Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Why paint portraits in 2010 ?

Last night was hot sticky and I couldn't sleep, and I started thinking about my visit to the National Portrait Gallery, and why we still have portraits, when a good photograph is so much better a representation.

When I worked for AIATSIS we had a set of photographic portraits of past Principals in teh staff entrance. Individually they were unremarkable. Collectively they told a story - the first few were of old white males, the rest of aboriginal people including a black woman, Marcia Langton. Collectively they told a powerful story of increasing emancipation and status.

In the beginning portaits existed to show what someone looked like - or not - think of all the minatures and renaissance marriage market portraits. However it remains the case that before photography portraits were the only way to get a representation up there, and mostly it was all about power and status. Having your portrait painted was an expression of power, wealth, and if it included your children, fecundity.

I once saw a wonderful documentary by Roy Strong explaining why the British National Portrait Gallery was full of pictures of fat bastards (I paraphrase). Basically rich people were better fed, wore better clothes and had nicer looking children, and owned lovely background landscapes (like Derbyshire). So the picture said 'I am rich, have nice food to eat, nice clothes, clean underwear and don't smell'.

And this is why eighteenth and nineteenth portraits are full of sleek smugness. Interestingly you look at portraits from Renaissance Florence and this is not the case, the people look harder, edgier, more pressured - the portraits are more realistic, more an accurate representation.

Now towards the end of the nineteenth century it became possible to have large monochrome portraits, and so gradually the use portraiture to emphasise status faded away, although look at any wedding or graduation photograph, my own included, and you can see the continued use of the image to demonstrate status and success. It's just become democratised and moved to photography.

Portraits became restricted to the great and the good, by reasons of tradition more than anything. And because they no longer needed to be strictly representation they became more 'modern' in style. Unfortunately they also became utterly sterile, as in the case of Brian Organ's portraits of the British Royal Family. Impressionistic but not impressionist, and about as involving as the endless socialist realist portraits of long forgotten members of east European politburos.

At the same time as portraits moved to photography, you also had the rise of impressionism. This had two effects - portraits which were impressionistic in style and those that were truly impressionist.

For example the portrait of FW Pring Esq is imprssionist in style, all pastel strokes and vaguely reminiscent of a Van Gogh self portrait but revealing nothing about the individual as a person - a nice enough picture but not involving. On the other hand the portrait of Grace Cossington Smith is highly revealing.

Grace Cossington Smith is in my opinion overrated as an artist - basically she went to England, came back, lived a privileged suburban life and spent the next forty years drawing pictures inspired by what she saw out of her window or from pictures in the Sydney Morning Herald. Apart from some pictures of the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built she produced nothing of note. In short she was a boring person, and not someone who led a characterful life. Her highly impressionistic portrait captures this perfectly with blob of red for her lips capturing her prissy expression - the expression described by Les Dawson as "looking like a hen's bum".

And this is it - portraits are no longer about wealth and status, but about what they reveal about the person within. Brett Whietly's "Wendy Drunk" is basically a quick scribble, but says far more about the person than any formal portrait of a past prime minister or governor general - because it shows the person within, and not that they can afford a decent suit...

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