“Please Grow”

I love to look at other people’s gardens, but I don’t think I realized how much peace and joy working in my own could give me, despite all the thorns from the wild roses. And with a little luck, and a few prayers perhaps, dreams can come true. I planted sunflowers and lavender near the Arctic Circle yesterday.

It is hard to believe Danny just turned one year old today!
Happy Birthday Baby!

Danny

Keeping in mind the BP Portrait Award has been traditionally open to “young” artists, I found the choice for short listed work for this year to be very interesting. The list has become increasingly photo-realistic in recent years. It is very technically impressive work, but it got me to asking what is it that I view as “great” portrait painting.

Self-Portrait by Alice Neel
Self-Portrait by Alice Neel, 1980,
Oil on canvas

Ask me who some of my heroes are, and Alice Neel and Frida Kahlo would be among the first on a very long list of artists. The perfection is in the imperfection. It is something more than caricature or the artist’s thumb print that draws me in. I love the clumsy mark, the passion and energy, the brave rawness and the awkward honesty.

So when is an image better left as a photograph? This is not to discredit the use of “photo-like” realism in painting, but to ask more of it.

In Vermeer’s most celebrated portrait the handling of the paint, the quality of light, and conveyance of humanity lift it beyond verisimilitude.

There are those who deride what has been termed magic realism, but even in Mary Pratt’s work I find an abstraction and a treatment and celebration of the light, which goes beyond a simple-minded copy of a photograph.

For me, it was when Chuck Close lost the use of his body and hand that his photographic-inspired portraits became stronger, and far more poignant.

Portrait Wunderlich by Gerard Richter
Portrait Wunderlich by Gerard Richter, 1967,
Oil on canvas

With Gerhard Richter’s “photo-painting”, a heightened sensitivity and investigation into the nature of the photographic process makes the work compelling. There is a psychic energy, as if the artist is trying to catch a ghost. In his work, painting lends permanence to images that would otherwise be discarded or overlooked. There is always a sense of a questioning and critical mind at work. The beauty of a found object and brush mark meet in his paintings (or perhaps bad photographs sometime make for better paintings (-: ).

We cannot all do work of this calibre, but perhaps this questioning reflects my own shift as I look towards tempera as a way to start fresh and learn a new language that will be just awkward enough, like painting with my left hand. Perhaps I’m just tired of cringing and trying to be gracious every time someone says “Wow, your painting looks just like a photograph!”

I came across a link to a discussion of portraiture by writers and artists Michael Crummey, Mary Pratt, Craig Francis and Peter Wilkins via the Art in Newfoundland blog that I was eager to hear as it will likely be sometime before I have a chance to attend any art lectures in person.

Portrait painting has ranked fairly low in the hierarchy of art, but ever since I can remember I’ve been drawn to interesting faces. After all, the first things that hold fascination for babies are the faces in front of them.

Michael spoke about how the viewer helps to paint the portrait, but today the way we view things is filtered in increasingly political ways. Artists are aware and influenced by this. When a painter picks up a brush there are questions of sexual politics, the gaze, and cultural voice appropriation — emotional and psychological baggage that is hard to ignore. Thus, how clear sighted can we be? One of my earliest oil paintings was a self portrait as a black woman based on Marie Benoit’s portrait of a black woman: it raised a few eyebrows with regards to political correctness, but for me it was very much a self portrait on many levels. The artist and the viewer may glean different meanings or perspectives from the work, all because of the way that individuals see through different eyes.

Portraiture is often driven behind the scenes by commissions, and commissions did help pay my way through school, but at one point I was reduced to tears by one doctor’s wife who, after I’d spent a month working on her portrait in a tiny ill-ventilated basement, was not happy with my work and decided that she didn’t want it. She said I made her look “puffy.” After that I only painted the things I wanted to. Even as a generally shy person I’d find myself asking people, some of whom were perfect strangers, to pose for me because I found they had a presence I felt compelled to paint. I also continue to do self portraits and revel in that freedom. And then, I like to do portraits of my sister because of her spirit and presence, and because in some way it feels closer to painting a self portrait.

In essence, the joy of portraiture is about experiencing a painting from the inside out. We do not have to avert our eyes passing by this person on the street — we are invited to sit and stare and wonder. Michael also talks about how we can never fully experience being inside the mind of a painted subject the way you can with a character in a well-written book, but I think that, as with a poem, we enjoy the ambiguity of meaning and the complexity of thought this brings. There is a reason why Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” has captured the world’s attention for so very long, and inspired any number of award-winning plays, novels, paintings and, now, a movie. It is about more than a beautiful model and sexual politics. There is enigma in her gaze. There is an inherent connection with the viewer.

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo 1940
Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo, 1940,
Oil on canvas

With self-portraiture there is often the question of narcissism, but I believe that such paintings become a kind of art therapy, whether good or bad, a way to wrestle with issues of identity and exorcise personal demons. I think this quote on a Frida Kahlo website says much:

Lots of people have defined Frida’s mania for self-portraits (about 1/3 of her works) as a sort of therapy to survive, an alienation of suffering and physical pain from herself, a kind of repression of the ravaging action inflicted by external events on her body (bus accident, abortions, surgery operations and “weird” medical treatments of her age).

If anyone one knows of any other art podcasts on line I’d love to hear about them.

More on this later….