THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Andrew Lambirth on Goya and Giacometti
THE AUTUMN has ushered in a rich crop of museum shows, and chief among them are a powerful quartet of portrait exhibitions. There’s the 18th-century Swiss pastellist Jean-etienne Liotard at the Royal Academy (until 31st January), and at Tate Britain (until 13th March) is Frank Auerbach, master of passionate impasto, painter of the London land- scape, portraits and figures in interiors. Meanwhile in Trafalgar Square there’s Goya at the National Gallery and Giacometti at the National Portrait Gallery (both until 10th January), and both are the first shows to focus exclusively on portraits by each artist. Not only are these two exhibitions among the finest to have been seen in London for a very long time, but they also raise interesting questions about the nature of portraiture.
A portrait is an interpretation of one individual by another, and may contain more of the personality of the artist than the sitter. A good portrait is the meeting of two well-matched human entities; their interaction can give rise to a masterpiece, or it can waste itself in bluster and
confrontation. There are thousands of bad, lifeless portraits, however ‘life-like’ they may appear to be. Capturing a likeness is only one aspect of the process, and for a portrait to be a work of art, something else of fundamental importance needs to have taken place. The collaboration between artist and sitter must result in a new reality: not a photographic copy but a living presence. This is just as true about a great landscape or still-life, but we often find representations of ourselves of more interest than trees or fruit. We are, you might say, obsessed by the human image.
Although much is made of the socalled psychological penetration of great artists, who seem to look into the very souls of their subjects, the effectiveness of a portrait depends entirely on how good a work of art it is, not on the psychic powers of the artist. The best artists may have heightened perceptions and greater sensitivity than the rest of us, which could account for the accurate portrayal of character that seems to imbue the finest portraits, but the power of a portrait relies upon the mystery of its making: how paint or bronze is made to live, and to continue living when the ostensible subject is long dead. And that has more to do with the transfigured presence of the materials than the presence of the sitter. The subject is only an excuse for a work of art.
Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) came late to portraits (he was 37 when he painted his first), after a thorough training as a painter of frescoes and tapestry cartoons. Appointed court painter, he produced a marvellous series of portraits of the Spanish royal family and the courtiers who surrounded them. Goya has the reputation of satirising the rich and powerful and dignifying his more common sitters – a sort of Robin Hood of the paintbrush – and some of his royal portraits do seem to verge on the caricatural. But he was an ambitious man who needed to earn his living: would he have risked alienating his royal paymaster and losing his position? Although he was never an obsequious flatterer, Goya improved the features of the great and good, not with the intention of idealising them, but for reasons of professional survival. The vast body of his truly satirical work consisted of drawings and etchings, together with the late black paintings, which were private rather than public images, made for himself. These remarkable visions have conditioned the way we see Goya today, and may distort our attitude to his more formal public work.
But his paintings are rarely careerist hack-work, and many of his portraits are magnificent. The visitor to the
The collaboration between artist and sitter must result in a new reality
subterranean galleries of the National’s Sainsbury Wing encounters a host of real people coming off the walls, so vital are their painted portrayals. We are all familiar with the uncanny way a portrait’s eyes follow us around a room. Here the eyes don’t simply follow you: they engage, buttonhole and confront you; some even welcome you. The enigmatic Duchess of Alba at first appears to be imperiously pointing to an inscription in the sand at her feet. But look closer, and she seems rather anxious, as if worried that she might not be obeyed; yet she could also be on the point of dissolving into tears or laughter. Goya seems to relish this emotional complexity, a trait visible in many of these grand paintings. The other thing to notice is his enjoyment of colour and materials – as in the extraordinary lemony-lime green of the outfit worn by the Count of Cabarrús, or the gossamer fineness of the black lace worn by Queen Maria Luisa of Parma.
In contrast to the late-starting Goya, Alberto Giacometti (1901–66) began making portraits early in his career, as the painterly assurance of his small 1921 self-portrait demonstrates. Giacometti is best-known for his elongated bronze figures with tiny heads. But he was as much a painter as a sculptor, and tended to turn from one medium to the other with the same fluidity of approach (building up an image only to destroy it and start again) and with the same despair at the impossibility of capturing appearance. His biographer, James Lord, kept a diary of sitting to Giacometti for his portrait, which he later elaborated into a book. It makes fascinating if harrowing reading, as Giacometti laments the futility of making a portrait of anybody, yet refuses to give up the struggle.
Giacometti’s best portraits are immensely moving human documents, dealing with truth rather than beauty, maintained with scarcely believable freshness through his relentless process of constant revision. They are unfinished, open-ended, animate. His name is too often linked with existentialism, as if that misty philosophy could explain his art. Better to look to the remarkable formal power and unflagging invention of his work. These are not psychological portraits – Giacometti tried to forget everything he knew about his sitters – but they are all about seeing. His aim was to copy appearance exactly, but he never made the mistake of thinking of it as static, nor was his idea of exactitude in any way photographic. He mirrors this flux in his working method. Here is the apogee of the visual approach: it doesn’t get much better than this.
Here the eyes don’t simply follow you: they engage, buttonhole and confront you
‘María Luisa wearing a Mantilla’, 1799, by Goya
Goya’s ‘The Marchioness of Santa Cruz’, 1805 (top) and ‘Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta’ 1820 (left)
‘Portrait of James Lord’, 1964 (above), ‘Small Self-portrait’, 1921 (below left) and ‘Louis Aragon’, 1946 (below right), all by Giacometti