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Portraiture Brilliant

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  • Introduction

    Others in museums pass them bybut I, Iam drawn like a maggot to meatby their pupilless eyesand their pufrefying individuality.JOHN IJPDIKE Roman Portrait Busts

    Neither do I pass them by. I, too, am drawn to the avidcontemplation of Roman and all other portraits because theygive life to historical persons, freed from the bonds of mortality. Portraits stock the picture galleries of my memory withthe vivid images of people, once known or previouslyunknown, now registered, preserved, and accessible throughworks of art that have become momentarily transparent. It isas if the art works do not exist in their own material substancebut, in their place, real persons face me from the other sideor deliberately avoid my glance. Quickly enough the illusiondissipates; I am once more facing not a person but that persons image, embodied in some work of art that asks me toregard it as such.And yet, the oscillation between art object and human sub

    ject, represented so personally, is what gives portraits theirextraordinary grasp on our imagination. Fundamental to portraits as a distinct genre in the vast repertoire of artistic representation is the necessity of expressing this intendedrelationship between the portrait image and the human original. Hans-Georg Gadamer called this intended relationoccasionality, precisely because the portrait, as an art work,contains in its own pictorial or sculptural content a deliberateallusion to the original that is not a product of the viewersinterpretation but of the portraitists intention. For Gadamer,a portraits claim to significance lies in that intended reference, whether the viewer happens to be aware of it or not.1Therefore, the viewers awareness of the art work as a portraitis distinctly secondary to the artists intention to portraysomeone in an art work, because it is the artist who estab

    i Bust of Senecadetail from PeterPaul Rubens, FourPhilosophers (seeilus. 13)

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  • lishes the category portrait. The very fact of the portraitsallusion to an individual human being, actually existing outside the work, defines the function of the art work in theworld and constitutes the cause of its coming into being.This vital relationship between the portrait and its object ofrepresentation directly reflects the social dimension of humanlife as a field of action among persons, with its own repertoireof signals and messages.This is a book about that relationship and about the things

    people do with, and expect from, portraits. It is not principally about how individual portraits can be identified butabout the concepts that generate ideas of personal identityand lead to their fabrication in the imagery of portraits, deeplyinfluencing their creation and their reception. In this regardI shall also address the reasons why so many viewers feelcompelled to ascertain the names given to the images of men,women, and children in portraits once the art works areknown to be portraits when the same viewers feel no similarcompulsion to do so in their encounter with art works in othergenres. Neither is this book about the attribution and datingof individual portraits, perhaps because that has been, andremains, an overwhelming preoccupation of so many art historians and collectors. Instead, it is about the way portraitsstifle the analysis of representation, about the relationshipbetween the presentation of the self in the real world andits analogue in the world of art, and about the necessaryincorporation of the viewers gaze into the subject matterof portraiture. In sum, this book investigates the genre ofportraiture as a particular phenomenon of representation inWestern art that is especially sensitive to changes in the perceived nature of the individual in Western society.Simply put, portraits are art works, intentionally made of

    living or once living people by artists, in a variety of media,and for an audience. Portraits may survive as physical objectsfor a very long time and their images may be transferred toother media and even replicated in vast numbers (e.g., onpostage stamps) with significant consequences in reception.In principle, however, only the audience is ill-defmed at thetime of the portraits making, and it has unlimited potentialfor new appraisals of the person portrayed or for the generation of misunderstandings born of ignorance. The genre ofportraiture, thus defined, excludes representations of named

    horses, dogs, cats, or other favoured animals, as well ashouses, cars, ships, trains, aeroplanes, and other inanimatethings. Since the eighteenth century, at least, the term portrait has been applied to all such images because of theirexplicit referentiality and, indeed, some individuals seem torelate to pets and to moving objects as if they were human, nodoubt a comforting fallacy in a difficult, often hostile world.Despite the interest such images may possess for the studyof representation, and for the analysis of the projection ofhuman values on to non-human subjects, they are allexcluded from consideration here. They are irrelevant to thecore of the genre that involves the representation of the structuring of human relationships going back to the earliest stagesof life, when the interacting self comes into existence.The dynamic nature of portraits and the occasionality that

    anchors their imagery in life seem ultimately to depend onthe primary experience of the infant in arms. That child, gazing up at its mother, imprints her vitally important image sofirmly on its mind that soon enough she can be recognizedalmost instantaneously and without conscious thought; spontaneous face recognition remains an important instrument ofsurvival, separating friend from foe, that persists into adultlife. A little later a name, Mama or some other, will beattached to the now familiar face and body, soon followed bya more conscious acknowledgement of her role vis--vis theinfant as mother or provider, and finally by an understanding of her character, being loving and warmly protectivetowards the infant (in an ideal world, of course!). Eventuallythe infant will acquire a sense of its own independent existence, of itself as a sentient being, responding to others, andpossessing, as well, its own given name. Here are the essentialconstituents of a persons identity: a recognized or recognizable appearance; a given name that refers to no one else;a social, interactive function that can be defined; in context, apertinent characterization; and a consciousness of the distinction between ones own person and anothers, and of the possible relationship between them.2Only physical appearance isnaturally visible, and even that is unstable. The rest is conceptual and must be expressed symbolically. All these elements,however, may be represented by portrait artists who mustmeet the complex demands of portraiture as a particular challenge of their artistic ingenuity and empathetic insight.

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  • Visual communication between mother and child is effected face-to-face and, when those faces are smiling, everybodyis happy, or appears to be. For most of us, the human face isnot only the most important key to identification based onappearance, it is also the primary field of expressive action,replete with a variety of looks whose meaning is subject tointerpretation, if not always correctly, as any poker playerknows.3 That larger physical movements, embodied in gaitand gesture, could also be characteristic of particular individuals has long been recognized. Quoting his father, thegreat seventeenth-century sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini,Domenico Bernini observed that, If a man stands still andimmobile, he is never as much like himself as when he movesabout. His movement reveals all those personal qualitieswhich are his and his alone.4 Bernini pre translated actualmotion into the baroque dynamics of his portraits, but fewportraits at any time, even so-called realistic portraits, evershow anyone smiling or talking or moving with the exception,perhaps, of the candid photograph with its apparent lifelikequality and limited ambition. One must remember that themost human characteristic of all the act of speaking splitsthe face wide open, but portraits rarely show this because thegenre operates within social and artistic limits.Most portraits exhibit a formal stillness, a heightened

    degree of self-composure that responds to the formality ofthe portrait-making situation. Either the sitter composes himself, or the portraitist does it to indicate the solemnity ofthe occasion and the timelessness of the portrait image asa general, often generous statement, summing up a life.Portraits of persons who occupy significant positions in thepublic eye statesmen, intellectuals, creative artists, warheroes, and approved champions usually bear the gravamen of their exemplary public roles; they offer up images ofserious men and women, worthy of respect, persons whoshould be taken equally seriously by the viewing audience.When such dignitaries smile, their smiles resemble theexpressions of actors or politicians and are usually taken assomething other than true, unaffected expressions of feeling.But even private portraits, made for more modest people whodo not occupy the public space in any significant way, havea public aspect, perhaps because their images are indeterminate extensions of themselves that may one day escape from

    the boundaries of privacy.5 In the twentieth century, theolder distinctions between the public and the private spherehave broken down, with a concomitant effect on the typesof portraiture once considered appropriate for each. When,however, fame comes in fifteen-minute bits, as Andy Warholtrenchantly observed, very little remains private.Portraits exist at the interface between art and social life

    and the pressure to conform to social norms enters into theircomposition because both the artist and the subject are