About - Portrait

© 2018 Kenneth Pils

About - Portrait

Exhibition information
Artist's texts
Tue 15 May

The word “portrait” comes from the Latin “portrahere,” translated as “to drag out, reveal, expose.”

“A portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even mood of the person.”

The second meaning of the term is given as: “Something which represents, typifies, or resembles the object described or implied; a type; a likeness.”

A portrait is always of something (and usually of someone). It draws its authority from the real and unique historical presence of the subject whose image it depicts, and at the same time reflects on and affects that presence.

The oldest known image that takes a human face as its subject matter was painted over 27,000 years ago in a cave in Western France, but even there, realistic depiction was not the goal. Iconic portraiture in general often presents the human image simultaneously with broader ideas and values;

Egyptian funeral masks are among the earliest portraits known, and their idolized images are imparted with a whole cosmology of funerary symbolism.

Medieval European portraiture focused on demonstrating its subjects political position, social status, and especially religious convictions, often distinguishing individuals more by their dress and their association with significant objects than by likeness. Many medieval portraits were painted without so much as a physical description of the subject’s face.

More realistic portraiture has often been used for longevity, preserving the image  of individuals in defiance of space and time. Relatively realistic portraits in both two and three-dimensional forms were standard across the states of ancient Greece, even as other cultural forms were vastly different. 

Political representation has also long been a critical function of portraiture. Idealized images of Roman leaders were frequently stamped onto coins and medallions as a way of establishing and maintaining political presence, and statues in important public spaces also made a leader’s image part of daily life.

The modern tradition of realistic two-dimensional portraiture has its beginnings in the European Renaissance, when the official portrait of a monarch became his single authoritative image. A king frequently had a royal portrait artist who was exclusively responsible for defining how his likeness would be visually represented. Art historian John Pope-Hennessy writes that with this new interpretation of the portrait, the portrait-artist gained new powers as “an interpreter whose habit is to probe into the mind and for whom inspection connotes analysis”.

Many issues in media studies center on this social relationship implied in the creation and use of the portrait, and especially around the question of how these relations change with historical and technological developments such as the inventions of film and photography. In his canonical essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”, Walter Benjamin links photography to the demise of the cult value of art and his idea of the aura: “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” But he gives photographic portraits a special status.
In photography, exhibition value begins to drive back cult value on all fronts. But cult value does not give way without resistance. It falls back on a last entrenchment: the human countenance. It is no accident that the portrait is central to early photography. In the cult of remembrance of dead or absent loved ones, the cult value of the image finds its last refuge. In the fleeting expression of a human face, the aura beckons from early photographs for the last time. This is what gives them their melancholy and incomparable beauty. But as the human being withdraws from the photographic image, exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to cult value.

Benjamin claims that old photographic portraits, even in their condition of reproducibility, resist the retreat of the aura because they directly reference the historical presence of real people in specific historical moments. The technological changes around the production the portrait have led to new interpretations of the portrait’s fundamental structure. Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard portrays the famous art dealer’s image as a mosaic of shaded surfaces, and Warhol’s printed grids of pop-culture portraits directly implicate the techniques of mass production.

The rarer definition: “Something which represents, typifies, or resembles the object described or implied; a type; a likeness,” and its more common variant “a representation in speech or writing  esp. a vivid or graphic description,” have come to have real descriptive power in understanding literary representation. The title of James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” directly parodies that of a visual portrait, and is a detailed study of an individual presence, a fictionalized version of Joyce himself. In a sense, Joyce’s novel is the opposite of a visual or plastic portrait. The narration is divided into five parts, each one focusing on a different moment in the life of its central character, the language, structure, and themes changing as the life of its main character progresses; instead of capturing a single image, the novel shows its subject in separate moments across time and space. Rather than any structural similarity to visual and plastic portraits, it is the idea of referencing the singular presence of a real person that supports Joyce’s interpretation of the portrait. The title of the novel has itself often been parodied, and its structure as a literary interpretation of the effect of visual and plastic portraiture has been vastly influential.

Using a similarly broad understanding of the portrait, the French semiotician [See ] Louis Marin provides a rigorous analysis of the political representations of Louis XIV, the “Sun King” monarch of France in The Portrait of the King. Through an exhaustive reading of painted portraits, images on coins and medallions, poems and folk tales from the period, and even a map of Paris, Marin shows how the representational tactics through which the monarchy made its presence felt in everyday life were based on the Catholic belief of transubstantiation. The same mechanism, he argues, by which the sanctified bread becomes the actual body of Christ allowed the monarchy to maintain profound political power by establishing the king’s real presence where his physical body was absent. Marin’s study reveals a deep political significance in the representational structures [http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/structure.htm] apparent in specific manifestations of the portrait form.

A more recent example of the social nature of the portrait comes from visual anthropologist and occasional Marshall McCluhan collaborator Edmund Carpenter, in an essay on his experience with photographic portraits in New Guinea.
One day at a marriage ceremony, we offered to photograph the bridal couple. The groom immediately posed with a male friend. We re-posed him with his pregnant bride & year old child. It was instantly obvious from the behavior of everyone present that the picture he had requested would have been routine, whereas the picture we took was anything but routine. It was as if we had photographed, in our society, the groom kissing the best man. Some weeks later we visited their home and saw this photograph carefully pinned up. [...]All the power & prestige of the camera had been used in direct conflict with one of the deepest cultural values of this society. (pg. 145)
Carpenter’s story is a striking example of how the apparently natural role that the portrait plays in the representation of individuals is actually deeply social. In this account, the two aspects of portraiture as both a form of representation and a culturally conditioned kind of social practice are clearly visible; so are the tensions that can exist between those two aspects and the real social consequences those tensions can have. In all of its definitions, the portrait is as much an image of a social and historical way of understanding its subject as it is of the subject itself.