Oil portrait of my friend and collaborator Chiara Brokaw, aka Apricity. A talented singer-songwriter and writer, go and check out her work here on Soundcloud
Portraiture is a uniquely strange form of art for us humans, and one we haven't quite figured out yet. The brain is wired with many dedicated mechanisms to deal with facial and emotional recognition, and these inevitably come into play when approaching a portrait. Perhaps this speaks to the intrinsic depth of experience we experience when interacting face-to-face with another individual human. We work out quickly if we know them, whether they are friend or foe, whether we find them attractive or familiar. People engage in identification, comparison and projection too - how does this face make me feel about myself, how do I compare to this person? What does my unconscious want to do with this person today?
Perhaps the natural obsession we have with other peoples' faces becomes most obvious - and most facile - on social media. Facebook is named so for a reason. The embarrassingly obvious narcissism of self-taken portraits is socially acceptable, somehow, justified by the ageless hunger for others to consider our appearance. Tinder and other dating apps allows the individual to gorge on a stream of images of the face- visages we might find gorgeous, repulsive, intriguing, terrifying, hilarious, undermining, enraging, boring... it's a neurological feast, laced with the biological narcotic of hope.
Artistic portraits are a different matter, yet they can be as empty as any dating app-selfie. No level of technique or photo-realism can bring life to a dead portrait. The best examples of dead portraits are generally those tourist portraits, realised along the Seine or Leicester Square. Performed with a knack of carrying a likeness, I always found they leave me with an unsettling feeling whenever I have seen them (even though I have never sat for one myself). They seem amusing, but feel weirdly morbid, like the spirit had been removed from the human in the moment of death. It also doesn't generally help that the paradigm of such images are publicity images of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. Here's one I found on the Internet:
My understanding of the portrait -and art in general - changed dramatically in 2003 when I was in the Musée D'Orsay. I was in a room of Van Gogh paintings. The room was filled with wonderfully cheesy tourists, who frankly looked like they weren't having a good time, yet were diligently working on collecting photos of themselves next to each famous picture (this was the era before the selfie). They were forming lines, punishing themselves with the task of collecting images with which they would inevitably punish their friends, families, and future selves back home in tedious slideshows and festive DIY calendars.
Among the gaggling tourists hung this famous self-portrait of Van Gogh, a painting I think I knew pretty well in reproductions but had never seen in the flesh:
It was a bizarre and disconcerting experience. I can't convey the soul of the painting in this photo - but in the flesh, it appeared to me that Van Gogh was more alive than everyone else in the room. I felt connected to the deepest level of his inner life in the moment he created this painting. The tourists giggling around, perhaps including myself, were as alive as those tourist trophy sketches.
How could a human genuinely feel more human in two dimensional oil paint than in sweating, mumbling, digesting, breeding, dying biology? Van Gogh did, and still does. Perhaps the experience of being human is one which is constantly measured against the inhuman, the feeling of cold stone, lifelessness and vacuum. When we feel the presence of another human in that incomprehensibly complex moment, one begins to feel in oneself to be a life-form alike yet distinct from any other. The connection is everything. Perhaps this is why a person can physically die of a broken heart, and be spiritually reborn in the moment of their children's birth.
For me, this is the transcendent heart of great portraiture. The greater the portrait, the deeper into the soul of the person in the image we connect. Mediocrity shuts us out on the doorstep, we can go no further than that waxwork glaze to the images of eyes. But a great portrait, like that of Van Gogh takes us beyond death and time into the truth of this artist's soul.