Friday, January 11, 2013

Kate Middleton: Read My Lips

What is a portrait?

The youthful Kate Middleton, as portrayed by Paul Emsley. No, seriously. 

This might seem like a very simple question. You might say that it is a representation of someone, and you’d be right — but only a bit right. There’s a lot more to a portrait than that, and it’s worth examining what that includes, especially given the furor over the new official portrait of Kate Middleton — the Duchess of Cambridge.

If a portrait is merely to provide a person’s likeness — as it did before the age of photography — then it is successful if it actually resembles the person it portrays. But what is a person’s likeness? Is it enough merely to accurately render that person’s shape and features? Or should it give a hint of their personality too? What about their unique smile? All of these things are necessary to create a likeness, rather than a clinical measurement of the various elements that comprise a face.

Hang on — is a portrait just a face? Sure, we recognize people by their facial features — IDs rely on it — but a portrait might take into account more of the figure which gives a person a distinct space in the world. Do most people appear at their most natural when posing stiffly for a portrait which will merely show them from the shoulders up? Probably not.

Faces are not the only things a portrait shows. Hairstyles, jewelry, clothing and a setting are all clues which suggest the person whose portrait this is. Once, portraits were commissioned to preserve for posterity the social status of the sitter, and were artfully arranged with the tools of their trade. These were not meant to be “natural” pictures, but rather old fashioned résumés rendered in paint.

Pietro Annigoni's 1956 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II,
painted when the young Queen was the same age as Kate Middleton

Now that we’ve mentioned paint, why are portraits traditionally paintings? Why use paint? Is a photograph not a real portrait because it can be captured in an instant rather than composed and rendered? Is paint on canvas supposed to be longer-lasting? Or is it something to say that the sitter is important enough to require the services of a craftsperson and their time?

While we’re at it, does the object of the portrait really have to pose, sitting there in a studio for hours on end to be looked at by the portraitist? Or can the painter work from photographs? Is that a cheat?

This question of what constitutes a portrait in one which draws a great deal of attention every year when Britain’s National Portrait Gallery (an institution with quite a bit of authority on the subject) hosts BP’s Annual Portrait Competition. The various offerings are judged by a panel of experts as well as the general public, for which admission is free. Along with the usual suspects when it comes to technique, are always some very interesting visual comments on what a portrait is or can or should be.

It makes sense that Britain should host a competition in portrait painting, because it is very much concerned about what it looks like to others, and what being British really IS. If we’re going to commit ourselves to paper, the gist seems to be, then we damn well need to consider which face we’ll want the world to gaze on.

Portraits serve a purpose that is entirely incidental to the mere act of rendering a likeness, however. When an official portrait is commissioned, it means you have arrived, are important, somehow. The Royal Family all have to have their portraits painted every so often because — well, just because. Tradition is a beast to overcome.

Thus is it that poor Duchess Kate (and her husband) were compelled to utter statements of utter bullshite today in defense of her brand new old self rendered in washes of paint. When Prince William stated that it was “just amazing,” he might have been voicing a larger opinion about the chutzpah of the artist, whose work is akin to tossing sand in the future monarch’s wife’s face. What it is unequivocally NOT, is ‘beautiful, absolutely beautiful.” By no measure is Kate’s portrait “beautiful” in any way. It is not even a portrait.


It is not a likeness, and it is not a résumé. It is a landscape painting. This is what the artist, Paul Emsley, says about what he does best: “I’m interested in the landscape of the face, in the way in which light and shadow fall across the forms. That’s really my subject matter.”

So he wasn’t painting Kate the human being at all; he was painting Kate the geographic space.

Perhaps this account for the painting’s terrifying dullness. Perhaps the landscape of her face that day was experiencing clouds and rain. Perhaps it makes sense of the disturbing lack of structure inherent in most living people’s faces, which has been simplified by an armature of cotton wool. He used photographs to aid him in his quest. Perhaps this accounts for the truly weird unfocused, mismatched eyes, which gaze in different directions. Everyone has weaknesses; Mr. Emsley’s is both light and shadow; from where, exactly does the light in his painting originate? What supernatural shadow obscures the lower half of her neck? He says he invented her outfit as a sort of pastiche of clothing. For one of Britain’s truly great clotheshorses, he sure gave her a dull, unfashionable tie-necked blouse.

Mrs. Wales turns 31 today — yet here she looks like she’s turning 61 with a bad dye job. When photographers are being kind to beautiful women, they erase the under-eye wrinkles that cause some of us to look tired; here, he exaggerates them. And as to her smirk — all it portrays is a cold smugness utterly unbecoming to what every photograph of her ever taken suggests about her actual game face.

Ultimately, the painting is unquestionably a dud. But what is it as a portrait? What does it say?

It says “read my lips.”

Her eyes are fixed in the middle distance. And her lips are pursed shut.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Downton Abbey Haiku

Downton Abbey in Haiku

Season One:

The morning papers
bring bad news but are ironed
by the nice footman.

Uh-oh: Titanic
sinks, taking heirs with it
to watery graves.

Alas! My estate
will be inherited by
a solicitor.

Three virgins await
eligible bachelors,
bored out of their skulls.

Hello Mr. Bates
I see you have a limp, can
you manage the stairs?

Damn the damn entail!
Damn the inheritance laws!
Call the damn lawyers!

Don’t cry, Mr. Bates!
There’ll be lots to cry about
later, just you see.

Stop the car! Get out
Bates! Don’t ever leave again!
I was wrong! Come back!

Mr. Heartthrob knows
how to dress himself, thank you
very much indeed.

Everyone lines up
in the atrium to meet
Matthew and his Mum.

Matthew surprises
the footman by knowing which
cutlery to use.

What’s a weekend? Oh,
Dowager Countess you are
such a hoot! (Nice script!)

Matthew doesn’t want
to marry a haughty bitch
just yet. (That will change.)

Poor Edith, with her
large nose and shabby dowry,
destined for spinsterhood.

Cousin Isobel
and the Dowager Countess
can’t stop bickering

Naughty Thomas is
gay as the day is long but
no-one will bed him.

Sybil reads too much
but is her father’s favorite
because she has balls.

Anna has a crush
on Mr. Bates and he has
a crush on her too.

If only Matthew
would walk Mary down the aisle —
cousin and cousin!

Poor Edith despairs:
she can’t get Matthew out of
church and into her.

Pushy Isobel
insists man undergoes op
to cure his dropsy

Thomas tries his luck:
is brushed off. Pamuk wants to
have Mary instead.

Clackety-clack — what’s
that? A typewriter? This can
only mean one thing.

Mary discovers
what blue balls mean and submits
to her visitor.

No Pamuk! No! No!
No no no no — will it hurt?
No? OK, go ahead.

William pines for
Daisy but she doesn’t give a toss
about him just yet.

Mr. Pamuk dies
inconveniently in
Miss Crawley’s boudoir.

Daisy spies the Turk
being carried through the house
in the dark, uh-oh.

Into the lake goes
Mr. Bates’s leg brace — splash!
thanks to Mrs. Hughes.

O’Brien sneaks out
for a fag and some gossip
with evil Thomas.

An Irish Chauffeur?
Whatever next? And he’s a
Socialist too?

The swivel chair takes
the Dowager Countess for
a dizzying spin.

Upstart Branson gives
Lady Sybil things to read
because she’s home-schooled.

Anthony Strallan,
what a bore! A widower
besides! Fair game, then.

Edith and Mary
have bitch-fight to see which one
is the greater slut.

Matthew is put off
by Mary’s heartless flirting,
walks off in a huff.

Bates accepts cart ride,
watches Anna walk behind
with love in his eyes.

For the very first time
Violet does not award
herself the top prize.

In the dead of night
Edith pens letter that will
ruin Mary’s life.

Suffragette Sybil
gets knocked down at the rally,
is saved by the boys.

Lord Grantham can’t fire
Branson because he plays a
key role in the plot.

What! Mr. Bates used
to be a drunkard and thief!
They still won’t fire him.

Kisses at last for
Anna and Bates, but they get
interrupted! Damn!

Matthew eats sandwich,
kisses Mary, proposes —
but will she accept?

Gavrillo Princip
assassinates the Archduke
and all hell breaks out.

More importantly,
Mary can’t decide if she
should marry Matthew.

Pregnant? At her age?
Blame the Change of Life and hope
it’s a boy at last.

If Mr. Bates falls
on his sword any more, he
will actually die.

Bitter O’Brien
gets her signals crossed, thinks new
maid will get her job.

Oh dear, O’Brien:
kicks the soap to get revenge,
kills baby instead.

Drama abounds at
garden party: everyone
wearing shades of cream.

William throws punch
on behalf of everyone,
knocking Thomas down.

World War One breaks out
at the garden party, which
is a real buzz-kill.

Season Two:

All is not quiet on
the Western Front; thankfully
it is at Downton.

Kaboom! Everything
around Matthew exploding:
will he explode too?

Matthew escapes Somme
for welcome respite back home
with Lavinia.

Noble William
wants to enlist, but he’s his
father’s only child.

Everyone Sybil
has ever danced with is dead.
What’s a girl to do?

Robert does his part
by putting on uniform
every single day.

Everywhere you look —
khaki, except for special
occasions, then red.

The women still have
to dress for dinner, even
though there’s a war on.

Nurse Sybil is just
as sexy in uniform
as in pretty frock.

Horrid Edith taunts
Mary has snappy comeback:
Sir Richard Carlisle!

Matthew’s got
99 problems, but a
bitch ain’t one. Oh, wait.

Not all housemaids are
smart and conscientious, like
Anna. There’s Ethel.

John Bates has a plan:
buy Vera off with newfound
wealth, marry Anna.

Mary’s childhood toy
is really a metaphor
for her broken heart.

Poor Mr. Bates: his
wife has his balls in her hand
and won’t let them go.

Daisy feels sorry
for William, gives him kiss.
She can’t take it back.

Matthew and Thomas
share condensed milk, have a chat.
Pretty unlikely.

Wicked Thomas waits
with lighter aloft for shot
that will send him home.

Carlisle proposes
beneficial partnership
— oops, I mean marriage.

The walking wounded
are everywhere! Mostly not
walking, however.

War makes men propose.
Daisy’s caught in a big lie
as unwilling bride.

Horrors! No footmen
to serve dinner! Whatever
will everyone think?

Downton Hospital,
run by gaggle of scheming
self-absorbed women.

1918:  when
men were men and woman were
just hysterical

Sybil drives Branson
around the bend, instead of
the other way round.

Dear Matthew. Going
to marry rich asshole. Hope
you don’t mind. Love, Mary.

Robert visits Bates.
Would you like a valet with
your pint, Sir? Yes, please.

Matthew and Will are
missing, but it’s only an
annoying plot twist.

Ethel provides care
to Major Bryant’s private
parts, is discovered!

Panic averted —
the two heartthrobs aren’t missing
after all. Thank God.

Who’s this at my door?
Ethel? What brings you back here?
Pregnant? Dear oh dear.

Paralyzed? Matthew?
Nothing could be worse than that!
Oh wait — yes it can.

No sex for Matthew,
who has a non-functioning
penis. How very cruel.

Wounded William
is dying but doesn’t know;
not yet, anyway.

Mary tells Miss Swire
the bad news re. the penis.
Awkward, anyone?

Darth Vera returns
to ruin everyone’s lives.
But why, J.F., why?

Shockingly, Major
Bryant ignores Ethel’s charge
of paternity.

Robert likes new maid.
Wonder how that will turn out?
You guessed it! Tut tut.

Romanovs are dead,
ergo Branson asks Sybil
to elope with him.

Violet shames Vicar
into officiating
at bedside wedding.

Dying William
marries reluctant Daisy
on his deathbed. Sad.

Patrick Gordon, you
say? We’ll see about that. Not
bloody likely, though.

Irony: when the
audience knows more than the
actors. Like Edith.

How do you spell your
last name? “I’m-an-im-pos-ter”?
First name “Obvious.”

Robert lusts after
the new maid, but is thwarted
by his good conscience.

Is that a tingle?
Matthew makes miraculous
recovery, yay!

Evil Mrs. Bates
drinks rat poison, kicks bucket.
Mr. Bates is blamed.

Sybil’s eloped! Damn!
Her sisters track her down and
bring her back, pronto!

Guess who shows up for
Matthew and Lavinia’s
wedding? Spanish Flu!

Will Cora die soon?
Does Carson have it too?
Nope. They both survive.

Mary and Matthew
dance, kiss, while his fiancé
watches from the stairs.

Bates makes Anna an
honest woman, but she was
one in the first place.

Bates marries Anna!
They enjoy their honeymoon
of one single day.

Lavinia does
the right thing and dies of flu.
Now the wedding’s off.

Mr. Bates arrested
for murder! Did he do it?
No-one knows for sure.

Mary comes clean re.
Mr. Pamuk; no-one cares,

Matthew slaps Carlisle,
which is what we’ve all wanted
to do since Day One.

Bates gets life in jail.
This is good news: no gallows.
Servant’s Ball back on.

Romance in the snow:
Matthew gets down on one knee,
proposes marriage.