PORTRAITS AS INTUITIVE HISTORY

an essay by louis briel

 

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In late 1992 and early 1993 I painted tennis great Arthur Ashe, shortly before his death from AIDS. I had known Arthur casually for several years through Virginia Heroes, a mentorship program he had begun in Richmond. The painting, which was acquired for the National Portrait Gallery by the Smithsonian, was, I believe, the result of many intuitively correct choices I made.

First, I let the subject choose the pose. It happened by accident - though I know better than that - midway through our October 22, 1992 session at my studio in Richmond. Arthur had told me in a phone call earlier that day from New York that he was not feeling very well, and we had scheduled a simple photo shoot to give me some readily available source material for the portrait. After a while taking photographs, I suggested that we break for a few minutes rest. Arthur's tennis racquet became a support, as he gracefully turned it downward and leaned on it. " I hate to impose on your rest period, " I said, "but don't move." He looked directly at me, with a hint of a smile, and said, "Okay." The portrait's essential look was set. I knew the pose was important because it had happened so naturally.

I had suggested casual dress, but again I let Arthur make the choice, because portraits best reflect the truth when they're not over-planned. He appeared at my studio wearing a sport jacket and tie for his evening appearance to receive a humanitarian award. I suggested he remove his jacket. "Shall I take off the tie?" he asked. " No, let's leave it on," I replied. When I saw the unexpected combination of white shirt, tie and racquet, I knew it was symbolically correct to describe the last chapter of Arthur Ashe's life - on the lecture circuit to promote the causes in which he believed, in a hurry, yet serene, always supported by the acclaim from his tennis days. Further, the design I chose for the painting is squared up - straight on - direct - like Arthur Ashe. It is the portrait of a gentleman.

Arthur Ashe was not able to return for another sitting , and I had to complete the portrait after his death from the photographs. The slight sadness, which some seem to see in the eyes of the painting, while not inappropriate to Arthur Ashe, may be the sadness I felt during the months following his death. I really couldn't shake off my feelings of grief. In an attempt to soothe myself, the brilliant background color I had chosen was repainted a soft, almost ethereal blue-violet. Someone called the painting "Arthur's bench in heaven." Maybe so.

Finally, I had planned to paint a life-size portrait of Arthur Ashe, yet the completed painting is closer to three-quarters life-size. I now understand the choice I made, while at the time it was an intuitive decision. John Berger helps with the answer. He observes that historically " the painted public portrait must insist upon a formal distance." Berger notes the conflict this poses for the viewer, who because of the accurate portrayal of three-dimensional reality, assumes "that he is close to - within touching distance of - any object in the foreground of the picture. If the object is a person, such proximity implies a certain intimacy." For this reason, I chose to paint Ashe slightly under life-size to assure a formal and psychological distance, which I felt was an integral part of Arthur Ashe's personality. A life-sized portrait would have felt too intimate to replicate my relationship with Arthur Ashe, and I suspect it would have struck many others in a similar way. Being close-up to a life-sized painting of Arthur Ashe would have seemed a little uncomfortable - somehow wrong, too touchable. The painting I did feels intuitively right, in that it mandates we keep a certain respectful distance. The perspective inherent in the scale is essential to the feel of the portrait. Yes, the curtain of the heart has been pulled back, but in a gentle and appropriate way.

Picasso, on being asked to name his favorite painting, replied, "The next one." My favorite portrait is always the next one, because it promises to bring with it a wealth of new information about my subject and me. I will have the opportunity once again to pull back the curtain of my heart and the privilege of gaining access to someone else's spirit. The more I do this, the more welcome it becomes, the more I trust the process, and the more I believe that every painted portrait becomes the historical document it is intended to be. My approach to painting portraits is, I suppose, a spiritual one. I believe I will make the choices necessary to reflect my experience of the relationship I'm setting to paint. I try to stay out of my own way and leave room for my subject, and for the presence of spirit.

My next door neighbor years ago used to say, "Most people end up being about as close as they're supposed to be." Portraits are like that, too.

   
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