2.3 Narrative – Research

The aim of this project is to harness materials to give expression to personal experience and create a narrative. The suggested method is to make and indirect portrait of someone about whom we have strong feelings via the representation of a possession. As a background to this, I have looked as a range of indirect portraits or self portraits.

Two of the most famous indirect portraits are by Van Gogh in which he painted the chairs in which he and Gauguin habitually sat. Each is represented by their possessions, tobacco, book etc, and their different characters evoked by the different constructions of the chairs and the different colours used; one is day , the other night. However, the empty chairs also signify absence.

Perhaps one of the very earliest indirect portraits was by Samuel van Hoogstaten’s Tromp D’Oeil (1666-7). Here the artist has depicted himself through a still life painting of objects which appear to be tucked into a noteboard. Here he is displaying virtuoso painting skills to create a complete illusion of three dimensional objects. These create a narrative of a busy life with correspondence waiting to be answered,a man of letters. The meaning of other objects was perhaps more immediate at the time than it is to us. The presence of the two combs perhaps indicates nice attention to person appearance or hygiene. It would be ok to let him come into your house to paint you. Clearly there are many subtle messages here projecting a marketing image for the artist.

Tracey Emin’s  ‘My Bed‘, (1998) is an intimate depiction of her life and relationships at a particular moment. The bed is directly analogous to the chairs of Van Gogh and the personal items scattered around create a narrative as clearly as if each had a bubble caption floating above it. Like Hoogstaten’s self portrait, this can also be seen as a piece of personal promotion within the contemporary art market at the time, creating a ‘brand’. The strength of this work lies in the honesty of grubby detail and in its immediacy. It challenges us to examine our judgements. Pawel Althamer produced a similar piece, ‘Self Portrait as a Businessman‘, (2002-4), but it lacks the personal edginess and frankness of Emin’s piece.

An interesting and amusing example of portraits of artists via their imagined palettes by Matthias Schaller looks at each artist through the materials he (mostly ‘he’, only one woman is represented) used, their mark making, strength of gesture, and colour palette. I am not sure that the individual palettes are enough to evoke each artist, or even just their work, but the project is engaging as a whole.

Bacon’s portraits are indirect in that the human figure is the subject but we are not expected to recognise or engage at a personal level with the sitter. The figures are distorted by the artist, capturing elements at different angles and combining these into a conglomeration indicative but not representational of the subject. They are deliberately unsettling, “the clotted, grainy paint dragged over the unprimed surface sets up a visual discomfort similar to the scrap of fingernails on fabric” (Peppiatt, Available at: http://www.alexalienart.com/schoolofbacon.htm (Accessed: 18 September 2016)).

This element of unsettling the viewer is important in creating an impression without representation. If not creating a likeness, then some other impact is important.

Anthony Gormley creates indirect self portraits. ‘Bed’ (1908-1) is a self portrait by absence. The figure is in negative, having been removed by Gormley eating at the bread and wax of which the sculpture is made. This is a piece with strong religious themes and the figure may be Gormley but also suggests Christ, both through the resemblance to the Turin Shroud and also through the significance of eating bread. Of course, Gormley has gone on to produce countless replications of himself but all are detached and anonomised to some extent. His drawings of the human figure are a lesson in materials and marks.

I conclude from these researches that an indirect portrait needs to connect with the viewer and the subject at a deep emotional or symbolic level. It needs to say something about the artist as well as the subject.

 

 

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