Portraiture’s Victorious Fight in the Modern Age

ingres38.JPGWhen most people think of portraiture, images of aristocracy adorned in their finest medieval robes atop a crackling grand fireplace in some remote European castle probably come to mind.  When I mention that I focused on 18th-19th Century portraiture in college, people look as if they’re about to fall asleep before I can finish the sentence.  But this past Saturday, I attended a lecture at Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum presented by John Klein, Associate Professor from Washington University in St. Louis, that reminded me of the magnetism and presence of portraits. In his lecture, “Matisse, Picasso and Beyond: How Portraiture Survived Modernism,” he examined the means by which the art of human representation prevailed through an era defined by its antipathy to historical convention.  Through the study of modernist masters like Picasso, Matisse and Giacometti, Klein arrives at a universal truth: human beings will always and forever be obsessed with themselves, others, and how others perceive them.

“Damn Portraits!” began Professor Klein, quoting Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres—an abrupt and honest exclamation that served as a perfect prelude to the difficult battle that portraiture was doomed to fight once the modern age descended on a timeless artistic tradition.  Ingres, like many artists of his time, despised portraiture.

He often complained that the overwhelming number of commissions from high society kept him from focusing on “more important” subject matter.  In the 19th Century, it seemed as if the only demographic that had an affinity for portraiture was the social elite.  When the 20th Century began, many creative figures decried the art form’s declining relevance.  Portraiture posed a series of difficult questions for the artist: How does one capture the complexity of human identity? How can an inner quality be expressed outwardly?  How can a still representation do justice to a personality trait that is defined by its movement? Modernism, says Klein, provided the platform that was so desperately needed: a movement that joined portraiture with the abstraction of the avant-garde.

grn_eyesThrough an array of examples, Klein revealed how artists like Picasso and Matisse were uninterested with the centrality of the sitter, which historically would have been fundamental.  In works like Girl with Green Eyes (1908), Matisse blended his sitters into a decorative pattern where no single component of the painting could dominate.  Picasso’s Gertrude Stein (1906), on the other hand, showcases both the artist and the sitter, serving as a visual statement of the height and legitimacy of both Stein’s and Picasso’s careers. Klein taught the audience that through the execution of her face, as was common with many of Picasso’s portraits, the artist imposed a mask-like quality that hardly resembled Stein’s genuine appearance. The primitivization of her face is a symbolic and telling mark of the beginning of an important aesthetic shift.

After the First World War, artists became increasingly cynical of humanistic values, and rapid advances in photographic technology threatened representational portraiture.  Expressive abstraction began to take hold, providing the artist with infinite ways to communicate power, status and legitimacy—and the line between art and vulgarity became harder to define.  Marcus Harvey’s Myra (1995) is an example of how modern portraiture could become a PR dream come true. Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley, a woman convicted of murdering multiple innocent child victims, is comprised of tiny flesh colored hands, hands meant to represent those of the children that she murdered.

180px-marcus-harvey-myraPortraiture’s many levels of expression, as in Myra, have the potential for endless symbolism and emotion.  I could feel the tension in the lecture hall when Myra came on screen, and I could see that the man next to me was trying to conceal his goose bumps.

Professor Klein’s lecture was most certainly a personal highlight of my many years of studying and appreciating portraiture. Regardless of one’s knowledge of art, he was able to communicate his subject with admirable passion and vigor.  Professor Klein carried the double-barreled theme of portraiture and its modernist survival from the turn of the 20th Century through the fall of Saddam Hussein. It was quite frankly one of the most fun Saturdays I’ve had in a while, and I don’t think I was alone.  The jam-packed lecture hall’s enthusiastic applause was proof enough that nobody was falling asleep before Klein could finish his sentences.

-By Brittany Krasner

The Norton Simon’s calendar of educational lectures will certainly expand your art related intellectual repertoire.  For more information on upcoming lectures, please visit their website.

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