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Courtesy of the artist

Facing History

15 August 2015 Imogen Greenberg

The V & A’s new exhibition Facing History presents 80 prints and photographs from the collection, exploring contemporary artist’s responses to traditions of portraiture. London Calling headed down there, and found familiar faces old and new staring back.

Contemporary art meets the history of portraiture, as artists try to get under the skin and capture the essence of their sitters, in Facing History. It examines the very nature of portraiture, asking questions of traditional approaches to self-representation, identity, belonging and vanity in art of the human form, and how contemporary artists have appropriated those traditional approaches. Developments in contemporary portraiture play out against the rise of celebrity, instant media and selfies. The human image is as important as it ever was, but has the ability to create and disseminate an image of anyone at any second changed the artistic form?

The V & A’s unique stance on the subject comes from its permanent collection, which sits next to the exhibition for comparison. The curator’s selection illustrates a breadth of responses to these past traditions. Some artists have returned to the simplicity of these traditions, of beautifully lit faces staring impassively out of round frames. But others have reengaged with these forms to subvert them, asking complicated questions of the hidden messages behind impassive faces.

Marcelle Hanselaa’s White Collar Black Man is a response to the colonialist view that a black man wasn’t a person until moulded in dress and behaviour to resemble a white man. The use of the historic style reflects how art reflected and perpetuated values of society, and how portraiture in particular carries the weight of status and power within society. It leaves the question hanging in the air: how far has our society come from this once entrenched view?

Brian D. Cohen’s Man with Closed Eyes (Walter White), which is of both the character Walter White and the actor, Brian Cranston, reflects on where status lies in contemporary society. It resembles a death mask, with closed eyes and a shaved head, and is almost a silhouette, drawing on a number of commemorative portrait traditions. Where in the traditional form, the subject might have been a rich Dutch merchant or royal from the 16th or 17th century, now icon status lies elsewhere, in an anti-hero so defining it has blurred the lines between actor and character completely. Despite the immediacy of media and celebrity, and the photographic and video evidence constantly shown, it is no less artificial and imagined than the carefully constructed vision of high status of 16th century sitters.

Portraiture can seem a vain endeavour, the importance of the sitter assumed, and the significance for viewers often lying in their recognisability. It may be this notion that inspired Bettie Von Zwehl to create 34 portrait miniatures of a V & A visitor services assistant, Sophia, a subject that doesn’t usually make it on the walls of the museum. Likewise, other artists have subverted traditional portraiture through the choice of sitter, such as Manuel Salter’s photograph’s of contemporary black women artists, writers and performers as the nine Greek muses and Pedro Meyer’s Five Dollars with Che, which replaces the usual historic figures on American notes with the infamous revolutionary.

The curators have selected diverse artists, who draw on a number of traditions, inspired by everything from portrait miniatures to ID cards, passport photos, X-rays and stamps. Amongst the more famous artists is Julian Opie, who has taken the tradition of the silhouette portrait and updated it using laser cutting; rather than having a profiled silhouette, Opie focuses on a few striking features to grasp the expressive essence of people’s recognisability. It is a portrait for a digital age. By contrast, Grayson Perry doesn’t update the medium, but reabsorbs his sitters back in to it. Mr and Mrs Perry draws on 19th century American folk art portraits, created in the style of an amateur journeyman and linocut, a notoriously cheap medium. He and his wife are presented as an austere Victorian couple, against a wallpaper backdrop. Is it a comment on the constraints of Victorian marriage ideals, or the strangeness of the endurance of such an austere tradition as marriage? It is characteristic of Perry that such a bold and striking piece could be so ambiguous in implication.

The referential nature of the pieces, that they allude to historic and well-known artistic traditions can make them just a little too obvious. The best pieces in the exhibition use the reference playfully, playing with viewer’s assumptions, and commenting on expectations of historic and contemporary status, evoking and questioning a tradition that stretches back thousands of years.

Though Facing History is a small exhibition, it does exactly what it should do. It reinvigorates a collection and corner of the museum that can be forgotten, sprawling as the V & A is.  The exhibition has also showcased the museum’s recent acquisitions, sometimes forgotten given the endurance of the permanent display. To get to the exhibition, you pass through the Portrait Miniatures room, where nameless faces peer archly from small gold frames, their status and importance lost in the obscurity of time. It is this unique perspective of the historic collection together with the new, which illustrates how differing ideals of power, status and vanity have pervaded portraiture for hundreds of years.

Facing History is at the V & A and until the 24th April, and is free. For more information, please see the website.

 

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