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Monday, 27 April 2009

Facing it.

Publication of the three short-listed portraits for this year's BP Portrait Award set me thinking about the possible justifications for such a high profile award for a branch of art much regarded as one of its Cinderellas. On the one hand the competition is very popular with the public. On the other, that same public seems to rate portraiture much as it rates still life: charming, but little more. Many artists (apart from portrait painters, of course) seem to rate the competition as an irrelevance. The fact that all the submissions are traditional-style works with not an abstract or an even a remotely avant-garde painting to be seen, might be taken as confirmation of that stance. (In fact the competition was founded specifically to combat the wave upon wave of modern and modernistic works flooding on to the market.) Others consider the whole concept of competition to be out of place in the context of art. However, my interest just now is with portraiture itself and not with the competition - though I will just add that the exhibition is invariably of a very high standard, and this year's short list promises that it will be so again. The entries will be on show in The National Portrait Gallery from the 18th June until the 14th September.

When speaking of portraiture in this context I am ignoring the corporate side of the family, the public representation of the great and the good, the pontiff and the general, the local dignitary in his fine robes, perhaps holding the symbols of his office. I am focussing entirely on the private portrait, the one over which the artist has control and is not in hock to the sitter or his patrons.

It is often said that the human figure is the most difficult of all subjects to render in visual terms. It isn't, of course, the difference between representing Uncle Ben on canvas and, say, a fox, is that we understand in greater detail and with more certainty how a human being (Uncle Ben) is constructed than how a fox is put together, we are more aware of his proportions and contours and what is normal and what outside the norm than is the case with the fox. And even if we take, not a fox but a pet as the example, the argument still applies. No matter how much we may love our dog or our cat, the clincher is that we have never been one, our critical faculties are not engaged to the same expert level. And so we are more confident that we know what is possible or what is right and what is a mistake or a distortion. our judgements have more authority. That is why life drawing, clothed or unclothed, was traditionally the linchpin of art training. (It is not so nowadays, I understand. Art schools are dropping it from their curricula because students are refusing to attend the classes.)

The same factors are at work in the case of portraiture as in that of life drawing, but others come into play as well. As a species we are really very adept at discerning character in a human face. Some individuals, indeed, pride themselves on having such abilities to a particularly marked degree, but all of us are probably reasonably efficient. However, reproducing in paint what we claim to be able to discern - or maybe only intuit - in the flesh is another matter. Even so, the one who could not have painted the portrait, could not have hoped to catch the likeness can maybe see at a glance if the character conveyed is one that hangs together, is a possible, even a convincing portrayal. Even more exacting, and from the same - if heightened - criteria, is the self-portrait. Paul Klee wrote: Art does not represent the visible, it makes visible and to my mind there must be an element of making visible in any work of art.

We must never forget, however, that the portraitist, and especially the self-portraitist, may have a hidden agenda no less than the painter of corporate portraits. Two of the finest show this very clearly. Rembrandt painted dozens of self portraits, more probably than any other artist of his standing, and in each one he is depicted trying on a different role. Rubens painted only four, spread out through the course of his career, and in each he is the same as in the other three. Age did not weary him - or take any sort of toll, so far as his portrayals of himself were concerned. Not a bad way to reassure yourself in life, I suppose.

The images, in order, are: "Manuel" by Annalisa Avancini, "Tom" by Michael Gaskell and "Changeling" by Peter Monkman.

I have been challenged to the following meme by Lizzy Frizzfrock, so here goes...

1. My current obsession, in so far as I have one, is the poetry of W.S.Graham.

2.The item ofclothing I wear most often is probably the oldest shirt I possess.

3.What's for dinner - hopefully either a curry or red snapper.

4. I prefer to listen to either Bach (J.S.) or Benjamin Britten.

5.A word of thanks to Lizzie for thinking of me - I just hope that she will not be disappointed with the result (or the time I've taken to respond).

6.Favourite vacation spot Don't have one really, we tend to make for places we have not been before. Northern Italy of the Norwegian Fjords come closest.

7. I am reading Grey Gowrie's "Third Day : New and Selected Poems" and "Stepping Stones : Interviews of Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll".

8. Four words to describe myself: impatient, optimistic, impractical, forgiving.

9.Guilty Pleasures: Single malts.

10.First spring-cleaning thing: the computer

11. I look forward to finishing my current project, whatever it happens to be - even though I know I shall hate having finished it.

12. I guess I am now supposed to tag a chosen group of fellow bloggers, but instead I am going to demonstrate my independence of spirit and make it an open tag for anyone who would like to take it up. Please leave a note on my blog, though, if you decide to do so.

Whilst on the subject of Facing it and alluding to the post immediately before this, we had our two grandsons for their weekly meal yesterday, the conversation turned to Palestine and Gaza, the younger of the two (18) said: "Well, we caused it Grandad, after all that Hitler did to them, we did the same. It was us who put them in that mousetrap and left them with their enemies." I have never doubted our complicity, but hearing it put that starkly and that particular spin on it... I have not quite gotten over it yet. Is that the way the younger generation sees it, I wonder?


Rachel Green said...

Interesting thoughts, Dave. I am, I have to admit, in awe of portraiture. Some of the finest works of art, in my opinion.

That Janie Girl said...

I'm glad I snuck over here to read you today. You make me think!

Michelle said...

They drop life drawing??? Wow, that's like doing maths but leaving out algebra ...or some such thing :)

The Hitler/Palestine observation was most apt I thought.



Shadow said...

interesting read. the classification of art boggles my brain, and the appreciation thereof? in the eye of the beholder.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

I have to say that I am in awe of anyone who can paint a face so that it resembles a photograph, as with "Tom". "Manuel" is also excellent. "Changeling" seems an unkind representation to me and not a portrait in the sense with which I feel comfortable.

Stephen Dell'Aria said...

The ability to paint good portraiture is certainly a unique gift like having the ability to sing. Sometimes, I think, this amazing perceptual skill just clears the slate of all other concerns as we marvel at our face executed in paint. Outside of atelier schools where the very talented hone their craft, I agree, the art world doesn’t seem to care that much. The scores of great artists who lacked this ability are also many and they certainly contribute to our understanding of life but I think the portrait master will always stop us in our tracks as a portion of our brain stumbles over seeing a painted image of the human face almost trick us into thinking it is real.

Unknown said...

Fascinating observations-- I was really absorbed in reading this. Thanks.

A Cuban In London said...

OK, time to 'fess up. I am one of those people for whom classical portraiture is very overrated. And I am referring mainly to the Velasquez and co. More contemporary portraits are more appealing.

Many thanks for another brilliant post.

Greetings from London.

Cheryl Cato said...

Dave, this is another fabulous & insightful post. Even though I have little in the way of what I shall term "realistic" art, I am very partial to such. The middle portrait of "Tom" by Michael Gaskell is superb. It is so realistic as to appear photographic. "Changeling" is hauntingly beautiful with the light coming from her back & over the left shoulder. I like the abstract quality of "Manuel" but tend to favor the intricate brush strokes in "Tom".

You have graced us with yet another powerful post and for this I would like you to pick up a little something at my blog. (It will be a few minutes before I get it posted.)

Cheryl Cato said...

Dave, I meant to comment on your grandson's remarks. There are growing sentiments here in the US as well as worldwide that the Palestinians have been terribly hurt by the situation in Gaza. This is not an area where I am an expert, however, it does seem that both sides are at fault.
Just recently I received an email to remind the recipients that indeed there was a holocaust even though it is being rejected by some people of the world. There has never been any doubt in my mind of that fact after all US soldiers participated in freeing those imprisoned in concentration camps.
Atrocities abound worldwide and no one either presently or historically is exempt.
Your posts are so thought provoking.

Anonymous said...

When my son did his degree in Fine Art, he spent quite a lot of time on self portraiture. He graduated in 2001. As someone with no artistic talent whatsoever I admire anyone who can paint, not least the human face and form. All three of the paintings have (differing) expressions that I find arresting.

Dave King said...

Leatherdykeuk I understand what you are saying. They certainly can be. Alas, they tend to be a touch unfashionable these days, and have been for a few decades. Hence the idea behind the award.

Janie Nice remark. Thanks.

Michelle I like your analogy, it's spot on in my opinion.

I'm afraid I recoiled from the Hitler / Palestine thing initially, but later, thinking it over, came around to it.

Shadow I think I see what you are getting at. We do love our labels.

Derrick I agree on both counts. I stand back in amazement at the technique displayed by some. I also agree that Changeling is not a portrait in the normally accepted meaning of the word. I do find it moving, though, and don't feel it to be unkind. But I guess you'd have to know the back story to be sure.

Stephen Good analogy, the singing one. I also fully agree with your remarks about the portrait master.

John Thanks for that comment.

A Cuban in London I think you would have to say that the art (craft?) was more necessary in the days of Velasquez et al.

Lizzy Frizzfrock My dad was in the second wave of allied troops and saw something of Belsen. He could never talk about it, but I was seeing pictures on the newsreels at the cinema and drew my own conclusions. It amazes me that those who deny the holocaust have been allowed to gain so much credence. Thank you for your comments.

Dave King said...

WatermaidIt's heartening to hear that at least in 2001 the schools were still teaching skills.

Carl said...

Hi Dave,

I tend to think that the people who don't appreciate portraiture / still life. are not seeing more than the surface. I find I can look at portraits and still lifes for hours and hear the artist cleary speaking about themselves and not the subjetc of the painting, but that is just me. There are plenty of types of art that I like well enough, but am not struck by. Then again I may just be sentimental at heart.

I'll sit down and answer your meme. I'll post it on my site and let you know when I have done it.


Cecile/DreamCreateRepeat said...

Dave, a lovely post! And I shall take you up on your "open challenge" as I am in a lazy mood today (its raining) and that will supply today's blogging inspiration! ; )

I think the true treasure -- and measure -- of a portrait is whether you feel you sense a personality behind the eyes. Therefore the top portrait does not quite "do" it for me (a mug shot comes to mind when the subject does NOT want to connect) and the bottom is interestingly challenging and something more than just human.

The second portrait is amazing!

Carl said...

Hi Dave! I posted the meme over at my blog. come over and take a look.


Ronda Laveen said...

It is hard to believe that schools are dropping life drawing. It seems, to me, to be the basis for almost all work. Anatomy is fascinating. I thought that the second portrait was a photograph.

I enjoyed reading your responses to Lizzy's meme.

Delphine said...

Hi Dave - glad you like curry! Grandchildren they test your outlook on life don't they! The portraits were well chosen for their differences! I was fascinated by life-likeness of "Tom" , also saw the true character in Manuel, and I think the lady who posed for Changeling thought she was giving nothing away, but quite the opposite was the result!

Kat Mortensen said...

I should like to sit down with you at a kitchen table over a curry and a single malt (I like Laphroaig). I'm sure I would learn a great deal from you and you might have a few laughs with me.


Rachel Fox said...

I enjoyed reading your meme answers. You are not one of the people who gives out a lot of personal info in your blog and I am incurably inquisitive so it was nice to get to know you a little better!

Cat said...

I believe I have been in love with the portrait since I was sixteen and saw John Singer Sargent's Dr. Possi. I fell in love with him. I could almost hear him breathing. To think an artist can do this is amazing to me.
As for your dinner conversation, my daughters and I have had discussions over the last 3 years about the treatment of the Jews and the fighting in Gaza. They still find it hard to understand why they cannot get along. I keep telling them there is so much history to be dealt with. They do not teach world history as they should in schools now. It's very sad and will hurt us in the future since we should really be learning from it. Right? Wishful thinking.

Karen said...

Dave - I love portraiture and don't believe for a minute that there's "no art to find the mind's construction in the face."

I also appreciate the glimpse of you through the meme.

Jeanne Estridge said...

I think I liked "Changeling" the best.

And, now that I've read your meme, I can see why I like you so much: I share your 4 traits.

Sarah Laurence said...

Interesting reflection on portraiture. Those samples are rather traditional but still well done. I took years of figure drawing classes and thoroughly enjoyed it. I prefer messy charcoal and gesture drawings.

Lyn said...

Really enjoyed this post..thank you.. We never tire of looking at faces, whether sitting across from us, or fixed to canvas.
The portrait of "Manuel" is beautiful and disturbing..but art makes the darkness visible.

Anonymous said...


Interesting insights!

Curry for dinner? mmm!

Poetic Artist said...

It is so true what you speak. Artist that can draw the human face is extreme in talent. Yet they must capture the soul in the eyes and I think that it truly where the most accomplished artist talent will shine.
Thank you for always making our mind go that next step.


They are Excellent - Today to have the best tecnic is very important .Tired of the art freedom we do exactly what the oriental artist did in the ninetes(i was at the art league in N.Y. at this time and Isee by my eyes )SO , the order was dictated by chinese ( CHINESE NEW FIGURATION) we quickly, staring to to competing ..I like this FIRST PORTRAIT -of nearly painful Expression -THE SECOND ONE- very technical in terms of painting(dutch portrait????) ,THE LAST ONE AS THE FIRST --based in the drawing -D√úRER, RAFAEL MICHELANGELO and LEONARDO ???

I just finish three portraits .

Dave King said...

Carl Interesting observation that a portrait says as much about the artist as it does the sitter - well, you didn't quite say that, but we'll not split hairs, I guess. The point is well made and too often overlooked. We are fully appreciative of it in practically every other sphere of painting, but for some reason not so much where portraiture is concerned.

No, I don't think you are being sentimental. It is an aspect I should have drawn out in my post.

Thanks for that, and thanks for the meme. I shall pop over and have a look.

Cecile/DreamCreateRepeat Thanks for the meme promise. I agree with you re the personality behind the eyes and with the thought that the bottom portrait is something more than human, but I feel that also - in a different way - about the top one.

Ronda I fully agree with you on all three points - I too thought it a photograph.

Delphine Again, I agree all the way, particularly with your last point!

Rachel Thanks for that - I think there are those who think me too confessional in my poetry!

Cathy I agree with you about the Possi portrait.
I also agree about the teaching of history. I think they are too afraid of being accused of bias or of teaching politics - how can you not? Surely the requirement is to own up to it. I was, therefore, really bucked to discover how much my two grandchildren knew about the situation, historically as well as in the present.

Karen I do agree with that. As to the second point, I cannot comment! Thanks, though.

Jeanne I think I do, too. At the moment, though I keep going b ack to the top one. Hail, soul friend!

Sarah Again, I agree. Again, especially with your last remark.
I think only traditional works get hung in the BP.

Lyn Exactly. Well said.

The Things We Carried Not very often, though. My wife doesn't like it.

Poetic Artist Agreed, the true talent is intuitional, I think.

Elaine I haven't studied the influence of the orient on this branch of art. It's an interesting thought. I think perhaps I ought to at some point. Thank you.

Rachel Fox said...

I think you should be as confessional as you think fit! Some of the greatest poets are confessional...and others are not.

Ruth said...

Thank you for interesting reflection. It got me thinking again about an interview I'm reading in the current The Sun about how we don't parse out individual characteristics of familiar faces. But those we don't recognize, we consider whether someone has a dominant nose, mouth, etc. I imagine painting oneself would be a most challenging prospect - what to reveal/make visible that others may not know, while making oneself recognizable.

The Clever Pup said...

I enjoyed reading this about you.
Thanks for the compliments about my site.

The Clever Pup said...

I enjoyed reading this about you.
Thanks for the compliments about my site.

Carl said...

Hi Dave

You expressed my thoughts more clearly and quickly than I.

Thank You!

Danny Wise said...

Hi Dave, the more I read your posts, the more I realise just how little I know. A very informative, and enjoyable read.

Rosaria Williams said...

I like your statement, all art makes visible the invisible.

Dave King said...

Rachel Yes, thanks for that word of support, Rachel. It's roughly how I felt about it!

Ruth Interesting thoughts. I wonder whether we parse out our own features, when not studying tham for a self-portrait, or whether we treat them as any other familiar face. Thanks for that. Food for further thought there.

The Clever Pup The compliments were thoroughly deserved. Thanks for visiting.

Carl And thank you for the visit.

SweetTalkingGuy Thanks for the generous comment.

lakeviewer Thanks, though I can't take the credit, it was some fellow called Klee!

Anonymous said...

Dave, I have given you the Kreative Blogger Award. To find out what is involved please visit Watermaid's Weblog.

Fantastic Forrest said...

I have always loved portraits. Whenever we travel, I am drawn to study the faces to better understand people from the past.

I'm also very fond of caricature by artists like Daumier and Hirschfeld. Good political caricaturists can doom their subjects; Richard Nixon identified the need to "erase the Herblock image," and Thomas Nast's depiction of Boss Tweed led to the villain being recognized and arrested.

Although I love to visit the National Portrait Gallery in DC, I always make time to go to the Swann Gallery of Caricature and Cartoon at the Library of Congress. Such fun! You can view a number of their exhibitions online at http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/swann/swann-exhibits.html

I, too, appreciated the little "portrait" you gave of yourself in the meme.

And you have brilliant grandsons. Obviously the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree. :-)

Rose Marie Raccioppi said...

Firstly, thank you ever so much for visiting APOGEE Poet. Your comments are most appreciated.

My youngest son is an artist and sculptor with focus on the human figure. I can readily identify with your expressed observations. Focus on the human figure calls for a level of awareness, confront and resolve not readily adopted. His devotion and discipline are indeed exemplary.

I look forward to your offerings.

Best always,

Rose Marie


This is a long story I spent hours talking with Hulteberg on this topic. But, now I need more information about you and your work . Can you ?send me

Tess Kincaid said...

Are you familiar with Nelson Shanks? My daughter did some figure modeling for him last year.

I must check out W.S. Graham.

Thursday, I got brave and posted a piece of my own poetry. It turned out to be not as painful as I imagined. I'd seriously like to know what you think, Dave.

Cheryl Cato said...

Dave, I certainly understand about posting awards. If you want to keep them maybe you could set up a separate blog called Dave's Awards & Treasures just to house your awards! Then you could put a link from your regular blog to that one! I'm saying all this only half seriously.
No offense taken; I just think you are very deserving.
Have a great weekend!!!

Dave King said...

Fantastic Forrest It seems to be an overwhelming vote of confidence for portraiture, which is very reassuring. I am not surprised: it tallies with the popularity of the BP Award.

Thanks for the Swann Gallery address, I shall certainly have a look. I agree with you that they are great fun. One of my grandsons is a fairly able cartoonist. When he was at school the art teacher rubbished all his work (not just the cartooning) because she thought him not a serious student on account of it!

Thanks for those comments. Most helpful.

Rose Marie Welcome to my blog. I very much enjoyed my visit to you and am grateful for your very helpful comments.

Elaine Thanks for the visit. Not sure what info' you are wanting. I am retired and I can't think what you might want about me!

Willow I do not know Nelson Shanks, no, but will check him out. Will certainly have a look at your poem.

Lizzy That is quite a god idea. I have seen "Award Sites", now I come to think of it. I will certainly give it a bit of thought. Thanks for the suggestion.

Dick said...

Another fine thought-provoking and provocative post, Dave. For what it's worth, it impressed my highly critical art teacher partner!

Jim Murdoch said...

Competitions and pettinesses aside, I have to confess a long-abiding fascination with all kinds of portraiture. Humans are my preferred subject but I've seen some damn good animal painting in my time although most veer towards the overtly sentimental. Actually above our couch in the living room we have a rather handsome large drawing of a cow we hauled all the way from Oban on the train.

In my office the focal point is an original self-portrait of a young lady done in pencil which I never tire noticing on the wall. I think I like portraits so much because I find people endlessly fascinating but it's hard to get away staring at one for any length of time before they notice and whatever truth you hoped to spy is lost to you.