PORTRAITS AS INTUITIVE HISTORY

an essay by louis briel

 

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All portraits are opinions. Portrait painters, working on commission, are paid for their painted opinions. The reputation of the painter, how valued his opinions are, determines his marketability. Often he is hired for his reputation for kindness, sometimes just for his reputation itself. Remember, too, that the painter brings to the commission not only his opinions, but his history, point of view and style. If the painter, however, allows his point of view or style seriously to skew the image he portrays, he may do a disservice to the subject, because the painting then becomes more about the painter than the painted. It becomes more autobiography than biography. When the painter has become famous, the autobiography of the artist may completely overpower the identity of the sitter. This does happen, and while the painting also tells a story about the nature of fame, it still accurately reflects the relationship between artist and subject. It is one of the things which make painted portraits so fascinating as history. The finished painting is always the historical evidence of its creator creating a relationship with another person or persons. Still, the most intriguing portraits maintain a sort of flexibility, even after completion, allowing the viewer to attach his own opinions, history and point of view to the painted image. That flexibility is the same quality which is present in all dynamic, growing, ever-changing relationships. Portraits that are so very rooted in the artist's autobiography can easily lose this flexibility.

Portraits, since they are replicas, created over time from borrowed genetic information, function in this world very much like individuals and take on a kind of personality. "Harry's portrait was smiling yesterday," beams a wife. She has attached her own emotions in a timely manner to those already painted on canvas. The best painted portraits will always allow for this sort of flexible history. On other days Harry's portrait may seem sad, or puzzled, or have any of various human emotions. At that point, the viewer enters a sort of duet with the painting, and the value of the artwork to the viewer is measured by the value of the time spent looking at it and his own intuitive emotional reactions. John Berger observes, "In the original (artwork), the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of a painter's immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one's own act of looking at it."

The viewer, thus becomes the indispensable second half of the relationship we may call the "viewed/viewer duet", just as the artist was, and the painting becomes a complex vehicle for human interaction. The viewer enters into a relationship with the subject and the artist, in fact becoming the artist's surrogate in the duet with the subject. The value of the artwork to the viewer is measured precisely by the harmony of the duet. Sometimes the duet ends in disharmony. The viewer has won, sometimes paid for, his right to lead. The artist has had his chance. Quite possibly, too, the primary viewers are the very individuals who have been closely involved in the painting process, and so the lead position may have shifted back and forth already, multiplying the possibilities for emotional interaction. What was a duet may become a stage filled with voices. When the painting is complete, the curtain has been pulled back as far as it will go. The artist has stepped from the stage. But the viewers keep singing their songs. The pitch may be off. Voices may crack. Or the singing may be sweet and harmonious. And the orchestra plays on.

Seen this way, it is easy to understand why painted portraits can stir so much controversy. Sargent summed it up when he said a portrait is "a painting where there's always a little something wrong with the mouth." But there was lots more than "a little something wrong" to friends and family about Sargent's portrait of Madame Gautreau, the notorious "Portrait of Madame X." It was because Sargent didn't dissemble enough, painted in too much of his own opinion, too candidly, that the reaction was so strong. Nevertheless, as intuitive history, the painting is remarkable. In an unpleasant episode almost twenty years ago, a subject whose portrait I had painted for a third party actually had the painting stolen under cover of darkness and burned, frame and all. Perhaps it was not the kindest portrait I have ever painted, but even I underestimated how close I must have come to capturing the spirit of someone who would do such a thing. Again, intuitive history!

Similarly, I recently painted a portrait of a young woman for the young man she had been living with for some years. Despite my efforts to capture the lighthearted spirit I thought I was seeing in this young woman, the painting kept looking a bit anxious and sad - so much at times that she, on seeing it, burst into tears. Yet her partner liked the portrait. I was puzzled, but knew that I must be painting something that I was seeing intuitively. Not long after I completed the portrait, I learned that the young couple were going their separate ways, after a difficult and trying time in their lives. All the turmoil is on the canvas - despite my intentions to be kind, despite their attempts to put a bright face on things. The painting ultimately became his sad and unwelcome goodbye gift to her.

Just as often, portraits, like relationships, are less complicated and puzzling and are pretty straightforward. There is always the challenge of likeness, itself a tenuous and flexible component. Personality shows in the eyes and body language, and over time a talented artist can discover just the right combinations to portray his relationship with the sitter. Color carries an emotional impact - the choices are crucial. The size and design of a portrait are paramount considerations. Setting and clothing tell a story all their own and are usually the end product of some negotiation. Not all portraits are powerful, because not all painters are gifted and not all subjects interesting. In fact, there are many portraits produced today which are sterile in feeling and devoid of emotional content, though they may be painted in much detail and with great facility. They are essentially craft, not art, because the artist is unwilling or unable to establish a relationship with the suject, and almost no intuitive history is present at all. Time seems absent, as well. Many well painted portraits are painted from a single photograph, which itself includes little time. This often springs from sheer necessity, since some subects are unavailable, either in fact or in spirit. Too, some painters have no emotional depth themselves or are uninterested by the internal human landscape. It always takes two to make a relationship- in life and in art. Yet, as history, all painted portraits are truthful. It's right there in the paint. What you see, is what you get.

     
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