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9 / Portraits

Susan Sidlauskas: The face is the first thing we’re drawn to. A baby looks at a face. An animal looks at your face.

David Lubin: Before we learn to talk or walk, we learn reading the signals in a person’s face.

Kehinde Wiley: Because we’re selfish, we want to see elements of ourselves in everything.

Anne McClanan: You can see how it’s almost fundamental for survival. You have this need to recognize, to make distinctions, to read emotions it’s absolutely crucial.

Susan Sidlauskas: Given the fact that faces are so critical to us, it’s natural that portraiture as a genre would have been one of the ascendant art forms for thousands of years.

Segment Title: Artist vs. Subject

Susan Sidlauskas: The notion of portraiture is such a slippery one, because in many ways both the subject and the portrayer want to control the event.

Stephen Perkinson: The artist is trying to demonstrate his or her skill at capturing a likeness. The sitter is trying to convey a sense of who they are to an audience that they want to impress.

Susan Sidlauskas: There is a contest between them, and you could say that it’s up for grabs throughout history as to who wins.

You might have a powerful figure, you might have King Henry VIII, commissioning a painting, a portrait by Hans Holbein. So, who has the power there? Well, Henry VIII was famous for lopping off the heads of many of the wives that he didn’t like, so you can imagine that Hans Holbein would be very anxious, that he would please Henry VIII. So his body fills the entire canvas to convey his power or authority.

Ann Temkin: We read a portrait not just in terms of who’s painted, but who’s painting, and how they sort out the kind of strange situation that that particular encounter really is.

Susan Sidlauskas: When Picasso meets Gertrude Stein, she’s already a literary figure of great note. Picasso’s a young struggling painter of enormous ambition and arrogance. They sit opposite each other and he keeps painting out her face. He paints her face and then he paints it out, and he paints it again and then he gets rid of it.

Ann Temkin: And the story goes that he actually abandoned it and left Paris to spend the summer in Spain, where he was very affected by ancient Iberian and African art.

Susan Sidlauskas: He was looking at sculpture that would simplify, to an almost abstract extreme, the features of the face, and create a kind of mask behind which the person existed. Gertrude Stein was very distressed with how she looked. She said, “Well, it doesn’t look like me.” And he said, “Oh, it will.” So it’s as if he invented the portrait to invent the way that she would become.

Stephen Perkinson: The idea that a portrait can ever be truly truthful, fully truthful, is itself a sort of a myth.

David Ross: Avedon used the seamless white backdrop because it allowed him to remove all traces of photographic artifice.

He had this idea, this bee keeper. He met this bee keeper, this bald guy, and so he said, “Well, let’s make him the bee man.” And so he painted him with honey. You know, this was completely set up. The bees didn’t just happen to all of a sudden—uh oh, he’s walked into a swarm of bees, quick let’s get the white paper. The bee man was real, the bees were real, the man was real, the photograph was real. But the situation was a set-up.

Segment Title: Commemorative Portraits'

Yoshiaki Shimuzi: The representation of reality is not sometimes the main concern in Japanese art. But when we look at the particular group of art done in the medieval period in the area of portraiture, there’s an extraordinary degree of realism explored by the artists.

The Western generalization about Japanese art was abstract, not interested in the reality, light and shade, didn’t bother. No! They were interested in light and shade in these sculptures.

Japanese portraits are contemplative, commemorative. These are used to fulfill religious function, rituals for celebrating the founding of a temple or the founding of a teaching.

This particular sculpture was done in the thirteenth century representing a tenth-century figure.

This is known as Kuya, the Saint Kuya. This is an extraordinary thing. This school of Buddhism capitalized on the chanting of the name of the deity (na mu ah mi da but su). It’s six syllables. And if you chant, it is believed in the thirteenth century that you are immediately picked as a candidate for salvation. And that is the most extraordinary—it is the sound taking the body. Embodied sound. It’s conceptual art from the thirteenth century. You don’t have to wait for the twenty-first century to see this. Here we have the combination of realism and yet he goes counter to realism.

Christa Clarke: A lot of representations of the human form in African art tend to be abstract. In Ghana there is an important historical tradition of making terracotta heads to represent a deceased ancestor. And these are typically made by female artists who are actually summoned to the deathbed of an individual, to kind of get a sense of what they look like.

But, interestingly, when these are created, they’re not portraits in the sense of a Western portrait. They don’t really have this realistic representation of particular facial features. What the artist has done is conveyed specifics of the individual through hair style, through scarification marks, and those kinds of distinguishing features that serve as a marker of individuality in this culture. And these terracotta heads serve as a memorial and as a way to make a connection with that particular individual after life.

Zainab Bahrani: In the Western tradition we tend to think of representation and reality as entirely different realms. In the ancient Near East that doesn’t seem to have been the case. The imagery that they had very often hovered between these two realms of reality and representation. An image could actually make things happen in reality in ways would be to us completely illogical, but to the ancients made a great deal of sense. So they considered, for example, to harm an image of a king would be a way to harm the king himself, even if that king had long been dead. If you destroyed his image, or erased his name, this would be a way of destroying his memory. So imagery was powerful in very many ways.

Segment Title: Power Portraits

Stacy Goodman: Every culture has that need of memorializing their important rulers.

The Moche were one of the earliest civilizations in Peru from, let’s say, 100 AD to about 700 AD. We know the Moche culture from their art, from the artifacts that survive, which is primarily pottery. Some of the best Moche pottery that survives are the portrait head vessels depicting rulers. The Moche made a massive amount of them. If you’re mass-producing them, then you’re going to be able to send them to other parts of the kingdom. When they were conquering a new warrior king in the northern valley they were sending the best portraits they had of their ruler to say, “He’s now dominant.” It’s like a billboard—he is in command here.

Anne McClanan: A power portrait has a pretty specific aim. It’s about establishing and codifying the person who’s in power to give them authority.

Richard Brilliant: One of the ways in which power portraits function is by being larger than life-size. If you’re larger than life-size, by implication, you’ve got more than life-size power and authority.

Susan Sidlauskas: A power portrait will often have one hand gesturing to the audience as if to engage the audience, because it is a classical orator’s gesture.

Richard Brilliant: Power portraits are used by dynasts, by kings, by princes, not only in Western Europe, but also clearly in India, in China, in ancient Japan. I mean it’s common place.

Layla Diba: The Qajar Dynasty ruled in Persia from 1779 until 1924. Fath ‘Ali Shah was the second ruler of the Qajar Dynasty. He understood very well how he could use painting to impress the viewer with the magnificence of the ruler, his royal aura. In reality there was not that much prosperity or stability within the realm. Fath ‘Ali Shah tried to wage imperialist sort of campaigns, and was really spectacularly unsuccessful. What these paintings did was to present an idealized fantasy of a paradise that perhaps never existed.

Susan Sidlauskas: Napoleon was really the first modern ruler to use visual propaganda in a way that we recognize today. Well, this is a portrait by Ingres, this young painter who is enmeshed in all the images of history. So he reached back into classical times. He reached into Roman emperor portraits. He reached into the Ghent Altarpiece. It’s almost as if one looks at a portrait like this, and sees behind it centuries of representations of male authority. And the whole title is very important. It’s not just Napoleon, it’s Napoleon on the Imperial Throne.

David Lubin: Leaders used portraits as a way of affirming their power, asserting their power. Kennedy turned the style of presidential portraiture on its head. Starting with George Washington, people wanted a president that they felt was firm, stolid. Kennedy was the first one who knew how to project his power but also his humanity, his friendliness, through images. Kennedy was really the first president who was truly perceived as a family man.

Even though he was aristocratic and beautiful and wealthy, he was also a little bit like the fathers in the sitcoms on TV.

He’s invoking the language of candid photography to have this official depiction of himself. So it’s a kind of staged candor, but we can’t say it’s completely phony candor it’s somewhere in between the two.

Segment Title: Status Portraits

Kehinde Wiley: Portrait painting is a type of propaganda, let’s face it. There’s a type of great collusion with regard to traditional portraiture. How will I look my best? What’s my best angle? How am I adorning myself? What’s behind me? So much of that has to do with constructing a narrative of power.

I love the old masters—that’s how I learned how to paint. I remember going to school as a kid around 11 years of age. I would spend afternoons, long afternoons, poring through these paintings, analyzing why they were painted the way that they are. I had no idea what was the deal with so many lapdogs, and jewels, and powdered wigs.

As an African American I’m obsessed with the fact that I’m in love with something that I almost feel guilty about loving.

I’m messing with the old masters. What I’m basically doing is copies of those paintings, but instead of using the original figures, I’m using young African American men that I find in the streets.

Isolde Brielmaier: Kehinde is borrowing this visual vocabulary. It’s about imbuing these young men with a certain power and prestige and glory and wealth, when they themselves may in reality not actually be that prestigious and powerful and wealthy.

Kehinde Wiley: In order to make the paintings, I’m stopping guys who are minding their own business. And asking them to come to my studio, go through a collection of art history books, decide which is their favorite paintings. We then proceed to have a photo shoot. Usually artists make all the decisions—pose this way or pose that way. I think it is important for the model to do all of the deciding.

Isolde Brielmaier: I think Kehinde is sort of following tradition, but constructing his own set of rules. He’s being very subversive and he’s also challenging what we think of when we think of great European painting.

Kehinde Wiley: It’s, I think, about choice in that sense. I think my paintings are about the power to say, “This is the way I want to be seen.”

Seydou Keїta was a huge influence on my work. When Seydou Keїta’s work hit the West, it was regarded as something that was radically different from all of the images of West Africans that we had seen up until then. We had seen West Africans as objects of study, and in these photographs we saw them as people who are absolutely in self-possession.

Isolde Brielmaier: Seydou Keїta is a West African portrait photographer who established a studio in Bamako, Mali, in the late 1940s. The bulk of his clients were civil servants, people working in government, the bourgeoisie.

The act of going to sit before Keїta could be compared to going to sit before Rembrandt. It was really about presenting oneself as you wish to be seen by other people. It’s quite a big deal to sit before a particular artist and have your photograph or, you know, have your painting done.

David Patrick Columbia: It’s not unlike what Warhol did. It was a business that he was in. And people would meet “Mr. and Mrs. Got Rocks” and say, “You know, you really ought to have a portrait done by Andy. He’d love to paint you.” And they’d say, “Oh really?” and so they think well that’s good because it’s very groovy to be painted by Andy Warhol because he’s a very hot commodity. That’s actually what always happened in portraits a long time ago. They wanted to join the crowd, so to speak.

Susan Sidlauskas: Van Dyck was a very canny, shrewd, highly successful portrait painter. He was able to create figures that were so lustrous that it became the most desirable thing to have your painting done by van Dyck.

Stephen Perkinson: Van Dyck seems to have recognized that portraiture would be an ideal business opportunity for him.

Colin Bailey: He presented a society with the image that it required and that is why he was so successful, I think.

Richard Brilliant: One becomes extremely successful as a portrait artist by making portraits that people like. If they don’t like, you have no career. They don’t pay you.

Segment Title: Behind the Face

David Lubin: Thomas Eakins was an American artist who suffered a series of setbacks in his career. If you had Tom Eakins paint your portrait, you were not likely to like the way you looked. He. in fact, sold very, very few portraits during his lifetime.

Susan Sidlauskas: I think that Eakins defied commercial success in order to paint what he felt he saw. He had a conception about the modern person who was striving in life, and his idea was that he could capture some of that struggle.

In Louis Kenton, The Thinker, which is a life size painting, what Eakins paints is the condition of self absorption that is required for thinking, which is a kind of crazy thing to attempt to paint. How do you represent thinking?

David Lubin: This portrait is this wonderful image of solitude and introspection. His portraits make us feel we are in the presence of somebody who has gone through life thoughtfully.

Susan Sidlauskas: This was a moment in history where the idea that an ordinary person had a mental life was in ascendancy.

David Lubin: And so as we turn into the twentieth century, there’s less emphasis among the leading artists on beauty and likeness in portraiture and more on finding the sort of hidden, tortured inner nature of the individual.

Ann Temkin: Otto Dix was part of the scene in post World War I Germany ravaged in so many ways by the war that it had lost, which is one of the really extreme contexts for portraiture.

Susan Sidlauskas: Dix’s truth would probably have nothing to do with likeness, but conjuring a moment where people are living in dire, dire circumstances.

It’s called Woman with Mink. We don’t know the name of the person, she may or may not have been a prostitute. The first thing that appears to us is a kind of clown-like, distended, open mouth, eyes spaced far apart, and he actually deliberately cracked the texture of the paint to make her skin look crackled. You can imagine her as a victim of ridicule. She looks ridiculous. But yet, in many ways, as you look at it more closely, she becomes a very sad figure—someone who is trying, she’s trying to look attractive.

Anne Temkin: Alice Neel liked the idea that art penetrated beneath the surface to reveal the complexity of a psyche. She would spend a lot of her sessions focusing not so much on painting the person, but talking to the person, getting the person going, figuring out the person. Even with Andy Warhol, the most famous artist of that moment, she’s not out to show him as a superstar, she’s out to show him as this vulnerable, wounded, undressed guy. Not just conforming to the cliché, but really trying to say, “Who is this complicated person who’s got sadness as well as happiness, failure as well as triumph, all of that, that we all are?”

David Ross: That’s what the portrait artist does. They try to find a way to help us understand ourselves and understand others. And when they succeed it’s, unbelievable, the power is palpable.

Anne McClanan: As Aristotle said, “Humans are social animals,” and we want to connect with other people, and so this is a way to do that.

Steven Perkinson: These portraits from the past often are a very tangible and very powerful way we feel, at least, of establishing a connection between us and the past.

Colin Bailey: Portraiture, perhaps of all the genres, is the easiest for us to form an attachment to. We put our own perceptions and our own longings and our own yearnings and imaginings on that face.

David Ross: What makes portraiture endlessly fascinating is the impossibility of ever understanding fully what goes on behind someone else’s eyes, what goes on in their mind. We try to know, we try to even know ourselves fully. But to know the other, it’s this incredible life-long journey and the portrait stands for that journey.