Friday, 9 February 2018

Watch the Birdie!



Having said a few posts ago that "portraiture is not really my thing", for the last week or two – inevitably – it has become the central focus of my activity. You can tell a true contrarian because they will evade even their own categorisations, once stated. Not my thing? I'll show you, matey! Don't hang your sign on me!

Of course, the problem with portraits is that they require someone to portray, an actual person who is willing to submit to portrayal. Such people are in short supply around here. My partner, for example, is one of those who freezes into an unflattering rictus at the sight of a camera lens, and who has a talent for blinking at precisely the same instant and for exactly the same duration as the opening of the camera shutter. I keep reading that the important part of photographic portraiture is creating a rapport with the subject in the minutes leading up to the snap. It seems forty-four years of acquaintance are not enough to build a rapport with certain subjects. Or maybe there's a curve here: I suspect peak rapport may have been achieved somewhere around 1996.

So, what does the aspiring portraitist do, when starved of willing live subjects? Regular readers may recall my little adventure last year into the business of constructed portraiture, with my "Elective Family Album". It seemed an obvious route to take again. After all, I have decades of photographs of friends and family: why not recycle some of those? Even when blessed with such camera-shy subjects, I have managed the odd success. Generally either by pretending to be doing something else, or by being totally relentless. Honestly, it's been like photographing elusive wildlife... Maybe I should have installed motion-sensor activated cameras around the house?

Anyway, so that's what I've been doing (making constructed portraits from family snaps, not installing CCTV). Obviously, the "straight" photographs I have been choosing to work with have to be compelling enough in themselves, but I think recontextualizing them and adding a little decoration – all right, quite a lot of decoration – so as to give some hint of the interior life developing, say, behind the engaging smile of a chubby ten-year-old is not superfluous. After all, it's precisely what a portraitist using paints would do.

Admittedly, when it comes to the painted portrait, I incline more towards the Tom Phillips school than, say, that of Francis Bacon. It is a curious business, though, portraiture, and one calculated to expose the true nature and limits of your art appreciation. I recently went up to the National Portrait Gallery to see the "Cézanne Portraits" exhibition, allegedly a five-star, once-in-a-lifetime, must-see show. But, if I'm honest, the Cézannes did little for me: I find it hard to get excited by the systematic reduction of your wife's head to a characterless ovoid block. Clearly, this says a lot about Cézanne's views on the nature and development of painting, but it also speaks volumes about his developing view of his wife and, indeed, all his sitters. Are people just more shapes and smudges in a carefully arranged field of other toned and coloured shapes and smudges? Apparently so. Is that revelatory? I don't find it so.

Having given this show-of-a-lifetime a solid fifteen minutes, I had plenty of time to stroll around the National Portrait Gallery. What I do love in the NPG are the Tudor portraits – Holbein is my kind of portraitist, especially those sublime drawings, not surpassed in 500 years – and a good many of the Victorian and Edwardian portraits, sorted by class of achievement (writers, explorers, entertainers, reformers, statesmen, etc.) rather than by artist. Surely this is the right way round when it comes to portraits, to prioritize the subject and their characteristics (including at least some aspects of their physical, external appearance), rather than dwelling on the artist's sensibility and its place in art history? "The human face as a beautiful mystery" versus "My wife as a featureless egg"?


4 comments:

Andy Webster said...

So, what does the aspiring portraitist do, when starved of willing live subjects?...

I just did a workshop with Rory Lewis at the NPG and we made extensive use of the gallery portraits for reference... yes, especially the Tudors. The question of willing live ones arose too, and Rory explained he used actors. Well known ones for him, but no shortage of aspiring/leisure actors in most areas, who are generally very willing to collaborate. I shall be contacting local dramatic societies forthwith...

Mike C. said...

Andy,

That's an interesting idea -- find people who will sit still and pull the required faces on demand! No doubt they'd want paying, though.

On the other hand, it seems a bit false, like those "friends" on Facebook you've never met, or the people who rock up to Nigella's TV dinner parties, pretending to be actual regular guests. Although I admit a bit of fakery does appeal to me, too, if it all ends up with some good pictures...

Mike

Andy Webster said...

Ah, the 'genuine' portrait... a contradiction in terms?

Mike C. said...

Andy,

"Genuine" anything, really, when it comes to flat, oblong representations of reality!

Which reminds me, thinking of actors, portraits, and such: I must finish watching "Final Portrait" on Netflix ("After agreeing to sit for a portrait, writer James Lord gets an intimate glimpse of the erratic genius of acclaimed Swiss painter Alberto Giacometti"). I'll watch anything with Geoffrey Rush in it, even "Pirates of the Caribbean"... I wonder how much he'd charge for a portrait session?

Mike