Thursday, September 8, 2011

Modern Portraiture Despite the White Cube

"The notions of what constitutes a satisfying likeness are constantly redefined by the prevailing understanding of the nature of the object of portraiture - the sitter - and the means for its portrayal." (Tscherny, p193)

I discovered an artist whose work I'd never seen when I was reading the most recent Artist Profile Magazine (#16).  It includes an interview with an artist named Szabolcs Veres from Romania whose portraits are an uncanny and strange type of figurative art, which one can confidently call portraiure because of its composition which includes mainly the head and shoulders of its subject.  This reminded me that the advance of portraiture in contemporary art continued on a progression of development within the domain of drawing and painting that didn't necessarily parallel contemporary art wince the white cube.  I decided to outline a few examples of this type of portraiture including some antecedental  work from other artists since the influences of romanticism on figurative art practices.

Romantic portraiture changed the face of portraiture by presenting individual's thoughts, feelings and subjectivity through their visible appearance rather than previously where costume and dress could serve as an indicator of the subject.(Tscherney, p193)

As can be seen in Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of Dr. Samuel Johnson the painting includes a psychological element - Johnson's intensely gesticulating hands.  In this image Reynolds depicts a grotesqueness about his subject which pre-empts much portraiture of the years to follow. (Ibid, p194)  This was a step away from the "discreet and general" towards the "intimate and detailed" in portraiture.(Ibid, p195)

Samuel Johnson, 1770
by Joshua Reynolds
Oil on canvas 30" x 25 1/8"
Knole, Lord Sackville.

The Developments in Expressionism

Earlier this year the National Portrait Gallery of Australia produced an exhibition titled Inner Worlds:  Psychology and Portraiture which traced the relationship between psychology and portraiture in Australian painting.  Of these artists three mark a strong tendency in the path of modern portraiture and they are Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan and Joy Hester, who painted in the style of "psycho-expressionism" (Damousi, p115).

These developments could be seen even earlier particularly in Europe before the second World War and around the time of the first.  Artists such as Egon Shiele and Otto Dix documented the tragedies of war and captured charged emotions of the subjects that they depict.  It can be seen that in this expressionistic period a looseness of style developed and managed to abstract the face allowing further exaggerations with the material, and less canonically academic.  In doing so the artists working this way  developed a non-physical more psychological presence in the work.  The work appears less contrived and more spontaneous as if it were true document from the mind of its creator.

Despairing Head 1942 by Albert Tucker (1914-1999). 
Pastel on paper. 
Australian War Memorial, Canberra. 
Purchased 1990. Copyright Barbara Tucker.

 Miner 1, 1970-1979. 
by Sidney Nolan
Oil on Board.  
© The Sidney Nolan Trust

Face (with yellow background), 1947 
by Joy Hester
Heide Museum of Modern Art


Self Portrait.  Full-of-fear soldier in view of the trench and gases, 1983
by Dale Frank
Synthetic polymer paint and varnish on canvas, 200.0 x 180.0cm
Gift of the Morris Arts Grant 1988

"Throughout the 1980s he produced a series of large-scale drawings that visually explored heightened physical and psychological aspects of the body's sensations.  These images depicted exaggerated body parts (eyes, genitals, limbs) and surfaces that suggested expanses of stretched skin or muscle.  In these drawings the sense of self was keenly expressed as an experience of high sensitivity and raw feeling.  Artist and writer Jennifer McCamley suggested:  'This is an enactment and rendition of a state of extreme receptivity where, under the barrage of sensations, boundaries between self and other, interior and exterior became porous and permeable.'" (Chapman, p214)

His room was full of photos of himself justifiably proudly naked surrounded always by fully clothed acquaintances and friends, 2011
by Dale Frank.
varnish on canvas
200 × 200cm.

  Untitled Self Portrait No. 4:  From a series of 6, 1989. 
By Mike Parr
107.0 x 87.0cm dry-point etching on paper
Edition 5/8
Gift of the artist and Veridian Press 2005.

Mike Parr's drawings have a loose quality to the line.  They are documentations of a performative process which expose the "broader realms of the human psyche and cultural memory". (Hart, p206)  The etching plate is attacked by Parr as he hastily produces drawings allowing for his subconscious to hold control, this is also facilitated by Parr's lack of formal talent as a draughtsman. (Ibid, p208)  The idea of the uniqueness of the artist is ever present in the work of Mike Parr, particularly because of his physical disability - Parr has only one arm, a feature that empowers him by virtue of his difference and allows him to explore unique psychological themes (Ibid, p209).

Rorschach Woman, 1998.
By Marlene Dumas
Watercolour on paper, 125 x 71cm
MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main

Marlene Dumas work directly references the psychological concept of projection by the reference to the Rorschach inkblot in the image.  The psychological referencing is evidence that the development in this kind of abstraction is toward an understanding of the psychology of either the subject, or of the audience with whom it engages.  There is no part of the picture which is given detail to theextent of early romantic portraiture or before.  The rorschach aesthetic has clearly influenced the construction of Dumas practice allowing for a loose approach where accident can occur to be corrected by the interpretation made by the viewer.

Porthunt 16, 2010, 
Oil on canvas, 150 x 120 cm

Veres' composition is unquestionably that of  portrait, however the subjects of his work are of no particular person.  Veres presents the audience with the grotesque and seeking to break down subject-object distinctions (Lopes, p53).  Though the firgures in Veres' work are distinctly the features are left ambiguous in such a way that faces can be projected onto them.  Veres is exploring the grotesque and the effect is sublime and haunting - an emotional and psychological presence - testing the audiences capacity to accept or deny the faces that gaze back at them.

The notion of subject and object - self and other are enduring problems which have arisen out of the romantic notion of the empowered individual through reason and imagination.  Although contemporary art practices such as digital media, installation practices, photography and other newly developing artistic processes, the portrait painting and drawing on a two-dimensional platform is clearly alive and well on its own track toward exploring the body and mind.  Unlike the portraiture of the feudal pre-romantic world portraiture has the power to penetrate the nature of the individual, of experience and of being in the world as a subject of the portrait, the painter or the audience.


Chapman, Christopher "The Art of Inner Worlds" in Inner Worlds:  Portraits and Psychology edited by Christopher Chapman.  203-218.  ACT:  National Portrait Gallery, 2011.

Damousi, Joy.  "War Trauma, Psychology and Portraiture" in Inner Worlds:  Portraits and Psychology edited by Christopher Chapman.  111-118.  ACT:  National Portrait Gallery, 2011.

Hart, Deborah.  "Mike Parr:  The Absence of Memory" in Art and Australia Volume 32 No.2 (1994):  206-217.

Lopes, Steve.  "EMERGE Szabolcs Veres" in Artist Profile Issue 16 (2011):  53-55.

Tscherny, Nadia.  "Likeness in Early Romantic Portraiture" in Art Journal Volume 46, No 3 (1987):  193-199.

1 comment:

Mon chien chronique said...

You should see Maryse Lapointe's work.