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.