Think Portraiture. The word ‘portrait’ arose in the thirteenth century and means to show a likeness. For the past year, the subjects we have looked into has encouraged us back to a central theme of self reflection. Whether it is through the history of traditional masks, watercolour portraits or intuitive expressionism and ancient funerary masks left to us by our ancient Ancestors. The study of art brings us back to this recurring theme of translating our own image.
As a form of art, it has been with us for thousands of years. It dates back to the Ancient Egyptians. The Ancient Egyptian coffins were painted with tonal portraits of the deceased on its cover. Another Ancient form of portraiture are the busts and death masks of the Romans.
Think portraiture, from long ago..
The Image on the left depicts an Al Fayyum portrait, on display in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, shows a wealthy young woman. In 1887 British archaeologist Flinders Petrie started excavating at the pyramid at Hawara near Egypt’s Al Fayyum Oasis in the hopes of finding tombs from the third millennium B.C. To his disappointment, he uncovered a first-century B.C. Roman-era cemetery instead. Soon his chagrin turned to curiosity and then to mounting excitement: On a mummified body found in one of the brick tombs, his team found a portrait: “the beautifully drawn head of a girl, in soft grey tints, entirely classical in its style and mode.”
Lest We Forget
They both show a commonality, the objective to commemorate, memorialise the subject as well as to capture a likeness. From many thousands of years ago, there is a theme that is central in human behaviour evident in sophisticated social structures. It is a desire to remember, to make sure we are prompted to keep the memories of those who have gone. Whether in our private recollections or as a society, we want reminders of those who have gone. Perhaps this is an underlying desire born out of our helplessness against impermanence and death.
One aspect of art history that I love, are the wonderful insights it gives us. It is like a window that opens up for us. Giving us an opportunity to look through different places and eras otherwise beyond our reach. We get to reflect upon our collective histories. The human one. Though all its ugliness and glory, sometimes censored or raw. At times deceptive other times pure. In ‘Think Portraiture’ we will dig into different aspects of portrait as a genre in different communities.
Portraiture continued to be the most established form of art through western art history. Artists grappled with creating likenesses of important public figures. Portraits were commissioned to showcase their status, wealth and power. In this the artists’ selective depiction of representational symbols and posture, we can see that portraits are rarely truly honest. They served a greater function. If not to reinforce status and public image, then to portray opulence and wealth. perhaps that is why portraiture is so intrinsic in our creative expressions. There are always multiple layers of the ongoing search of identity, that is explored through portraiture.
Left: Queen Elizabeth I
If we just do a quick recap of the definitions we encounter, that ‘Portraiture is the art of depicting a person, to create a likeness of a person. Whether it is in their features, personality or mood.’ Yet as a whole, the majority of portraits are painted to depict flattering aspects of a subject. Calculated to show a version of the subject that has been carefully selected. This deliberate selection is in itself a form of representational bias.
It is no wonder portraiture has not waned through the cycles of history. Human ego is powerful. The forms of portraiture may change yet our need to imprint ourselves in the world have not. This primordial need to be acknowledged, admired and remembered, perhaps shows our biggest fear is that of insignificance. Of being forgotten. That we may be here for a short time and simply disappear into nothing.
Portraiture after the Renaissance is exciting. Through the commissioned portrait or the self portrait. Being in a time where our creative expressions can truly be free with no social restraints, the portrait can truly be wild and captivating. Capturing a persons likenes and essence. Or simply their hidden inner worlds.At times realistic, other times theatrical or symbolic. The contemporary world of the artists’ self portrait is not timid. It is challenging and insightful.
From Commission Portraits, to Self Portraits, to Selfies..
The fascinating transitions in our collective identities is influenced greatly by the advent of Photography in the world of art. Photography in the 18th century transformed a privilege into a common every day token.The luxury of the commissioned portrait painting has transformed into the modern day selfie. Where even the artist has been made obsolete. Every person is the artist, editor, model and marketer. We are now masters of creating our image in every way we wish.
Portraiture Remains a Primary Genre
Though at first this may seem concerning for the future of Portraiture, it looks to be that our worries may be unfounded. The art in portraiture is strong. The grand fascination we have with our own image is not one that can be placed at the feet of any individual. This is a human condition. A collective syndrome. More persistent than any pandemic. Portraiture remains one of the most popular genres in many art disciplines.
It is the human collective social journey evident through portraiture in art as a whole that is magnificent. Portraiture in contemporary art have many possibilities. Through understanding our own predisposition to self emulate through the portrait, we can use the same tendency to surpass the dominant ego. It can be a journey of discovery. Our world is abundant with the richness of examples left by brave and courageous individuals who explored without reserve their consciousness through portraiture. Who they are within.
Through portraiture, we can self reflect. In more honest ways about our identity and our perceptions. In ‘Think Portraiture’, we will explore different aspects of the contemporary portrait, their roles in different cultural contexts as well.Through painting, photography, sculpture and perhaps even film. In exploring portraiture, we are exploring our own psyche. As individuals as well as a human community.