The Paradox of the Portrait

by Frederick Turner

The portrait has long been, if not despised, at least devalued as a genre of painting. In the academic European tradition, the portrait had to take its place in the hierarchy behind the philosophical, religious, allegorical or mythological painting, behind the factually based historical painting, little better than the landscape or the still life. André Félibien says in 1667:

…a painter who only does portraits still does not have the highest perfection of his art, and cannot expect the honour due to the most skilled. For that he must pass from representing a single figure to several together; history and myth must be depicted; great events must be represented as by historians, or like the poets, subjects that will please, and climbing still higher, he must have the skill to cover under the veil of myth the virtues of great men in allegories, and the mysteries they reveal.

When, for the Romantics of the nineteenth century, the landscape painting becomes a vehicle for the recognition of the divine force of nature and a form of cultural and historical meditation, it begins to rise in estimation above the portrait. The Impressionists, with their fascination with how the eye interprets light and color, arguably elevate landscape painting still higher. For the Cubists, the still life becomes a dominant genre, since it lends itself most naturally to the investigation of how the brain interprets form. Cubist portraits are actually still lifes in this sense—not only has still life outstripped the portrait in dignity, it has absorbed it.

Meanwhile the social critique initiated by the French Revolution begins to question even the aesthetic integrity of the portrait genre. The portrait came to be seen as the appurtenance of the aristocrat, the bourgeois; as part of a superstructure of ideological and cultural control that keeps the lower classes in a state of subservient awe. David’s portrait of the murdered Marat in his bathtub plays nicely on this rising resentment, but cannot resist it. Marxist ideology condemns the cult of the individual as bourgeois false consciousness, and socialist “realists” are condemned to produce only idealized archetypes of the wholesome peasant, the brave soldier, the pink-cheeked mother, the iconic leader.

As abstraction increasingly invades the free-market art world, it tends to displace the kind of observation, detail and personal interest that makes portraiture possible. The most homely function of the portrait, to provide a likeness that is of practical use in helping people recognize other people, gets relegated to the silhouette, the cartoon, the journalistic etching and finally to the photograph. A bohemian artist with integrity should spurn the handsome commission offered by the tycoon for a portrait with its expensive dress, hat and jewelry, its palatial urban or rural setting; and if the artist lets himself be bought, he slyly editorializes in the safety of his patron’s incomprehension.

Hans Holbein the Younger <i>Erasmus</i>, 1523  The National Gallery, londonBut in the whirligig of taste, the portrait seems to be making a big come-back. Francis Bacon’s triptych of his fellow-portraitist Lucian Freud just sold for a record $142.4 million, more than was ever bid for anything by Botticelli, Leonardo, Van Eyck, Ingres or van Gogh. Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) is on view through March 30, 2014, at the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon. Absurd though it may seem, perhaps there is a deeper reason for this change in taste than the silliness of fashion and the cynicism of investor-collectors. Perhaps we are recovering a need to be honest with ourselves as selves, and our thirst after some explanation for the deep mystery and paradox of selfdom makes us willing to take even a plausible substitute for that honesty.

Honesty may be a key issue here. Portraiture has always wrestled with its essential paradoxes. It is an old struggle, as old as that between the idiosyncratic Roman and the archetypal Greek portrait sculpture: between the real and the ideal, the particular and the generic, the fact against the symbol, existence against essence. If the portrait is too idealized, it cannot serve its utilitarian purpose, to make a recognizable likeness that can help the public recognize their god-king leader, help the grieving relative remember her beloved, help the matchmaker persuade the reluctant heir, help the police in their enquiries.

If the portrait is too cruelly honest, the patron will not pay for it. If the portrait is what the sitter wants it to be, then the painter has failed to show the sitter, or any other viewer, what they did not already know or wish, and isn’t that surely the very point of portraiture at its best—to reveal honestly?

But what is honesty in this medium, anyway? In the most literal sense, perhaps it was Hans Holbein who was the most honest portraitist of all. Influenced perhaps by the principles of his friends Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus, the great humanist advocates of objectivity and reason, his portraits convince us that yes, this is what we would see if we were there in the studio or chamber where they were painted. His portrait is even more accurate than a photograph, because it is a human eye that records the scene, not a light sensitive plate or digital flash drive, and a human eye that will see the recording. Perhaps because of this, Holbein’s people look like people of the twenty-first century that we know—and we realize that the oddness of the people in many other portraits from other times is the result of the painter’s opinions and culture, not of some genetic difference between humans then and humans now. There must have been people in Neolithic Europe 35,000 years ago in the Ice Age that looked like Holbein’s witty Erasmus or wary Margaret Wyatt or sociopathic Henry VIII.

But there are other kinds of honesty. We are, actually, made of meat, and one of the things that some of our contemporary portraitists want to do is to show us this fact very clearly. Bacon—no pun intended—uses the strange nightmarish smears in his portraits to suggest the membranes and gobs of fat and lymph and flesh that underlie our brave show of personality, makeup and grooming. Or the distortion is used to suggest a psychological truth. In his famous “screaming popes” series, Bacon takes the brilliant suggestiveness of Velázquez’s portrait of Innocent X and hideously—and compellingly—literalizes it, bringing out what he believes to be the screaming inner self beneath our roles: the more splendid the mask, the more anguished the scream. Whether Bacon is “right” about either Innocent or Velázquez is not the issue: he is striving for a kind of existentialist honesty that he, Francis Bacon, surely subscribes to. Is that “revelation” destined to be an enduring insight, or a pseudo-Freudian cliché? 

Interestingly enough, Holbein himself had already put Bacon’s “smear” effect into practice over 400 years earlier. In his famous portrait The Ambassadors (1533), there are two greyish smears, one obvious, crossing the foot of the painting, and one almost unseen, half-concealed behind a curtain at the upper right. But while in a Bacon portrait no real sense can be made of the smears—and this is perhaps the point, there is no essence for Bacon, no hidden meaning in human existence—closer inspection of the Holbein work reveals that the lower smear is a skull seen from a viewpoint below the lower left, and the higher smear is a half-concealed crucifix. With these “smears,” together with the broken string on the lute, the scientific instruments and other details, Holbein suggests a wealth of reflections, including the sense of our mortality and materiality, but also referring to the impending rupture in religion (the Lutheran psalm book on the shelf), the challenge of scientific reason to religious belief, and the relation of the self to the soul. Holbein does not simply, like Bacon, take a different perspective. He literally depicts another perspective in the anamorphic skull, and leaves it to us to decide which is more true.

Francis Bacon, <i>Three Studies of Lucian Freud</i>, 1969  Courtesy of Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Another “meat” painter is Lucian Freud. Though Freud does not eviscer-ate his sitters as Bacon does, perhaps his violation is more shockingly “honest” than that of his friend and rival. Freud makes his completely naked sitters twerk their reproductive organs in a kind of exhausted, listless and exasperated way. Even when the view is simply of the face, the ruthless observation of discolor and slack muscle tone and habitual grimace adds years to his sitters’ age and presages the time when that body, that flesh, must be loaded into a box and consigned to the earth or the fire. Not that Freud’s motivation, as far as we can see, is in any way sardonic, hostile, nihilistic, cynical, derisive or even bitter; rather there is a sort of tenderness and pathos about his portraits. As in his self-portraits, too, the feeling is one of despairing admiration for whatever achievement of character, whether humor, or momentary beauty, or discipline, or thoughtfulness, or simply experience, that his sitter has managed to shore against our common ruin. Like the knight in Bergman’s great film The Seventh Seal, Freud sees himself in a losing game of chess with Death.

But existentialist honesty works if existentialism is true, and for many it is not. There is an entirely different kind of honesty, for instance, in the portraiture of Renaissance Italy—Piero, Botticelli, Bellini, Ghirlandaio, Lotto, Giorgione or Titian. Here it is not meat that makes a man or woman, but their own self-presentation, their own compelling dominance of the space about them, whether the dominance is one of courage, holiness, exquisite maidenly virtue, courtly sprezzatura or military habit of command. These are people for whom mortal pathos is inappropriate, for each one of them is prepared to die anyway, whether the trajectory ends in the inferno, the purgatorio or the paradiso. It would be impertinent for a Freud or a Bacon to impose their own scheme of things on people who have so definitely taken their own fate on board—Bacon’s screaming pope is an insult that is safe enough, since Velázquez and Innocent are dead and cannot take him up on it. Which is more honest, the Spanish Renaissance painter or the British postmodernist? The one who takes the model on his own terms, with all his contradictions, sins and insight, or the one who makes of him an existentialist parable of the prison of essentialism?

Perhaps it is Rembrandt who most satisfyingly bridges the paradox of the portrait. He does not deny the “meat” aspect of the human face and body, but does not, except perhaps in his own self-portraits, allow a condescending sense of pathos to override the sitter’s own vision of the world. The civic protectors of The Night Watch, from the little girl who is the mascot of the Kloveniers (or harquebusiers) to Lieutenant Ruytenburch and Captain Coq, are all striking dramatic poses as they prepare for action, but they have earned those poses by their service, and Rembrandt himself is of their number. For a city to exist, with all its huge benefits to humanity, it must contain people who, with their Aristotelian virtues and eudaimonia, have set aside their private mortality and fears for the sake of the polis. Honesty means something else again.

Are such artists as Gainsborough and Reynolds dishonest, because they deny the meat altogether? Their sitters deny the meat, too, using their class, their social position and their face (in both senses) to make themselves a work of art. For Frans Hals, the honest reality is the sense of humor, the live wit and merry absorption in life of his sitters. For Cranach, the honesty is Luther’s, the awareness of sin as both a vision into the gulf of the human soul and, paradoxically, the route to acknowledgement, faith in Christ and redemption.

There are contemporary painters who dare to go beyond the meat. Though Balthus died in 2001 and comes from a different age, perhaps he foreshadows the portraiture of this century, when we have more fully learned the sublime deviousness of the human challenge to any representation. In Balthus’s recent show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see the essay in this issue), yet another form of honesty, a very complicated one, seems to be at work. Even after all this time, Balthus has managed to shock a lot of the reviewers, including especially poor Mr. Farago of The Guardian (“Bizarre Balthus show reveals artist’s fixation with cats and young girls,” October 21, 2013), and he does it without any of the technical whizzbangs of Bacon or the lavishly detailed genitalia of Freud.

The essential criticism is that Balthus is a pedophiliac, a perverse voyeur. Balthus, the critics seem to think, is exploiting the innocence of young girls in his portraits of them (especially, oddly enough, the ones in which they are fully dressed). Certainly, Balthus is entranced by these girls. But as Freud (Sigmund, not Lucian) pointed out, sexuality is not just something that suddenly happens when a child reaches puberty. And as anyone is aware who was either a socially intelligent child him or herself, or knows one, the consciousness of one’s effect on others and the use of that effect for one’s own ends can begin very early in life. One of the marks of the human species is what psychologists call “theory of mind,” the attribution of intention to other beings (and the assumption that other beings are attributing intention to oneself). These girls of Balthus are bourgeois French girls, after all, with tremendous chic and an intense awareness of when someone is looking at them. And, one might add, a distinct pleasure in being looked at.

There is no evidence that Balthus ever violated them in any physical sense. The critics’ shock is thus, perhaps, an index of the truth and honesty of these portraits. They want to control his thoughts, so that he does not upset some kind of unspoken consensus. Like much of the rest of our contemporary culture, which blandly accepts every possible kind of sexual and gender acrobatics among responsible adults, the critics have to draw the line somewhere, and they do so with the concept of innocence, often equated with powerlessness. To keep this line strict, they must assume that children are essentially pre-humans, devoid of self-awareness, craft and interpersonal power. This assumption is well meaning, but easily degenerates into the worst kind of sentimentality, the kind that in Victorian times attributed an insipid innocence and unconscious modesty to women in general.

And Balthus, like Vladimir Nabokov in his great novel Lolita, calls the critics’ bluff. He knows that his models, even when apparently asleep or “artlessly” playing with a cat, their legs “innocently” akimbo, are well aware of the painter’s gaze, and, if any seduction is going on, it is the painter who is the victim. Who is exploiting whom? Is their exploitation of the painter’s sexual imagination (to get themselves immortalized in paint) any less than his exploitation of theirs? Are they not in a very fair compact with each other? After all, they know that he knows that they know, and he knows they know this. There is nothing underhand. His experience as an older person is equally matched by their experience as girl-geniuses of human observation. The painter’s pleasure is a singularly pure one—it is his admiration of her insight, her victory, her power to charm; he has caught the deep complicated beauty of human consciousness, and must worship at that shrine. The honesty of the portrait may be more than we bargain for—it can be, as here, an implied self-portrait, and can carry a fur-ther shocking charge, that it is a portrait of the viewer of the painting, an index of his or her inner dishonesties and unconsciously intentional blindnesses.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2014, Volume 31, Number 1