Most of the art I’m attracted to looks like shapeless blobs of color or pattern. Sometimes you can pick out a thing or two. Mostly not. But I also love portraits. Abstract art is, for me, about emotion, and portraits are about both emotion and thought.
I spend extra time studying portraits. The first way most of us connect to another person is by sight. If a portrait draws me in, I want to know who I’m looking at – not just a name, but who they are. But I can only see the subject through the artist's eyes. What was the artist’s relationship with the subject? What does the artist think about the subject? If it’s a self-portrait, what does the artist want us to know about him or her?
Van Gogh, among the greatest of portraitists, wrote that he wasn’t trying to capture his subjects’ appearance so much as “the thought, the soul of the model.” (Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gaugin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles.) Van Gogh painted a lot of self-portraits (mostly because models cost money, and he was always broke). Do his self-portraits show his thoughts and soul?
More than a third of Frida Kahlo’s paintings were self-portraits, and they are so iconic that I’m hard-pressed to think of a Kahlo painting she isn’t in. Her self-portraits are frequently disturbing. Compare them to Kahlo photographed by Nick Muray, who was in love with her. Her confidence is all there, but the hard edges and violence in her self-portraits are softened through Muray’s heart and lens. Kahlo’s self-portrait below is from 1940 and Muray’s photo of her is from 1939, so roughly the same time frame.
Artists can put their perceptions of their subjects or themselves right out there, but the artist can also protect the subject’s privacy by what he or she leaves out. One of my favorite portrait exhibits was at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) a few years ago – Nick Nixon’s annual portraits of his wife Bebe and her three sisters over forty years. The black and white photos are enigmatic. The sisters rarely smile, and are almost without expression. Can we tell who they are? Do their faces show the joy, grief, and wisdom they must have gained over 40 years? Or are we only seeing these women age?
Can portraits influence social change? Images can communicate ideas. What’s propaganda if not communication of an idea - sometimes with imagery - intended to influence change? I ran across this article about a temporary public art project in Washington DC. Short videos of residents were projected on walls and windows in their neighborhood so faces became familiar, less threatening, and neighbors were no longer strangers to each other. It was created to facilitate neighborhood cohesion. The format reminded me of Jaume Plensa’s big video screens in Chicago’s Crown Fountain, which has a similar purpose. The people whose faces are on the giant opposing screens seem to be in conversation with each other. They represent a cross-section of Chicago residents: male and female, old and young, multiple races. They remain strangers to us, but are warm and welcoming, not threatening.
Or a subject can play a role – appear to be someone they are not. Cumming says, “That portraits are like performances is a truth rarely in need of mention.” (From The Vanishing Velazquez: A 19th Century Bookseller’s Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece.) A Rembrandt self-portrait I saw in Amsterdam showed him as the Apostle Paul. Cindy Sherman has made a career of photographing herself as various, usually edgy or downright creepy, characters.
Selfies generate plenty of sneers but I think they’re fascinating. I don’t think they are about ego, necessarily. Pictures document our lives, same as always. They say to the world: I exist. Since casual photography is cheap (essentially free) now, why not take a million pictures? Selfies let us curate our lives in a way that wasn’t possible before social media. Group selfies verify that we're social beings, part of something. Here I am in this time and place, with these people. A selfie shared on social media is a choice we make about how we want to be perceived, and it asserts our place in the world. If portraits are about seeing thoughts and souls, then selfies show the heads and hearts of the masses.
One of the most successful exhibits ever at the Art Gallery of Ontario was In Your Face. It was initially planned to be kind of a throwaway, something to fill a gallery during the museum’s remodeling. The museum asked people to send in a 4 by 6-inch self-portrait, made from any medium. People sent in portraits created from yarn, pen, paint, macaroni, whatever. The response was incredible – 20,000 people sent in self-portraits. Visitors would look at the portraits and comment about the similarities between themselves and the subjects, not about the differences. The AGO set up an Instagram page for the self-portraits; people added theirs to the Instagram exhibit long after the one in the museum closed. The self-portraits were later moved to Canada’s National Portrait Gallery.
An exhibit called This Is Not a Selfie is making a distinction between self-portraits that are art and selfies which, it strongly implies, are not. The exhibit is substantially about art snobbery, judging self-portraits in a one-dimensional way as art or not-art. One of the quotes says that artists’ self-portraits show “who we are as a culture.” And selfies don’t?! Sorry, but I think Facebook says a lot more about our culture than Cindy Sherman does. There are clearly qualitative differences between the pictures of myself I put on Facebook and Nick Muray’s photos of Frida Kahlo, but that’s ok. My intent wasn’t to make art.
Cameras democratized portraiture. Middle and even lower-income people could afford to have a portrait made, to document an event or a family member going to war. Affordable personal cameras took it a step further, though there was still an expense when we had to pay for film processing. Digital photos and especially phones gave photo power to the people. Virtually everyone has the power to document anything, no matter how trivial, for virtually no cost. And I think it's awesome.
BONUS MATERIAL: My sister introduced me to this band, Lake Street Dive, who named a whole album "Bad Self Portraits." Love the title song!!
This is a story about people who have a remarkable resemblance to people in portraits. It is a fun way to spend two minutes of your life. The likeness between the painting and the young woman in the first picture is amazing.
Martin Gayford, who wrote the Van Gogh book I referenced above, also wrote Man with a Blue Scarf about his experience sitting for a portrait by Lucien Freud and about portraiture generally. Recommended reading.
Selfies in the news: Museums encourage selfies in galleries, knowing that the subject will give the museum free promotion, including when someone falls over and breaks the art. Which happens a lot.
As always, thanks for reading!