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Making Faces; Thoughts on portraiture.

Greetings. Here below are a few of my ideas about portraiture. Please feel welcome to add any thoughts you may have on the topic!

What purpose does the contemporary painted portrait serve? Historically, the portrait was a record of a person; a substitute or a memento. Later, it was employed as a symbol of status or wealth, and far fewer paintings of the lower classes exist as a result. Today, records and mementos are the domain of photography, and portraits are no longer the fashion of the elite… so why do we want them?
My immediate response is that they serve a similar purpose to so many human images; they are a mirror in which we can view the other and compare our ‘self’. The popularity of celebrity portraits seems to back this up – we especially like to see the successful and the famous and seek out the mystery ingredients that they must have in order to have ‘made it’. But do we learn anything about the identity of the person represented in a modern portrait? What’s in it for them? And the artist? I’m one of those, a portrait artist I mean, and I sometimes feel that I’m adding very little of worth to the world…
So, to start from the start, I decided that I needed a definition. I looked to the writings of Richard Brilliant, who submits that, ‘only physical appearance is naturally visible, and even that is unstable. The rest is conceptual and must be expressed symbolically’. He adds to that that portraits can be physical, psychological or emblematic representations of a subject, which I find to be a fairly neat way of categorising such paintings. Shearer West goes a step further, allowing for a portrait to be not only a physical or symbolic likeness of a subject, but any ‘works of art that engage with ideas of identity as they are perceived, represented and understood in different times and places’. West is well aware of our globalised, post-modern world and acknowledges that the fundamental aspect of portraiture, identity, can be perceived very differently if viewed by an audience not possessing the necessary tool-kit to decode it (for example, a Gainsborough would have very little relevance to a teen in future Tokyo or a Masai of the time).
The reason for offering these definitions of portraiture is that I think they work quite well in summarising just what constitutes a modern portrait. The works of Lucien Freud, Fiona Lowry, John Beard, Jeffrey Smart and Jenny Sages all very diverse are all allowed within this definition, whereas some have labeled them nudes, abstracts or expressionist.

That’s enough to get us started, I think. So what are your opinions? Does a subject need clothes? The painting a background? Do they require symbols of their life and culture? Does the artist imbed his/her identity within the work? Carry on…

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