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The Evolution of the Portrait in the Twentieth Century, Essay Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1696

Essay

The portrait as a form of visual art experienced tremendous change in the twentieth century. The evolution of the portrait as an art form in the twentieth century was influenced not only by technology, but by the changing ideas of aesthetics and about the nature and purpose of artistic expression itself. The radical shift in emphasis regarding the portrait as a genre in the visual arts therefore was impacted as much by the advent of modern psychological theories and ideas as by the direct, technical influences such as the camera, or by variation s of painterly technique. To fully understand the evolution of the portrait in the twentieth century it is necessary to first posit some fundamental ideas and definitions about what the portrait is. Similarly, it is advisable and necessary to place some kind of specific parameters on what a portrait is intended to do.

The most obvious way to define a portrait is to say that it is a work of visual art that represents the likeness of a person. More specifically, the traditional definition of a portrait has been closely associated with paintings or photographs that feature faces. Obviously, any form or type of portrait is meant to capture the essence and personality of a given subject at a given time. The function of a portrait is therefore to transmit not only the likeness of an individual in a physical way but to transmit meaningful cues about the type of person and the personality under the visual representation. To put it simply, a portrait has always been understood to function as a kind of psychological and physical rendering of a person.

That said, the twentieth century marks an important turning point in what might be considered the “elacsticity” of portraits, meaning that a greater leeway and more relaxed approach to the historical formalism of portraits evolved. This is evidenced throughout the development of the portrait in the twentieth century.  As John Berger points out in Ways of Seeing (1972), “the average portrait of tradition appear [s] stiff and rigid” (Berger, 1972, p. 97). However, at the beginning of the twentieth century a new freedom and expressionism began to enter into portraits that helped to dislodge the previously too-formal traditions. In fact the arc of the evolution of the portrait in the twentieth century shows a progressive move away from convention toward expressionism and individual vision.

What the evolution of the portrait in the twentieth century represents is the simultaneous development of technologies and techniques that allowed for more realistic portraiture.  At the same time artistic ideals and expression moved away from the objective representation of portrait-subjects toward an articulation of psychology and emotion. The dual evolution of technology and aesthetic theory created fertile ground for growth and experimentation with the traditional portrait genre. This turning away from strict realism in portrait painting is evidenced in the work of George Bellows. Although Bellows represents only one example of a portrait painter who began to search for a more expressive range of tones and meaning in the genre, his works are important to show the beginning of the long-term change in the way the portrait was perceived.

His Portrait of Judge Peter Olney (1914), for example, shows that Bellows emphasized emotional color and energetic brushwork over the objective representation of his subject. The stirring contrast of light and dark in the painting lends a psychological emphasis to the portrait. It is as though Bellows is describing his associations both mentally and emotionally to the idea of the judge as a force in society rather than simply painting his physical characteristics. Similarly, in his famous painting Stag at Sharkey’s (1909) Bellows included a self-portrait in the background of the painting that is often viewed by critics as an expression of artistic intent.

As Marianne Doezema mentions in her study George Bellows and Urban America (1992), the painting itself “reflects Bellows’ continuing study of the Old Master tradition” and in fact stands as “his perception of himself as assuming a place in that tradition” (Doezema, 1992, p.100).  The reason that the inclusion of the self-portrait is significant is because it shows that the emerging style of expressionistic portrait painting was based  in an evolution of style rather than a revolutionary break with tradition. This is something that is very important to keep in mind about the way portraits changed in the twentieth century. The evolution of portraits was based in a slow growth of ideas and the adaptation of new technologies. The way that portraits changed in the twentieth century mirrors the evolution of society while also challenging its conventions.

This last point is highly relevant because portraits, by nature, celebrate the individual. As the social conditions of the twentieth century entered into what is called the age of modernism in art, an important theme in modernist art was the conflict between the individual and society. Therefore, changes in portraits reflected the unique position that portraits held in the visual arts, being the most obviously individualistic subject possible. A perfect example of the modernist sensibility in portraits is the work of Gerhard Richter. The portraits that Richter produced reflect not only the previously mentioned concerns of the individual and society, but the technical impact of the camera and photography on the portrait genre.

Richter pioneered a practice of painting portraits from photographs,including photographs he found in newspapers and other media. In painting from such an “impersonal” point of view, Richter embraced the objectivity of the camera while also pouring out the subjective emotions of the painter.   This approach allows Richter’s portraits to be both strikingly realistic and emotionally resonant. In other words, the “scaffolding” of the objective photograph is used to support the subjective response and expression of the artist. The form in and of itself invites interpretations of social commentary and also stirs the ongoing aesthetic debate about the function of realism in art.

For example, his portrait Renate and Mariane (1964) exhibits the blurriness and distortions of a bad photograph. The figures of the two girls are almost indistinguishable from the background of the image, as though they are ghosts. The feeling of their fading away before the viewer’s eyes is a drastic change from the realistic portraiture of tradition. The camera, as a tool, has offered the artist an entirely different way of viewing color and light, which, in turn, impacts the way that individual people are viewed, expressively.  The out of focus feeling of the work is intentional and is used to transmit the notion of elusive personal identity as well as human mortality and the impact of nature and time.

This same interaction between technology and aesthetics exists in the work of Jo Spence. In Spence’s case, the camera is used as an implement to explore the concept of the self-portrait. The majority of Spence’s self-portraits also deal with the immediacy of death, as well as with the conflict between the individual and society.  She uses her own body as a vehicle for an exploration of important social themes such as medical tyranny, disease, recovery, and self-reliance indicates the preciously mentioned evolution of the portrait from realism to expressionism. However, the unique thing about the evolution of the portrait is that realism and objectivity are used to gain an even greater depth of expressionistic resonance. For example, in an untitled portrait of herself lying in her sick-bed  pressing a call button for her nurse, the impression is of absolute loneliness/ Spence’s figure takes up almost the entirety of the frame of vision and she hold sup the call-button as tough she is signaling her intention to stay alive. The conflict between the individual and society is shown as being one of need.

Another important aspect of her work is the fact that she challenges common conceptions about the female body as an object of male-desire. instead, she shows herself to be a vulnerable, yet strong, person who has nothing whatsoever to do with the sexual objectification of women. Liz Wells points out in her study  Photography: A Critical Introduction (2000) that Spence’s “most striking images represent her struggle with illness as she faced an operation for breast cancer in 1981” (Wells, 200, p.158). Her series of portraits show that her individualism is less a result of her disease than of her disposition. It is almost as though her portraits suggest that disease is in society and that the individual is sickened from the objectification not only of sexuality but of social conventions and establishments. In this way, Spence was able to shift the portrait form from a vehicle that showed the outer image of a person to a vivid series of photographs that showed the influence of society  on the health and growth of the individual.

The evolution of the portrait continued into the late twentieth century, passing through stages and technologies until it became, not a still painting, or even photograph, but a kinetic performance. The work of Jill Orr represents what could perhaps be considered the most transformed type of portrait. To go any further would be to leave the realm of visual art and enter the realm of theater. However, Orr’s performance pieces such as Bleeding Trees or Goya are examples of how the technology of camera and film have allowed the portrait genre to grow into a much more rich and complex form.

In the case of these works, and others, it is not only the outer representation of the subject or the emotional range of the artist that enter into play, but the motion and disposition of the subject in motion and in the interaction of the subject with surroundings, light, and sound.  Orr’s work exemplifies the way in which the development of technology allowed the evolution of the portrait to  move from a strictly objective portrayal of a given subject to an expressionistic portrayal that included deeper realism as well as a deeper range of associations and social influences. The evolution of the portrait in the twentieth century reflects the way in which new technologies were absorbed aesthetically and emotionally by important artists.

References

Berger,J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Doezema, Marianne. (1992) George Bellows and Urban America. Yale University Press.

Wells, Liz. (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction. Routledge.

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