchant, patron of the arts and mayor, into a toga-clad immortal. As sometimes happens in neo-classical art, there is a curious disjuncture between the rugged masculinity of the face, square-jawed and jowelly, and the delicacy of the rest. The casually tousled hair, and the décolleté toga that falls away to expose a soapy-smooth expanse of chest are decidedly effete. It is meant to suggest that power and sensitivity, roughness and refinement can be found in this same man. In its small way, the bust's body language is as hard to read as the Mona Lisa.

The Victorians banished this kind of gender-bending by yanking togas up towards the neck, as in Edgar George Papworth's assiduously gift-wrapped bust of an Unknown Man (mid 19th-century) and John Adams Acton's Henry Peter Brougham (1867), in which the anti-slavery Lord Chancellor appears to be swaddled in a strait jacket in a high wind. Sometimes, as in George MacCallum's marble bust of David Bryce (1888), we do find expanses of bare chest, but it's not at all girly. Bryce was an architect, and his chest is brutally architectonic. It is shaped like an amalgam of open book and roof. This is a nifty bit of subliminal advertising. It says to the onlooker Mr David Bryce is well-read, structurally sound, and not in the least bit leaky.

In the second and third sections of the exhibition we are asked to attend to the overall shape of the bust and the way the facial features are delineated. Around twenty busts have been informally and unchronologically arranged in the main gallery as if they were at a party. It is a lively gathering, with men and women of all ages and temperaments, but in real life it would probably have ended in a brawl.

The base of a bust is often as eloquent as the head. The shoulders have been shorn off John Rhind's neo-classical bust of Professor Sir John Leslie so that the bulldog head seems to rest on a chunky cubic block. It would make a good bollard.

Leslie was the inventor of the differential thermometer and the first to freeze water artificially, but his bust suggests that he is himself immune to all changes in temperature and location.

By contrast, many of the bronze busts from the late 19th and early 20th century suggest flux and flight. Albert Toft's bust of the lushly moustachioed Robert Bontine Cunningham Graham (1891), reputedly the first MP to be suspended for using the word "damn" in the House, is casually torn below the neck. Such gauche execution is entirely suited to a portrait of a tear-away. We can even see the sculptor's finger-marks where he gouged out the clay. Graham is naked, but being a dandy, is not in the least abashed by the liberties that have been taken with his torso.

The treatment of eyes is one of the most interesting and disconcerting aspects of busts. Neo-classicists often leave the eyes blank. In part, this was because they assumed this was what the Romans did (a misconception based on the disappearance of the paint and materials used to indicate eyes in Roman busts). More importantly, perhaps, they felt that a pupilless eye gave a sitter the gravitas and inwardness of a blind seer. Yet the convention suggests primal innocence as much as superior wisdom. This was the first child-centred age, and the blank eyes attached to trunkless heads often have something foetal about them. Indeed, the psychoanalyst in me says that these pupilless busts -- so immaculate, seamless and compact -- are manifestations of a desire to return to the womb. Why else would George Banks and John Leslie resemble bloated babies?

The modern bronze busts are far more animated, and do their best to eyeball the viewer with the aid of decisively incised pupils and irises. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's naked bust of the Australian artist Horace Brodzky (1913) is all zig-zaggy swagger - he's a definite Olympic gold medallist. For the first time in the exhibition, shoulders come into their own. They are attached to the torso like pistons. Between the eye-like nipples, Gaudier-Brzeska has graffitied a striding stick figure and a staring female face. With so much concentrated energy and vivacity, you expect it to explode.

The organisers are probably correct in their belief that the portrait bust is no longer a significant artform. They don't speculate on the reasons, but in the post-war period, avant-garde sculpture has tended to be far more strung out, sometimes vertically (Giacometti) but more often horizontally (Moore). The compactness and solidity of the traditional portrait bust may not have been in tune with these attenuated times. Nonetheless, several artists have recently made interesting self-portrait busts. Jeff Koons created a series of ecstatic white marble busts, alone and with his former wife, Cicciolina, entitled Bourgeois Bust; Janine Antoni concocted self-portrait busts out of chocolate and soap, which she proceeded to lick and lather; and, of course, Marc Quinn made his own bust from frozen blood. As so often in modern art, once an artform is beneath contempt, it becomes ripe for redemption.

Return to Life - A New Look at the Portrait Bust, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until 7 Jan 2001, then National Portrait Gallery, London and Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

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