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Art & artists

Re-valuing the portrait

— March 2015

Article read level: Art lover

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Sylvia Sleigh, ‘The Turkish Bath’.

The Smithsonian’s exciting show is given full expression in this excellent book, says David Ecclestone

Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction by Brandon Brame Fortune, Wendy Wick Reaves and David C. Ward

If your pleasure is looking at pictures and having a small but significant amount of history available to read without falling into a bottomless pit of art-historical theorizing, this large format, beautifully illustrated collection of images is for you.  One caveat (for some of you a recommendation): this is essentially an American account, published to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the Smithsonian in Washington DC that took place between April 2014 and January 2015.

The authors are very specific about its cultural time frame: 1945–75.  This was the period that saw America emerge as the economic power-house from the Second World War, prepared to use the hegemony of Abstract Expression to further its foreign policy.  This is the era of what Henry Luce, writing inTime in 1941, foresaw as the ‘American Century’.  He was writing in a vein of well-founded optimism with America not in the war but ready to play a redemptive role in world affairs, a role that the war itself was to confer.

With Abstract Expressionism emerged the totemic figure of Jackson Pollock:   muscularly masculine but integrated into comfortable domesticity with fellow artist Lee Krasner.   Realism and figuration were no longer meaningful approaches to artistic expression and the critic Clement Greenberg’s teleological analysis of these events stood ready to drive the final nail into their coffin.

And yet realism and figuration survived these ‘cold war’ years, as these 52 reproductions and their accompanying text make clear.  In doing so the exhibition picks up on key social themes: the role and image of the American male in a modern post-war society, the continuing male hegemony in the art world and in wider society, and the continuing repression of the African American population.

But rather than attempt to follow these threads here, I am going to provide a few examples of the riches that they produced in the hope of tempting you to follow the more serious agenda yourself.  Stressing the persistence of portraiture over the long perspective of the centuries is a striking canvas by Barkley Hendricks (b.1945): Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris (1972).  David Ward’s commentary ties the ennobling of this young black man to the triple portrait of Charles I with which Hendricks would have been familiar during his student days on London.  Ward adds in evidence the colour of the overcoat (Anthony van Dyck had painted the monarch dressed in red for the central image) and there are other resonances: the sharp features and the beard.  All of which underlines the subject’s regal bearing and provides a second subject for the portrait: the casually yet commandingly draped red, belted overcoat.  In his desire to give the garment full exposure, Hendricks had painted the middle portrait from the back, unlike the van Dyck where we see the monarch full face.  This is a truly sculptural image (as was the portrait of Charles I, painted to enable Bernini to produce a bust) adding authority and almost regal dignity to the street dude with his colourful ‘spectators’.

Recruiting history to another social cause, Sylvia Sleigh (1916­2010) depicts The Turkish Bath (1973).  In the 1960s and 1970s women were very meagrely represented in the art world, and Sleigh’s strategy was the subtle one of reversing the male role in art by reversing the male gaze.  This is Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingre’s 1862 scene of the same name but with naked men replacing the women of the seraglio.  Sleigh dwells on the differences in flesh tones to reflect Ingre’s own fully expressed carnal desires (of which the eighty-year-old was very proud).  At the same time there is a contemporary cast to the scene.  Most of the figures fail to engage with the viewer.   They all look ‘out of it’ -- drugged.  The only exception is the artist’s husband, portrayed as the reclining figure in the foreground; his expression retains a strong element of awareness.

The overriding character of this show is its sense of period – the idea that the artists are finely attuned to the socio-political ferment and are not operating in some detached environment.  Romare Bearden (1911–88) found the flexibility of collage a potent way to express the evolving demands of this cultural engagement.  Bearden was a key figure in the second wave of the Harlem Renaissance and remained a lifelong advocate of the African American in what was still a very repressive society.  But it was his ability to engage with all social issues that prompted Time magazine in 1968 to recruit him when it profiled Mayor Lindsay of New York.  By this date the lustre of the Kennedy magic with which Lindsay was associated had tarnished and Bearden brilliantly expresses the sense of desperation and impotence that the civic administration had experienced.

This is an exciting show given full expression in this excellent book.  It gives a strong sense of the resilience of American portraiture.  It makes clear that this was not an art form that skulked in its enclave while abstraction marginalized and disinherited it.  It continued to reach out in novel and inventive ways that not only demanded attention and established relevance; it also remained capable of producing profoundly satisfying artworks.   

Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction  by Brandon Brame Fortune, Wendy Wick Reaves and David C. Ward is published by D. Giles Ltd in association with the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institute, 2014. 



David Ecclestone
Art historian

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