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Paint me a picture: why portraiture is more than selfie-awareness

London exhibition "Facing History: Contemporary Portraiture" is an interesting examination of the artistic genre that makes the case for its continuing vitality

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 August, 2015, 11:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 August, 2015, 11:04pm
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Does portraiture belong to the past? Surely not. We like looking at people's faces as much as ever. We all fancy ourselves as self-portraitists, gurning for a phone as Rembrandt once gurned in his selfie-like etchings. The human image is everywhere, in adverts, TV shows, politics.

In a world that's as obsessed with looks as it was when Nefertiti had her bust made more than 3,000 years ago, of course artists too are still fascinated by the portrait. It is undeniably an old and hallowed form that always - even in our holiday snaps - has something reassuringly, or eerily, ancient about it.

That is also why, even in the age of great portrait artists like Alex Katz and Chuck Close and with Lucian Freud barely in his grave, the survival of the portrait always seems in doubt. It is both of now and of a lost time. Sometimes that tension is creative; sometimes it makes the entire genre look staid and dead.

"Facing History: Contemporary Portraiture", a small but interesting examination at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, makes the case for the genre's vitality.

The artists here are neither crushed nor put off by the old-fashioned qualities of portraiture, its archaic formality or its taste of subdued drawing rooms where Victorian ancestors look down from velvet papered walls. They play with the quaintness of it.

Julian Opie takes the traditional marriage portrait and turns it into a pair of ebony-framed cartoon faces with his dead-on ability to simplify the human face yet reveal its individuality. Grayson Perry plays a similar game in his linocut portraits, Mr and Mrs Perry.

Tom Hunter's famous photograph Woman Reading Possession Order (pictured), a slice of social documentary in the style of Vermeer, has new resonance now that London properties (like the one this woman and child face eviction from) are so valuable.

All these artists draw on the past to reinvent portraiture. But it is not any old past. There's a curious fit between the sensibility of today and the formality of 17th-century Dutch portraits, Elizabethan miniatures or Renaissance medals - all of which can also be found at the V&A.

These traditional forms share a coolness and a reticence. They seek to honestly record the human image, not to get all expressive and romantic about it. They prefer faces in repose, almost expressionless. In his work Portrait of Something that I'll Never Really See (photographed by Anthony Oliver), Gavin Turk imagines posing for his own death mask: he lets the camera coldly capture him, eyes closed, face free from passion and life.

The connection between today's art and more sombre traditional portraits is that we tend to see ourselves and others in a bare bones, even brutal way, just as whoever cast Oliver Cromwell's face in death captured every wart.

The people in this exhibition do not yell, or exert themselves for attention. They just are.

Bettina Von Zwehl, who studied the V&A's haunting collection of miniatures as part of an artist's residency, was inspired by these tiny images of people who seem almost magically shrunk and imprisoned to create 34 photographic miniatures of museum employee Sophia Birikorang, over a period of months.

These pictures attest to the endurance and transformation of a self from one day to the next. Portraiture does not need to be ostentatious to be powerful - it only needs to be true.

Yet portraiture is also a masquerade, a game. Artists have been playing with poses ever since the Renaissance.

Today Cindy Sherman does it, as does Ellen Heck who in her coloured woodcuts gets her friends to pose as Frida Kahlo. They all become Frida for a day.

Portraiture, when you start enjoying its formality and its awkwardness, turns out to be an art of infinite possibility. This a pleasing glimpse of the past's future.

The Guardian