THE EYE OF THE BE­HOLDER

An­drew Lam­birth on Goya and Gi­a­cometti

The Oldie - - NEWS -

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

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