Apollo Magazine (UK)
The portrait is having a moment. A few weeks ago, faces from Old Master paintings began to take over my Twitter feed, fidgeting and blinking at first, and occasionally smiling. More recently they’ve expanded into song and dance: the Mona Lisa bopping along to the Pussycat Dolls, a Rembrandt self-portrait lip-synching to James Brown and Van Dyck’s Charles I belting out ‘I Will Survive’.
These animations are good fun, even if the ‘deepfake’ technology that enables them probably isn’t. What has surprised me is how convincingly 17th-century portraits, in particular, have come to life, given how painterly the surfaces of such works often are. The Rembrandt and Van Dyck animations look more like fake videos of people than cartoon versions of paintings. These artificial intelligence apps may be gimmicky, but it turns out that they can impart little lessons, too: in this case, while museums are still off limits, with a reminder that apparent verisimilitude and loose brushstrokes (or even impasto painting) are not mutually exclusive.
How closely these videos resemble the actual sitters of portraits – as they lived and breathed, that is – is another matter. Whereas photographic portraits capture an image of a person at a specific moment, painting a subject from life always generates a type of composite image: the portrait as a chronicle of how someone has appeared and behaved over an extended period, or perhaps at different times through multiple sittings, and of how an artist has perceived somebody while time was passing.
Portrait painting distils, summarises or perhaps idealises, then, in the effort to figure out its subject. Whether it does so well or badly, at least from a contemporary perspective, might not only be a matter of artistic acumen but of whether the artist has approached their subject in good faith, mindful that any encounter between two people might be better as a conversation than a monologue. That Alice Neel did so, in the hundreds of portraits she made of her fellow New Yorkers, is Glenn Adamson’s assessment in this issue: Neel painted people as she saw them, so far as was possible, not how she wanted to see them (see Feature, pp. 32–37).
We have become so accustomed to thinking about portraits in terms of power dynamics – between a male painter and a female subject, for instance, or between an expectant patron and their hired artist – that it is sometimes difficult to think of portrait painting as a meeting between two individuals. As Christopher Baker describes in his review of a new book about 18th-century French portraiture, historical portraits were sometimes used as vessels of sympathy, or at least to experiment with how far friendships might be firmed up and furthered in paint (see Review, pp. 76–77). When we study portraits, we need to bear in mind not only historical conceptions of the individual but also of how relationships between people have been conceived and represented in different times and places.
That sense of a meeting between two people, whether on equal terms or not, is why I suspect the portrait really will have a moment as museums reopen around the world. For the past year, our own encounters with others have been limited, largely confined to screens or to brief interactions in shops and elsewhere. The engagement between artist and sitter, and between the painted individual and us, as the viewer, are opportunities to contemplate how we relate to each other in physical space – and how far we might understand one another responsively, too.
We sometimes praise portraits for their psychological astuteness, or for capturing the soul of a sitter. Of course, a painter can never truly know another person’s mind, just as much as a novelist can only imagine what it feels like to inhabit the consciousness of their characters. But an attentiveness to the possibilities of empathy, as well as to the obstacles to it, is fundamental not only to portraiture but to how we live among other people. Writing in this issue, Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., argues that it is urgent for museums and their leaders to recognise that and put it into practice with their staff and the communities they serve (see Inquiry, pp. 26–28). We cannot only see in others a self-portrait of ourselves.