Why is portraiture kept apart?
I just read Charlotte Mullins’ Painting People: Figure Painting Today.* And, to my surprise, I witnessed the author grasping at straws within the first few paragraphs. She was trying to make it clear that the work she would be talking about in this book was not portraiture, but figurative work. Regardless of why she may have felt it necessary to make this distinction, the noted English art historian and critic made a complete muddle of it.
In brief, she argues that figurative work, unlike portraiture, uses “the figure—whether specific examples or anonymous bodies—to engage with wider themes.” To support her assertion that portraiture is too specific (by definition) to “engage with universality,” the author presents us with two examples:
Mullins guides us in our viewing of these works: she maintains that Hambling’s portrait of the famous scientist Dorothy Hodgkins “creates a vivid impression of how [the subject] looked and how she was. But it says nothing about other female scientists, or the work of scientists in general. It is wholly about one woman’s achievements. It is woman as subject.” Really? Is that what I should see in Hambling’s work? Because I think the painting conveys something of how scientists or geniuses or multi-taskers behave, not just how Hodgkin behaved. No, Mullins informs me, no I can’t possibly see that.
“In contrast, take a work such as Gerhard Richter’s Betty, from 1988.” Mullins points out that we’re only given a first name with this painting and that we don’t even see the subject’s face. She then says that “although the painting is in fact based on a photograph of the artist’s daughter, we can’t deduce this from the picture” so “it doesn’t function as a portrait at all.”** And, according to Mullins, the painting’s subject isn’t actually Betty, it’s painting itself. “Betty, the woman, functions as a vehicle through which we approach the larger debate on issues of representation.”
I think Mullins is actually addressing three questions in her introduction even though she seems to believe she’s focusing on just the one:
Which painting is a portrait and which is not?***
This is the categorization issue which the author believes she is talking about in her introduction.
Which image is the more compelling one?
This is the question she actually answers, and she answers it simply by giving us her opinion. Mullins insists that Richter’s work is more attractive because it is more general: personally, I think it’s boring because it’s too general and says far less within the confines of the composition than does Hambling’s work. I do, however, agree with Mullins that Richter’s piece does gain some (though very few) points when examined in an art theoretical light, but that doesn’t make up for its lesser immediate visual impact (in my opinion).
Which work might the art world see as more valid?
And this is another question which Mullins answers in the introduction and with her whole book. Clearly, a portrait (if those eccentric academics can ever figure out how to pin down just what work should fall in that category) is less valid than figurative work. After all, the author took the time to weed out portraiture before beginning her book called Painting People.****
Contemporary art is supposedly anti-category. Artists are artists in many genres and media (often times too many). They aren’t just painters or sculptors or video-makers: they are all those things at once, as well as being installation artists too! One artist can focus on everything from documentary and landscape to the “new” genres of social practice and sustainability art without anyone thinking twice about it. So why is it that portraiture must still be kept apart?
*Charlotte Mullins’ Painting People: Figure Painting Today from 2006 (Thames and Hudson Ltd., London).
** Except when an academic lets us in on the secret. Then does it become a portrait?
***I know the difference between a portrait and a figurative work.
****Despite my critique of Mullins’ attempts at differentiating portraiture from figurative work, I found the book as a whole to be one of the more interesting surveys of figurative work today. Mullins talks about art theory in an engaging manner, inviting her reader into the world of figurative art. For example, she describes how our modern environment may be full of mass-produced “frozen moments seen out of context” but points out that these stills aren’t how humans actually process their world. “We experience the world as if it were a painting being completed—multiple views are built up over time to become fused in our memory.” I like that. I think she put it very well.