PORTRAITS AS INTUITIVE HISTORY

an essay by louis briel

 

WHO'S NOT SAT TENSE BEFORE HIS OWN HEART'S CURTAIN?

--Rainer Maria Rilke

 

'I't is a risky thing to have one's portrait painted, for if the painter is good at what he does, he doesn't miss much. He's spent years training his eye, as well as his mind and his intuition. He has become a master of pulling aside the curtain of the heart. For the sitter, it can be a bit like seeing a therapist. What one chooses to reveal is not everything that gets revealed, and all of it, somehow, gets in the painting - even if both the artist and the subject try to dissemble. The most pleasant portrait studies - seemingly effortless, casual and carefree - may become complex documents about superficiality. They may become testaments not only to a relationship, but a time, a place, a social climate - even a mutually agreed upon contract to deceive. A cosmetically enhanced portrait of a fading beauty tells a story all its own - about the client, about the artist, about the hush money. A painting of a happy client by a morose painter may look foreboding, and a painting of a sad person by a happy painter may look content. The possibilities are endless.

A painter's relationship with his subject, then, is the thing which ultimately is painted. A painted portrait is a history of that relationship, written in pigment. Like every relationship, it will include disclosure and secrecy, feelings and suppressed feelings, good will and sometimes enmity. Like every relationship, it takes time to develop. Money, which enters the picture when a portrait is commissioned, may change the chemistry in such a way that the truth is shaded. Painted portraits, however, always reflect the truth.

Portraits are historical documents which include extended time. The word "portrait" itself is derived from the Latin "protrahere" - "to draw forth" -hence a painted portrait draws forth a likeness of the subject from available information. That information becomes available over extended time. In fact, it is this inclusion of time that distinguishes painted works from photographs. John Berger in his essay "Drawn to the Moment" says "a drawing slowly questions an event's appearance...it is a construction with a history... a drawing forces us to stop and enter its time... to draw is to look... a drawing of a tree shows not a tree, but a tree being looked at." Similarly, a portrait of a person shows not a person, but a person being looked at.

Berger continues, "A photograph is the evidence of an encounter between an event and a photographer." So, a photograph of a person is the record of an encounter between a person and a photographer. The photographer can stage the event so that it tells a story, seeming to include time, but he is always limited by the snap of the shutter, and the instant of real time included on the photographic emulsion is always just a split second. A photograph can include only real time . A painting,however, is a history, a construction, which includes all the time it takes to paint it, plus the time taken in planning and evaluation, from its inception to completion. It includes the time spent with a subject and those peripheral yet essential third parties to portrait commissions- welcome and unwelcome helpers - relatives and friends of both the subject and the artist. In cases where the artist has known the subject for a long time prior to beginning the painting, a wider range of information is available. All the information an artist uses as he paints becomes a genetic blueprint on which the portrait is indelibly and immutably based.

So portraits, like relationships, often include input from third parties, such as friends and family - of both the subject and the artist. As in relationships, the third parties bring their own baggage. Especially in posthumous portraiture, since the subject of the painting is unavailable, the painting depicts a relationship between the artist and subject through the eyes of others who collaborate in the production of the painted piece. Imagine the impact when the son of a prominent deceased man, looking at the nearly finished portrait of his dead father, said, " Some people won't think it looks mean enough." The painting becomes a complex document indeed. The painter, consciously or subconsciously, depicts all the information he is given - from photographs, video tapes, and the opinions and biases of loved ones and friends. Even when the painter purposely leaves out information, his omission is present in the adjacent brushstrokes, a guilty fingerprint in the paint. The portrait includes tears and laughter, pain and pleasure, written in pigment. A challenge in posthumous portraiture is that the painter not give too much weight to his client's grief, if the loss is recent, or the tendency of loved ones to deify the deceased, if that is the case. Still, everything the painter has learned from every source will show up somewhere in the painting. Nothing in the process happens by accident, and all of it is destined to reach the canvas. The portrait becomes an intuitive historical document.

   
back to the start
forward one page