Of the face, and the stare that resides within it - or the absence of this stare. This residence the mark of consciousness (our modern way of paraphrasing the older notion of the windows of the soul). And with consciousness the ocean in which it swims, the irresistible current it must follow; of temporality in painting. In the genre that privileges and compresses their combination into the presence of a single face: the Portrait.
Face on: apart from the hands (culture depending) the face is the one part of the human body (sex and culture depending) which remains naked, exposed as indispensable to identification, recognition, and communication. Every feature (ornaments included) found to be readable, interpretable, scrutinised for signs of presence, signs of intention; combinations infinite. Full on: (like a full moon centre-field, centre-screen, taking up the space of central focus, hypnotic in its demand for our full attention). But the portrait does not demand that we act as if we are being read in turn (we are permitted to drop our visual manners, the etiquette of exchanged stares is absent, there is no exchange - or at least none between minds, our own identity continues in its endless quest to bargain time and objects for self).
Stare: (looking back, look averted (gendered looks)). Above all zones of the face it is the eyes that offer most to the politics of interpretation. With return of stare or not, not-withstanding, we understand from the nature of the look the character of the transfigured, the pious, the convivial, the successful and the downright arrogant (‘full of self’). Or the character we are supposed to assume is hiding there, waiting behind the curtains of the eyes for our recognition; a bluff become double-bluff in the case of a pose paid for by the hour – a performance with one eye on the clock. Potential contexts: the history of the painted eye from Giotto to Rembrant, from Caravaggio to Paula Rego. Offering a range of expressions we might want as templates for ourselves; an armoury of masks, of the peg, a training ground in the school of self-image, a select range of ‘look’ (all by-and-large positive, this is not journalistic photography where the face of disaster is sought to illustrate the hideous fact). The eyes have it.
Silence: the silence of the portrait is also the silence of the voyeur (and we are all in love with our visual sense). For the making of a portrait, the rendering of a likeness, is also to render someone dumb.
The image is speechless; it speaks otherwise. The pose of the sitter must therefore be suitable to silence; otherwise they would render themselves (be rendered) laughable… The portrait somehow functions, even glories, in the absence of the most important form of human communication (there is also the absence of touch – but this realm of social experience is anyway always heavily tabooed; witness the latent violence and brittle erotics of touch in the case of contact between strangers).The image is speechless; it must be made to speak otherwise. This lack of speech leaves all to visual cues, to realms of human comprehension and experience dependant upon the eye and its memory. The visual imagination (and its unconscious, a social as well as a personal unconscious) must take over the guiding of the other senses: not least that of speech (how rarely do we think of smell before a picture). For the portrait only encourages our tendency to make a mental paraphrase everything. Words may describe, summarise, provide a suitable narrative setting (a temporal trajectory) but they also play games with the image; punning and seeking out the possibilities of the rebus.
Portraits are always iconic (although not always in the semiotic sense). Making sainted; presenting the ideal and so the immortal, as well as representing the merely mortal, the real, the privilege of the mimetic (warts and all in portraits with critical attitude or in certain low-life picaresque genres). Part message to the future (continued existence within a given quantity of time), part claim on status as an eternal (qualitative shift of identity), the suggestion, the ever-present suspicion is that a not-so-surreptitious attempt at immortality is part of the rationale of the commissioning of the Portrait. A link to the afterlife maintained this side. When the past coincides with the shades of eternity, and memory with the fires of the sacred, and when the soul and limits of our belief find their symbolic place in a picture of a deceased mortal, then we begin to comprehend the power of the historical portrait. Portraits are our form of ancestor worship.
(And just like the ruin, whose rhetoric it closely follows, the portrait in its reference to temporal frailty is ultimately just another prompt for the realm of last things; or for those who have captured the right to speak for this realm; an agent for their institutions.)
(Portraits; our claim to a pre-emptive posthumous survival has become the means of propaganda for the system that represents the promise of that survival).
Possession and the Portrait. Divided among many realms. Claimed by many hands, earth-bound and ghostly. Operating on a number of levels simultaneously: as thing, as memory (as a prompt for the past); as commodity, as exchangeable item (as cash or for other sacred objects); as a prop for identity, a bid for status (recognition, the portrait as cultural capital). The portrait is an investment (always a temporal matter) in realms both economic and spiritual; both of which will yield returns on the exchange of the object and the identity of the subject. Either way an investment of the self is involved (at the very least of ones resources, ones time) in a fusion of soul and object, identity and matter. In the matter of the portrait we have a case of spirit possession: possession of the other (of memory) and so, by means of this other, possession of the self - we are in this way haunted, by the other, by the images of others, as much by necessity as by choice… Portraits are the paintings of ghosts we look to for the veiling of our own constitutional evanescence.
Possession and genre (landscape, family dwelling, domestic scene, family portrait, still life, the genres of possession) with the portrait as the fore-most genre of self-possession.
Degrees of presence. Let us compare the portraiture of Gwen and Augustus John. She, offering the evaporation of presence as presence reconfirmed (the board beneath the paint is what is shining through, the source of the light that transforms the place/face in the frame). He, foregrounding the individual as the presence of a unique expression. She, conjuring all through a relative absence of expression in a confluence of serenity and absence. He, offering the illusion of the moment. She, the illusion of all time, the timeless (in the two modalities of the present; the moment and the eternal now). Now with the dated aspect of these paintings functioning as extra support for this effect, history joins technique in creating the aura of timelessness.
At the other end of the spectrum: degrees of physicality/unwanted verisimilitude (inheritor of the critical ‘distortion’, or the brutalism of the low-life picaresque). The offering up of a brute fact, of every last degree of physicality, now poses as authenticity, as (the ‘unvarnished’) truth. In actuality a form of illusionism, the reproduction (or creation) in paint and photography of such, often repugnant, physical detail or texture - increasingly now in pixels rather than on photographic plates or paper - is offered in the name of realism. It is precisely the verisimilitude that is wanted (the object depicted is a means to the end of this quest for the Grail). The naïve desire for a direct and unmediated materiality is responsible for the creation of the most hideous (most abject) forms and textures of the human face. This coarseness or base materiality is opposed to the realm of spiritual refinement, of idealisation, of the least degree of physicality. This binary is itself a matter of course fiction.
(The other illusion is the one where the present becomes the pre-sent, the before-image; as the putative reality beyond representation. The rhetoric on offer is the rhetoric of the portrait as part of the illusionism of illusionism; the illusionism of having gone beyond the sending of signs. However becoming the sign of the pre-sent still only leaves us among the signs of the present).
The time of the portrait. Of portraiture taken as a genre and its form of temporality in general. An act of preservation, a performance of the timeless, of the face, of its expression, a source of ideal types, ideal of self behind the ideal self (presented at its best, as preferred); a memento of self (and of others, as any memento of self, to others, is a mark of the Other). Face as humanity; as mark of our commonality, as Being, inter-subjectivity incarnate; therefore the technique and rhetoric of the transcendent associated with its presentation. The mark of the pure unique individual becomes the sign of the essence of the collective, where the fullness of the former suggests its extrapolation to all individuals (like the relationship between the eternal present and the rhetorical presence of eternity); but is usually only found to apply to those considered worthy, or capable, of such fullness and is in turn a mark of their recognition and identity (their rank). A sense of community drawing on the rhetorical power of the All, mark of totality, numerical correlate to eternity, is in this way delimited to the Some, with the force of the former still in play to enhance the status of the latter. The light in all, on examination, often becomes the light to be found in some only…
The Portrait in Time (I). The Past, Present and Future. The present, stored, frozen, painted, inscribed becomes the image of the past recorded, to be called up, as model, as ideal, to be an inspiration to later generations, to its viewers (or so someone would have liked, once, once upon a time, to believe) a guide to the future, in the future…
The Future. From the future; potential source of unknown unimaginable readings, hitherto undreamt of appropriations that may yet arrive (gift of the forward horizon of time) alongside the predictable and the normative (gift of the immortal as lawgiver). In the future …in the future which by definition is that which never comes, that which is always trapped in the future, non-arrival defined; foreclosure certain. This future (our sense of the future as such) is the true forward wall in the face of the present, the wall we call our vision, our screen of sight, a screen (like the iconostasis of the Orthodox church) lined with portraits. Behind which…?
The Portrait in Time (II). The present as citation in the present; re-citation, the tug between past and present, as the present readership takes over more and more of the picture for their own use. Finding from their own time (and in their own time) the necessary experiential analogues to answer the needs of their own comprehension recognition and desire… becoming in this way part of our present culture, part of our lives, our current obsessions… so transcending the historical aspects of the genre (the historical portrait) and its status as historical artefact.
The Past. The portrait as door to the past. A door which perhaps only really opens for historical researchers. Creatures leading double lives, virtual selves, temporal doppelgänger, moving strangely in parallel, moving in an unfamiliar virtual past – strange echo of the present. Somehow never quite free of the flavours of the present and its cultural fashions. A second home, a shadow home, a half-built, half-empty house into which the portrait is placed. Yet this is an unhappy lodging. The unhomely quality of this new home, of the past, is due, not to its outlandish customs, but rather to its unwanted familiarity. And this we cannot escape. For it is always a past reconstructed: a product of our metaphysics of the face, our ideologies of the self, our cultures of gender. If the past is recognised to always carry irreducible traces of the present, then the (re)creation can take place on honest ground (a groundless ground as far as the past is concerned, for no matter how many artefacts are left, or even how many signs, the context of interpretation, the final grounding, is always now). We do not, after all, have recourse to a time machine for a final empirical verification. A door to the past opened by what remains… What remains? Matter and image; support and sign, artefact and representation, chemistry and illusion; with the fragile coating that makes up the second term in this series as the source (or prop) of our musings and recreations. Then, if fortunate, we may witness the slow evaporation of the vivid returned in art, of persons returned in portraiture…As thin, tepid, delicate and artificial as memory itself; and (almost) as persistent (we may look away, or put away, the two dimensional image, but some things can never be forgotten…).
Therefore no present (all the original presents have become past) save only the present of our experience, our present, with the portrait as realisation in this present; our present, which we do not see ending; only the eternal present.
The Eternal Present. As a time beyond time; here the rhetoric of eternity is brought into play. Let us take as our example Gwen John’s light evaporating the image. The particular is caught breaking-up in the light of the general, the illumination burning through from beneath. Portraiture posed on the point of balance between two realms… the overlap of the temporal and the eternal manifest in a single face. Such portraiture partakes of the benisons of both worlds, in a blessing erasing presence into light. Were saints and martyrs ever painted in such a moment of transformation? The interior light of the sacred, the backlit character of stained glass is reproduced in paint.
As living rituality takes place outside of the space of ritual, so repetition is the first degree of ritual (as identity, the end, is the second, and eternity, the means – although represented as the end in intense forms- is the third). As a sign, the portrait already is repetition; its use, temporality and identity function (observed above) reveal it as ritual image, as ritual. The ritual possession which results makes of portraits a microcosm, a mis-en-abime, or part /whole relation, of the process of identity-making and its supports. Indeed our relation to images as such (whence the logic of the iconoclasts) produces this conferral. The slower the image flow, the more persistent its call upon us; the more slowly we peruse a given image, the greater its constitutive force; the more profound our fusion; its role in our confirmation, its transformation into a sacred object which comes to represent us (which becomes us by metonymic extension). The portrait as ritual; given image as graven image; most precious palimpsest.
Mute witness to our narcissistic folly.
Copyright 2002 Peter Nesteruk