Walking around the National Gallery's exhibition Renaissance Faces last week I bumped into the art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon. Nothing particularly noteworthy in that, you might think, given that it was a press view. But what was unusual was that Andrew was hanging on the wall. He was in a painting by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, and appeared to be wearing a cloak of marten fur and gesturing at the viewer in an admonitory way, as if he was making a critical point in a BBC documentary. I wouldn't have mentioned this frankly trivial resemblance if two people hadn't also brought it up subsequently. "Did you see Andrew Graham-Dixon at the show?" they asked, and I knew at once what they were referring to. It was a coincidence which got me thinking about the irretrievably impure way in which we look at portraits.
All three of us had experienced the same accidental jog to our facial recognition software. On closer inspection this unknown man didn't look exactly like Graham-Dixon after all, being a bit longer in the face and around 10 years older. But the set of the features was close enough to trip a switch in more than one person's mind – and that switch, once tripped, irretrievably coloured our reaction to the painting. I like Andrew, so I liked the painting – even though I found myself absurdly assessing its degree of likeness to a person the artist had never encountered. More to the point, I began attributing to this image a whole set of associations that could have had absolutely nothing to do with the artist's intentions or the sitter's own character. I was inclined to see in it a degree of "presence" and vividness that had everything to do with an accidental resemblance and almost nothing to do with Vermeyen's ability.
You could argue that this is just one of those things that occasionally happen. Some people are going to look up at God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and think "Goodness that looks exactly like Uncle Ralph!" and subsequently find it tricky to muster the right degree of awed piety. But I think the experience also points to a larger issue that arises when portraits are treated as fine art, as they are in the National Gallery's show.
There are a huge number of motives for creating portraits, several of them intriguingly elaborated in this exhibition – from commemoration of the dead to the pursuit of dynastic alliances. Over that there will very often be layered artistic motives of varying degrees of high-mindedness – from the desire to create a great and enduring image of a human condition to the desire to get paid. But in the portrait all of those impulses are curiously susceptible to the animal instincts of the people who end up looking at pictures.
We are, for example, animals that are acutely sensitive to gaze direction, tutored by evolution to analyse precisely where two eyes are looking. A little down, submissively? Or directly at us confrontationally? So when, at the National, you pass from a set of profiles – medallion-like in their stiff formality – to a portrait by Antonella da Messina, in which a young man stares directly at us, the effect is as if someone has met our eyes for the first time in a crowded room. Our reaction, at some level, is not that of a person considering a work of art but that of a person meeting a stranger and attempting to gauge whether they represent a threat or an opportunity. And what we subsequently say, quite often, has little to do with art as such and everything to do with us. No other kind of exhibition stirs our solipsism – our obsession with what and who we know – to quite the same degree.
Tina adds to the web of intrigue
In design terms trawling the internet is Russian roulette. You're never more than one click away from aesthetic atrocity, or sites that appear to have been designed by North Korean psy-ops agents to induce nervous breakdown in their users (my blood pressure is still subsiding after a horrifying entanglement with the AQA curriculum website). On the other hand you can stumble on to something unexpectedly good with the same rapidity. Tina Brown's (above) entry into web publishing, The Daily Beast, is worth checking out for a site that has thoughtfully invented its own way of doing things, but if you want something that simultaneously slows your heartbeat and flatters your sense of intellectual curiosity you should check out thinkagain.theatlantic.com – an intriguing cross between an art installation and a cultural symposium. It poses a number of debating points – such as "What's the Cost of Being a Nerd?" or "Was God an Accident" and the answers you get are pretty much the same cocktail of blather, prejudice and trace elements of brilliance that you find elsewhere on the net. But it's a long time since I've seen questions put so beautifully.
It's always pleasing when apparently contemporary idioms turn out to have a longer history than you would have thought. Reading Duncan Wu's biography of William Hazlitt recently I was struck by Coleridge's description of the young Hazlitt as "brow-hanging, shoe contemplative". How extraordinary, I thought; Hazlitt was an Emo shoe-gazer a good 200 years before either term came into common currency. Can anyone push the history of staring awkwardly at your feet even further back in the literary record?