Face to face at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Exhibition surveys 400 years of portraiture

nextmonet.com, September, 1999 

You wouldn’t normally stare at a stranger. You probably wouldn’t stare at somebody you know well. If you did, whoever you were staring at would ask you what you were looking at, or why you were staring. But it’s a universal human trait to want to stare at other people, and the only people with the license to stare at their fellow humans — who have to stare at them intently — are portraitists. Eventually, of course, viewers of the portraitists’ work get to join that gaze, or at least experience it second-hand by looking at the portrait. Complicating things further, of course, are artists’ self-portraits, where subject and artist are one and the same, inviting us to look into the image of their eyes and seeming to stare back at us with the same intensity with which we examine their faces.

‍     Walking through the Vancouver Art Gallery’s “Face To Face: Four Centuries of Portraits,” viewers get to indulge that fascination utterly, while at the same time noticing how portraiture has changed over the past 400 years, not only in its execution and formal con­straints, but in its methods, purposes and aims. There are also the elements that have remained constant, not the least of which is our desire to stare at strangers.     

‍     Using works in its own collection as well as pieces loaned from both public and private galleries all over the North American continent, the Vancouver Art Gallery has assembled a wide-ranging selection that invites viewers to think about all those issues and more as they walk through a series of galleries on all three floors of the museum. In its beginnings, portraiture is pulled in two directions: the idealizing impulse that uses setting, eye and hand to improve and ennoble the subjects, and the responsibility artists felt to paint the truth as clearly and plainly as they could. Often, individual artists had to walk a fine line between those two poles, trying not to enrage or insult their patrons, but at the same time not wanting to be so flattering that the subject of the portrait would be unrecognizable. Many of the earlier portraits aren’t that different from the endlessly reproduced pictures of the limelit chosen few in current celebrity culture. What’s the difference between some Vanity Fair cover subject demanding a flattering photograph by Annie Liebovitz and a minor 16th-century noble insisting on his being shown as a Roman god in a lush, Arcadian landscape?

‍     The paintings in the early salons at the beginning of the exhibit are united by a standard set of conventions; there are criteria for what makes a portrait a portrait: The face has to be clearly visible. The subject’s entire body is often in view as well, striking a very deliberate pose. You can’t tell, from a remove of several centuries, who determined the pose. Obviously, one would have been necessary — the subject has to remain motionless for the painter to do his work. But did the subject of Bernardino Licinio’s “Portrait of a Man” (c.1520) get to select the fur-edge brocaded cloak he’s wearing, or did Licinio choose it because it offered a richer, better challenge for him as a painter? Why is the subject holding a pair of gloves? Why is the landscape we can see through the window significant? Does it represent the holdings of an Italian prince, or is it some spot that Licinio really liked? What’s the subject looking at, off to the right? He seems to us to be staring at the frame — or, in this exhibit, another portrait, perhaps one that looks like a picture he’d rather be in than his own.

‍     A hundred and thirty years later, the Dutch were offering much more severe renderings of their contemporaries, dark backgrounds focusing the viewer’s gaze — nothing to look at but the sitter. Johannes van Ravesteyn’s “Portrait of a Woman” (c.1650) depicts an obviously austere Puritan female on an almost black background, her black dress almost blending into it in the painting’s bottom left corner. Her piety is suggested by the halo effect created by her hat and ruff collar. Her expression underscores the negation of pleasure; being righteous is not easy, nor does it look like much fun. Many of the ideals that woman would have honored and held most dear don’t seem to matter much to “Vincent Laurensz van der Vinne,” at least not as he was painted by Frans Hals sometime between 1655 and 1660. Instead of the woman’s expression, which underscores the weight and responsibility of upright conduct, van der Vinne looks burdened by cynicism. His drooping, baggy eyes and the leftward tilt of his head seem to suggest that everything he’s seen and experienced have done little but confirm his essentially dim view of humanity, and having his portrait painted is not the validation or honor it might have been for many of his contemporaries.

‍     About midway through the exhibit, photographs begin appearing among the paintings and sculpture. And there’s a break. Prior to its invention, it took all of a painter’s skill and speed to capture an image. Even the earliest daguerreotypes were infinitely faster. Subjects still had to pose, but for minutes, not hours or days. And photographic portraits were cheaper. Suddenly, many more would-be subjects could afford them. Finally, with the invention of the half-tone process, portraits could be reproduced over and over again. The portraits that begin this exhibit would have been seen by the family, friends and associates of the subjects; the photographs in the middle would have potentially been seen by hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t know and would never meet the subjects; the dynamic between the work and its audience changed irrevocably. Photographic portraits changed the way artists worked, too. A conventional pre-photographic portrait was a matter of depicting a subject. But as portraits became more common — and depicted both the well-known and the anonymous, artists started looking for different means to engage the viewer. Eugene Atget’s “Prostitute Taking Her Shift, La Vilette, 19th Arrondisement” (c. 1921) offers a glimpse, a fleeting moment fro­zen; it’s hard to imagine a picture fur­ther in intent, subject and purpose than this one from, say, “Charles I as Prince of Wales” (1624) by Daniel Muytens the Elder. Atget seems to deliberately have chosen an anonymous subject, while Muytens seeks to exalt even further an already celebrated person.

‍     In the early paintings, the sitter is the most important element of the work; anything the artist wants to express is secondary. As the art progresses, the demands and the desires of the sitter lose power and primacy as the demands and desires of the artist supersede them. Finally, the sitters are chosen by the artists for the opportunities for expression they afford the person making the portrait. And in many cases, the subject becomes important or useful only as a means for expressing something else: a meditation on how we see, for example (as with the room full of Chuck Close’s massive frontal portraits, which seem almost abstract up close, but which resolve themselves into distinctive, recognizable faces as the viewer gets further away). There’s also an intriguing disconnect that adds depth and richness to viewing the later works: in the beginning, it’s technique we admire; later, the technique becomes the central focus of many of the works. “Kim Tomczak” by Kim Tomczak (1980) is nothing more than the kind of portrait we all carry around in our wallets — a driver’s license or ID photograph — blown up to massive proportions.

‍     That artistic imperative reaches its zenith with Andy Warhol’s wall of Marilyn Monroes. Looking at them, repeated over and over with only the sloppily silk-screened colors changed, you realize that the Monroe head-shot’s clumpy halftone Bendé dots only resolve into a picture of Monroe because you’ve seen the face thousands of times. It’s more like an icon or a logo than a portrait the painters whose works appear at the beginning of the exhibition would have understood. But you also realize that some essential element of Monroe’s picture would have been recognizable to painters 400 years earlier, although they might wonder why Warhol chose the colors he did, and why her portrait doesn’t include a glimpse of landscape out a window.

The Vancouver Art Gallery is at 750 Hornby Street (at Robson) is in the center of town, well served by public transit and with abundant parking in the neighborhood. It’s open Monday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., and open until 9:00 p.m. Thursdays. Admission is $10 for Adults, $8 for seniors and $6 for students. Gallery information is available 24 hours a day by telephone at (604) 662-4719 or at the gallery’s website: http://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca

Did You Know? For much of the early 20th century, people all over the world hailed the conservation and early environmental efforts of a Canadian Indian chief named Grey Owl, whose portrait — sporting full native North American regalia — is in this show. It wasn’t until his death that anybody realized that Grey Owl was, in fact, an Englishman named Archie Belaney. The Canadian government was particularly embarrassed, since it had hired Grey Owl to promote the country’s fledgling national park system. Despite the fraud, the conservation principles Archie “Grey Owl” Belaney promoted took root after his death.

Did You Know? The subject of Amedeo Modigliani’s “Portrait of Mrs. Hastings” (1915) was something of a muse — she inspired his best work, many believed. But that inspiration was not without cost. Neighbors said the two loved, fought and lived loudly. Mrs. Hastings was known for flouting social convention, and Modigliani was heartbroken when she ended their two-year affair.

Did You Know? When Eugene Atget took his picture of a prostitute in Paris in 1920, brothels were legally allowed to operate. But they couldn’t advertise — for that, the women had to walk the streets and try to pull in patrons.

Did You Know? In the late 19th century, France’s best-known and most sought-after portraitist was William-Adolphe Bouguereau. His mother enjoyed running his career and his life. After his first wife died, she moved in, running his household and discouraging any amorous interest she considered beneath her son, which amounted to any amorous interest. But a New Hampshire woman, Elizabeth Jane Gardner, moved in next door to the Bouguereaus in Paris, and William-Adolphe fell in love with her, despite his mother’s objections. Nonetheless, he secretly painted a self-portrait as a means of pledging his troth to Miss Gardner. He made good on his intentions when his mother died and the two were finally able to marry.

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