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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les jeux du portrait et de la vérité

by M.U.

The Truth About Portraits

Translated by Helen Robertshaw

Translated Friday 5 May 2006, by Helen Robertshaw

London. To celebrate its 150th anniversary, the National Portrait Gallery exhibits one hundred contemporary portraits and goes in search of Shakespeare.

During the one hundred and fifty years since it was established, the National Portrait Gallery has acquired portraits spanning almost five centuries, including a vast selection of kings and queens, from Elizabeth, the last Queen of Bohemia, painted in 1613 up to the present Queen Elizabeth, of whom several portraits exist, accompanied by her children, her dogs etc.

The National Portrait Gallery in London is, first and foremost, an unrivalled collection of well-known figures, from those who have been captured in formal and stuffy poses to those that simply delight the eye of the beholder. The gallery constitutes a remarkable pictorial record of the British aristocracy through the centuries and offers visitors a history lesson. Until the 1980s, however, the gallery was rather outdated and stuffy in its layout and organisation. From this period onwards, the gallery developed a specific policy which involved commissioning contemporary portraits, embracing artists of all nationalities and all styles. Thus in 1993, the gallery staged an exhibition entitled « The Portait Now » which gathered together portraits completed during the past decade.

To mark the occasion of its 150th anniversary this year, the Portrait Gallery is repeating "The Portrait Now" exhibition, but this time it includes works which have been completed, for the most part, since the beginning of the new millenium and incorporating all forms of artistic expression: painting, photography, sculpture. The exhibition includes around one hundred artists, with radically different styles, and who clearly intend to challenge the preconceived notion of portraiture itself. They demonstrate, for instance, that a multitude of different portraits can be produced using the same person and model as inspiration and that physical resemblance is not the main issue.

In times past, the traditional academic portrait imposed its own set of rules upon the painter, and the differences between one portrait and another largely depended upon the talent of the painter in question and the quality of the work. But, at the same time, the great painters have always been aware of the fact that a portrait is never merely the reflection of a person, but has always existed as a work of art in its own right. To stay with England, you only need think of The Blue Boy by Gainsborough, or the portraits of Reynolds or Lawrence, which are imbued with a profound lyricism. During the course of the 20th century, the notion itself of portraiture changed. The portrait is no longer considered as an attempt to reproduce an exact physical likeness, it is rather an act of performance, whether this involves elaborate costumes and disguise or, on the contrary, an unveiling and exposure of the artist’s subject. It is as much the expression of the artist’s vision of a personality as it is a depiction of the personality him/herself.

The strength of the greatest portrait artists is to subtly reveal more about the person, their milieu and their entourage than first meets the eye. The artists have various strategies for achieving this; the photographer Juergen Teller chooses to emphasise the grimacing mask-like features of Yves Saint Laurent, Jiri David captures George Bush unawares with a particularly pitiful expression on his face, the painters Gary Hume and Frank Auerbach distort the facial features of their subject to the verge of abstraction, whereas Lucian Freud and Victoria Russel prefer to employ raw, harsh realism or uncompromising naturalism. More than ever before, the portrait embodies a truth and a vision.

This was already true in fact for the portraits of Shakespeare which are also displayed at the Portrait Gallery in an exhibition entitled « Searching Shakespeare ». Around twenty portraits of the author are on display and each one presents the viewer with a fresh enigma. Which one is the real Shakespeare, which one of the portraits is the most lifelike? Without a doubt, we will never know and the fact is that none of the portraits are probably very accurate. The exhibition nonetheless offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of Shakespeare and other authors and stage actors of his time, those who belonged to the world of Elizabethan theatre, those who partook of the intellectual life of the period and the moral freedom shared by artists. They were a thoroughly modern group. If you happen to be in London for a short break, don’t miss Andy Warhol’s portraits of Ten Jews of the twentieth century. The series of paintings reminds us once again of the seriousness and importance of Warhol’s work which constitutes a true political and humanitarian manifesto. Among the ten Jews depicted, we find Einstein, Sarah Bernhardt, Kafka, Freud, Gershwin...

The National Portrait Gallery in London: "The Portrait Now", until 18 June. "Searching Shakespeare", until 29 May.

Published in L’Humanité 22 April 2006

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