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Abstract Portraits
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, something earth shattering happened to art - photography. At first it was seen by artists as an amusing little scientific novelty to be toyed with, then more and more as a threat to their livelihood, then as a tool in helping them to compose their work, then as a new artform in and of itself, and finally as a tremendous liberating force, assuming the burden of purely representational art allowing them to depart on ever longer flights of fantasy expression. If this evolution of the photograph was true of painting in general, it was especially true in the area of portraiture. As far back as 1871, James McNeill Whistler may have been the first portrait artist to sense the new artistic freedom unleashed by the photograph. His iconographic portrait of his mother which he titled simply Arrangement in Grey and Black, suggests that for the first time, a portrait, even one as intimately connected to the artist as his own mother, was a painting first - a colour-value/compositional study - and only secondarily a portrait.

Gustav Klimt's 1907 Adele Bloch-Bauer pursues this phenomenon still further. In it he constructs a painted mosaic inspired by those he saw in Ravenna, Italy as he portrays the wife of the German industrialist, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Taken in isolation, three of the four quadrants of the square composition are completely abstract to the point of being non-representational. Only in the upper right quadrant do we see anything approaching a traditional portrait; and even at that, the head, neck, shoulders, and hands seem lost in a glistening, golden glow reminiscent of his family's background as goldsmiths. The painting is still a portrait, but one in which the figure is almost completely overwhelmed by the artist's fascination with an infinitely complex patterns of surface adornment.

In France, about the same time, Picasso was exploring Analytical Cubism, experimenting to find out just how far he could push into the frontiers of abstraction while still retaining a recognisable subject matter. Strange as it might seem, he turned to the demanding art of portraiture in his studies, as in his 1910 paintings of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Ambroise Vollard, and William Uhde to test his deconstructive powers of abstract resemblances. His angular, geometric nuances of hard and soft edges make Klimt's forays into abstraction less than three years earlier seem conservative, stylised, decorative, and vaguely old-fashioned by comparison. By 1937, his experiments with abstract portraits as seen in his Dora Maar Seated seem less radical yet no less visionary. Just as a person has many sides to their personality, as well as their face, Picasso seems determined to depict both. Heavy on texture, design, and multiple-point-of-view distortion, the painting, nonetheless, maintains the striking resemblance of a first-rate portrait.

Quite apart from its formal impact on portraiture, photography also changed the fundamental nature of portrait painting. Once the majority of people began choosing to capture their appearances for posterity with photographs, artists, whether they liked it or not, were left free to pick and choose their portrait subjects - often close friends and family - rather than paying clients. Where before the client, wielding the power of the chequebook, dictated the nature of the portrait, now, suddenly, the artist found himself in complete control, able to decide for himself (portrait artists were still mostly men at the time) not just the nature of the pose, lighting, colours, size, shape, and composition of the portrait, but even its style and the degree to which the face, figure, and resemblance would dominate the painting. The sitter became merely a model, often an unnamed face being paid by the artist for their time and efforts, rather than vice-versa. Although the best portrait painters continued to demand and get top dollar for their work, they quickly found themselves outside the mainstream of artistic endeavour, the spotlight being increasingly on those painters for whom portraiture was merely a means to an end in art. Quick, name the top ten portrait painters of the twentieth century. See what I mean?

Contributed by Lane, Jim
20 May 2001

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