The Obscure You

Laura Skerlj

“What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance.”
- Francis Bacon
“Since no pictorial genre depends as much on mimetic referentiality as the traditional portrait, it becomes the emblem of that conception.”
- Ernst van Alphen

Portraiture aspires to summon both physical and essential likeness. Described as “the meeting of two subjectivities,”i the portrait is more than an illustration of a person’s physiognomy: it draws upon the ‘originality’ of both the artist creating the work, and the sitter. However, it was perhaps the sitter’s role (and expectations) that dictated the function of the portrait historically. First appearing as images of ancient Egyptian kings and queens on sarcophagi, or in the funerary paintings of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the portrait traditionally favored the wealthy, royal, and esteemed. In the late Middle Ages, portraiture became a distinct genre, and members of various social groups began sitting for artists.ii During the Renaissance, interests in the natural world and classical cultures raised the status of the portrait as a valued object, and artists who could bring their subject “to life” were celebrated for their genius (Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael). However portraits usually transpired on a commission basis, and artists were obligated to present both status and attractiveness. In the 20th century artists began to defend their own depictions of likeness: Matisse established contracts with his sitters, specifying the conditions under which he would make their portraits. However, he remained frustrated and limited by their expectations, and refused these assignments from 1924.iii Cynthia Freeland argues that this tendency for sitters to desire flattering representations meant that it is unsurprising some of the most “personality filled” portraits are autobiographical (self portraits).iv Likeness, in effect, has historically been bound to these two subjectivities: the artist’s intention and the sitter’s demands.

Contemporarily, the portrait has remained a popular genre, with exhibitions like the Archibald Prize receiving record numbers of attendees. In 1997, Ernst van Alphen argued that the (then) contemporary portrait had become critical of its original class values, separating itself from the sitter as a signifier: “The portrait returns, but with a difference, now exemplifying a critique of the bourgeois self instead of its authority; showing a loss of self instead of its consolidation; shaping the subject as simulacrum instead of as origin.”v However, with the Internet phenomenon of the online profile (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace), a preoccupation with presentation as (self) flattery could be seen to be back on vogue. Tyler Green argues that this “electronic avatar” spawned a new way of presenting ourselves visually to others, and questions, “What is it but a self portrait, a declaration of how we see ourselves or how we want others to see us?”vi Likeness, in this case, is more closely aligned with the previous inclination to project a preferred version of ourselves to the world, however prosaic or irresistible we choose this to be.

Here, likeness is a foundational criterion to the genre of portraiture. Richard Brilliant’s overview, made its definition clear: “Fundamental to portraits as a distinct genre in the vast repertoire of artistic representation is the necessity of expressing this intended relationship between the portrait image and the human original.”vii Likeness, in effect, has usually been seen as the distinguishable, recognizable accuracy for the important aspects of the person’s physiognomy or external appearance: “This is why we praise great artists like Velazquez and Titian: they have the ability to show us people so that we feel almost as if we are seeing them directly.”viii However, it is obvious that the portrait has sought to evoke more than a physical truth. According to Simon Schama, Rembrandt’s unchallenged obsession for observing and representing the human face, his “painstaking face-mapping,” was inspired by greater reasons than pedantry. ix

Which in turn leads us from physical likeness towards the much-discussed essential quality of the subject. Ultimately the artist’s obligation is invested in their ability to convey the sitter’s subjectivity. Here, the reference for their work shifts from the physicality of the face, towards a central core of ‘being’ or personhood—“the invisible core of the self.”x This core charts the character, thoughts, feelings, spiritual condition, emotional state and individual complexity of the subject: interiority brought to the exterior. In turn, portraiture has preferred that the sitter should appear as an autonomous, distinct person within the image. As Freedman explains, the role of the artist becomes less consumed with realistic representation, and more with the conjuring of that which is embodied: “As a person, the sitter is embodied, but the self is there “in” the embodiment, and the artist must ‘realize,’ ‘concretize’ or ‘objectify’ it in the image.”xi

In Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, the author searches for a photograph that could truly represent his deceased mother, looking to “recognize” her “air” or essence; “a kind of intractable supplement of identity.” In a blurry, imperfect image he finds her. In comparison, he contrasts all of the rejected images as presenting only a masked version of his mother: “at the last, suddenly the mask vanished: there remained a soul, ageless but not timeless, since this air was the person I used to see, consubstantial with her face, each day of her long life.”xii Yet, for all of his searching, he does not print the photo he found, saying it would mean nothing to anyone else, suggesting that it is intimacy that connects us to the spirit of a portrait’s subject. However, it is Barthes’ inquiry into the arresting quality inherent in the image that has also preoccupied portrait artists with their depiction of an ‘other,’ or even of a self: here I suggest a coming together of physical likeness and essential likeness, to present, as Hans-Georg Gadamer claims, “the essential quality of his [or her] true appearance.”xiii

And as the exchange between artist and sitter becomes memory, and the latter transforms into the subject of an artwork, essence, if conjured, turns to object. What was seen, and what occurred, is (as Barthes describes) “mortified” within the image: “The subject loses itself when it is objectified in representation.”xiv The act of making the portrait is productive, as in it creates a new entity separate from the subjectivity of the two parties. The act is not passive. Van Alphen argues, “the portrayer gives this supposed interiority an outer form so that we viewers can see it. This outer form is then the signifier (expression) of the signified (the sitter’s inner essence).”xv The new form—the object, the painting, the portrait—takes over from the person’s physicality, and instead works to increase the being of their ‘essence.’ In making a likeness of this, the artist can objectify something impossible and true. Post-impressionist painter Paul Cezanne has often been criticised for not reaching the essence of his human subjects; for treating them in the same way he would objects in a still life.xvi Contemporarily, this tendency to make human subjects, objects, can be seen in John Currin’s lascivious women, Michaël Borreman’s ‘occupied’ workers, Cherry Hood’s lost children, and in the material gluttony of Ben Quilty’s babies and young, drunk men. Here, it is painting that consumes the person.

From these observations, I suggest the works exhibited in Limits of Likeness at Rubicon ARI explore ways to lose, and regain, the essence of a subject. Thus, the portrait becomes a “space of conflict”xvii: a pictorial zone where the sitter once was, but has now been superseded by an ‘increase in being.’ The artists in this exhibition do not refuse subjectivity, however there is an understanding of its dilemmas. As a result, likeness is represented as not exclusively physical or essential. As van Alphen explains with relation to Francis Bacon’s paintings, there is a conflict between the subject and representation: “He folds the subject back onto itself, endorsing the resulting fragmentation as the inevitable consequence of this denial of the unity-bestowing power of representation.”xviii Similarly, the works in this show are less concerned with a portrayal of concrete identity, and more with obscuring likeness to articulate a sitter interacting with their world. The overall element of obscurity found here—through abstraction, props, styles, compositions—encourages a moving in and out of reality. Realism, in this case, is used and rejected in order to echo the very history, and anxiety, of making faces.

Laura Skerlj is an artist, writer and current candidate for the Master of Fine Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne.

iNochlin, Linda, “Some women realists”, Arts Magazine, May (1974), p29
iiFreeland, Cynthia, “Portraits in painting and photography”, Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 135, No. 1, Aug, (2007), p97
iiiIbid, p97
ivIbid, p97
vvan Alphen, Ernst, “The portrait’s dispersal: concepts of representation and subjectivity in contemporary portraiture”, Portraiture: Facing the Subject, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997, p242
viGreen, Tyler, “Our Avatars, Ourselves”, Modern Painters, Issue 22, No. 9, (December 2010/January 2011), p29
viiBrilliant, Richard, “Portraits: a recurrent genre in world art”, in Jean M. Borattit and R. Brilliant, Likeness and Beyond: Portraits from Africa and the World, New York: Center for African Art, (1990), p7
viiiFreeland, p105
ixSchama, Simon, Rembrant’s eyes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, p338
xBrilliant, Richard, Portraiture, London: Reacktion Books, 1991, p67
xiFreedman, p98
xiiBarthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 2000, pp109-110
xiiivan Alphen, p240
xivIbid, p245
xvIbid, p241
xviFreedman, p98
xviivan Alphen, p245
xviiivan Alphen, p246