Portraits and identities
Portraits and identities
Since the 1970s many artists have found that the best way to tackle identity issues is to return to a form of mimetic portraiture. Artists have found it useful to harness the evocative power of the face and body, but
instead of adopting standard conventions of posing, expression, and setting, they treat these conventions playfully, ironically, or parodically.
Another key aspect of portraiture since the 1970s is the choice of medium, and the camera has proven to be the most effective tool for many portraitists. The explosion of media after the Second World War has also meant that portraiture has appeared in many different forms, including performance art, where individuals use their own bodies to convey their ideas. It could be said, for instance, that the ‘living sculpture’ of the English artistic team Gilbert and George is a kind of self-portraiture. These artists painted their bodies, dressed up in formal
clothes, posed, sang, and danced mechanistically. This form of selfexpression was tied up for them with explicit role-play, in which they fashioned themselves as prim and respectable English gentlemen (although Gilbert was a German-speaking Italian), countering some of their more outrageous imagery of bodily fluids and gay sexuality that
dominated their paintings and prints.
In attempting to investigate the complexities of portraiture since the Second World War, it is worth considering several key areas of artistic exploration: a renewed interest in this tradition of social role-playing and masquerade; the significance of self-portraiture as a means of Detail of 131 exploring sexuality, gender, and ethnicity; and a shift of attention from the face to the body. Although these themes are by no means exhaustive,
they provide a framework for appreciating the importance of portraiture in our own time.
Masks and roles
Both the presentation of social roles and a tendency to fashion the self were apparent in portraiture from the fifteenth century onwards, and artists frequently and self-consciously portrayed their sitters and themselves
in different roles for a variety of social and artistic reasons.
These aspects of role-playing portraiture owe a great deal to the work of the early twentieth-century artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s use of art for playful, ironic, or subversive purposes derived from the iconoclastic nature of the Dada movement in the 1910s and 1920s, with portraiture playing a crucial part in his oeuvre. Duchamp worked with fellow artist Man Ray to produce a series of portrait photographs that represented Duchamp dressed up as an invented woman whose name, Rrose Sélavy, was a pun on the French ‘Eros, c’est la vie’ (‘Love, that’s life’). In these photographs Duchamp wore fashionable clothes and make-up and performed the role of a woman, thus altering his own gender identity in a way that was both ironic and unsettling. Duchamp’s work also mocked the very foundations of art and of portraiture. He defaced the image of one of the most famous portraits in history, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa , by marking up a reproduction of the image with a moustache, a goatee beard, and the punning initials
L.H.O.O.Q. (‘Elle a chaud au cul’), which becomes ‘she has a hot ass’ when translated into English. Duchamp’s use of graffiti to transform a famous picture into an image from a girlie calendar humorously undermined the authority of the old master portrait. Duchamp’s works werethus not portraits in any traditional sense: they were not commissioned by the sitter as a means of retaining a likeness for posterity. They did not provide signs of the status, character, and profession of their sitter; nor did they probe the inner life of their subjects. However, Duchamp’s adoption of masquerade to challenge the fixity of gender roles, his use of photography, his collaborative methods, and his subversive and playful treatment of the work of old masters were all elements that were valued by portraitists in the late twentieth century.
Like Duchamp’s early experiments, much postmodern portraiture deals with the way roles and identities can be assumed and then discarded.
The photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman most notably examined the issue of fluctuating identity in their work of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Mapplethorpe’s portraits are aesthetically pleasing studies of blank faces and smooth bodies that stress the cosmetic aspects of their sitters’ appearance, without delving into character, status, or personality.1 Mapplethorpe was interested in the way his sitters looked, rather than who they were, and his many portraits of famous actors, models, and singers are treated as the same sort of aesthetic
exercises as his photographic portraits of himself and his many, mostly anonymous, friends and lovers. Mapplethorpe stripped his portraits down to an attractive-looking physical likeness, but in doing so he seemed to play up the artificial or cosmetic aspects of modern life.
Cindy Sherman’s photographs play with issues of identity in different ways. From the 1970s onwards she photographed herself as if she were a film character or a figure in an old master painting. Very few of Sherman’s images relate to actual films and paintings; rather, they recall the film or painting type. For example, she portrays the baby doll or slattern from Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s, or the threatened beauty from Hitchcockian thrillers, or the Madonna from a baroque altarpiece.
Each of these roles represents a recognizable stereotype about women. Sherman shows women as they are often portrayed in visual media: for example, as sexy, dutiful, stupid, or vulnerable. In each case she photographed herself in the stereotypical role. Some commentators have claimed that Sherman’s work is self-portraiture, and that she is examining herself as much as she is making a comment about the restrictive nature of women’s assigned social roles. Sherman herself has denied this, claiming that her works were explorations of gender, rather than self.2 Although Sherman is less concerned with cosmetic appearance than Robert Mapplethorpe, it could be argued that her film stills and other photographs both represent and play out gender as a performance.
Both Sherman’s and Mapplethorpe’s work concentrates on the surface or superficial expectations of their world. Both artists deal with social masks and the ways individual identity can be submerged or obliterated by surface or stereotype. In this sense their work reinforces a view of contemporary society held by the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whose complex social theory categorized the veneer of modern existence as visagéité (‘faciality’). Deleuze and Guattari contrast the use of the mask in ‘primitive’ societies with the
role of the mask within hyper-civilized modern global capitalism: In their different ways both Sherman and Mapplethorpe explore the implications of the modern mask/face, and they both use portraiture as the most suitable form for such an exploration.
Another characteristic of postmodern portraiture is the extent to which film stars, pop idols, and other public figures have become its primary subjects. This focus on the popular icon has replaced the traditional use of portraits to portray monarchs, religious leaders, and other powerful individuals. Popular journalism has exposed the most intimate details of the private lives of public figures, as well as making their likenesses accessible to a worldwide population. This means that certain subjects are so universally known that a portrait will be globally
recognizable. This is true of the portraits of the Singh twins, who use the technique of Indian miniature painting to produce portraits of contemporary female icons such as the singer Madonna, Diana, Princess of Wales, or Victoria and David Beckham. The closely studied miniature technique give these works the appearance of icons to be worshipped, and while the mimetic quality of the representation leaves us in no room to doubt the subject of the portrait, the works also project an otherworldliness that matches the legendary status of the sitters.
Mapplethorpe, Sherman, and the Singh twins all share a fascination with the effect on public perception of mass media such as film and journalism. All of them deal with the public or social mask and the way it has become inseparable from a sense of an individual’s identity. The social mask, the inescapability of social stereotypes, and the notion that even the identity of a single individual can be multifaceted and subject to fluctuating interpretations are all elements common to much portraiture that has been labelled ‘postmodern’.5 Each of these artists, and many others, has found portraiture an appropriate medium to convey the sense that, in the late twentieth century, no individual has a single, definable identity. Richard Brilliant has summed it up succinctly:
Because of these philosophical and social paradigm shifts, the experimentations with identity and role-playing within portraits have become a fundamental part of late twentieth- and early twenty-firstcentury portraiture.
Gender, ethnicity, and sexuality in self-portraiture Cindy Sherman’s use of her own image as an intrinsic component in her film stills and concocted baroque paintings is one that she has shared with many other artists since the Second World War. As with the roleplaying portraits, much self-portraiture of this period is concerned with
different components of identity—primarily ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. However, artists also use self-portraiture as a means of narcissistic exploration that goes far beyond the self-aggrandizement in portraits by artists of the past.
Before the late twentieth century portraitists would often take the gender and ethnic signals in their works for granted, assuming a common understanding about gender roles and ethnic stereotypes.
With greater awareness about these aspects of identity, late twentiethcentury portraitists explore them more self-consciously. Gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity all appear as themes in the self-portrait photographs of Yasumasa Morimura. Like Sherman, Morimura photographs himself in different roles and guises, but like Duchamp before him, he also masquerades as a woman, without fully concealing the signs of his male identity. In his self-portrait in the character of Olympia from Manet’s famous painting of 1863, he creates an ironic but disturbing image of himself as Manet’s prostitute. Like Manet’s Olympia, his hand covers his genitals, which serves in this case to hide the visible signs of his masculinity; despite the androgyny of the photograph, his musculature and lack of breasts reveal that he is a man. The use of the medium of photography adds a further unsettling element, as
we see Manet’s painting both realized and subverted. Morimura also plays with issues of ethnic identity here. Manet’s Olympia is being brought flowers by her black servant, and Morimura adopts the trope of the female black servant in his photograph. Manet’s audiences most likely took for granted this relationship between a white European woman as employer and a black woman of possible African descent as servant, but Morimura’s image must be seen in terms of a more complex understanding of the relationship between ethnicity and social hierarchies.
Morimura himself is of Asian origin, so he is not European like Manet’s Olympia, and the subjugation of black peoples to white Europeansis now seen as a blot on history that cannot be defended or excused. Morimura therefore draws attention to the problems of those gender and ethnic categories that were only implicit in Manet’s
Given these broad intentions, it could be argued that Morimura’s work is not actually a portrait at all; indeed, in the works of artists in the late twentieth century it is sometimes difficult to distinguish what is meant to be portraiture as usually understood. The multiplication of media in the postmodern period means that artists no longer restrict themselves primarily to painting, drawing, graphic work, and sculpture, but may use any materials at their disposal. Their primary concern may not be to convey a likeness of themselves but to reveal something more
fundamental about their life. Tracey Emin is one such artist, whose works cannot be described as self-portraiture in a traditional sense, but whose entire oeuvre is geared towards the kind of self-exploration that characterizes self-portraiture of the past. Emin’s art is inevitably narcissistic.
Using a variety of media creatively, she explores the most intimate aspects of her life history, including her sexual experiences. Her most famous work, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, is composed of a tent, the inside of which has a series of lists, descriptions, and mementos of people who have shared her bed—friends and family, as well as sexual partners. Through works such as this Emin is able to challenge the traditional boundaries of self-portraiture.
What Emin and other postmodern artists do in their work is shift attention from the iconic qualities of portraiture to the indexical ones. That is, they do not necessarily portray themselves and others in a representational
way, but they use a variety of media and methods to refer to themselves. Emin’s ‘love tent’ is as self-referential as any self-portrait, but it avoids the emphasis on the relationship between the portrayal of physical likeness and the revelation of character. As with the use of masks and the plurality of identity, postmodern portraiture facilitates the exploration of the self and its ethnic, gender, and sexual components.
This self could be embodied in different public roles, or in the intimacies of private life, but there is another way that postmodern portraiture shows a breach with the portraiture of the past, namely in its wholehearted emphasis on the body.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries portraiture has embraced the ubiquitous Western concern with beauty and the shape of the body. Artists have tapped into all these aspirations in their portraits.
In dealing with these ideas of body image artists have several strategies at their disposal. They can explore cultural expectations by presenting what many consider to be an ‘ugly’ body, or they can experiment with the ideal bodies that wealthy Westerners think they want. The former strategy has been adopted by the British artist Jenny Saville, who uses her own body to make a point about social expectations in the late twentieth century. Saville produces monumental paintings that often cover whole walls. These works represent her body as obese,
with pendulous breasts, large folds of fat, and the sorts of visible veins that are also apparent in works by artists like Schiele and Lucian Freud.
Saville thus shows us a body that is exactly the opposite of the eroticized and perfected models’ bodies that appear in glossy magazines. The large physical dimensions of her works mean that the viewer is not able to
avoid confronting a body type that they may have been conditioned to find undesirable. Through her self-portraiture, therefore, Saville finds a way of making the viewer question their own expectations about body
perfection by facing the reality of an imperfect body.
The performance artist Orlan, who has undergone plastic surgery in order to construct her body in the form she desires, adopts a totally different approach. Orlan uses her own body as her medium, and she has the plastic surgery performed under local anaesthetic only, with a camera filming the operation. Thus she makes the actual act of cutting and revising her body a piece of performance art. Orlan has spoken about her performances in terms of self-portraiture—callingherself ‘a work in progress’.7However, unlike most people who undergo plastic surgery, Orlan did not have her breasts enlarged or her face lifted in order to adhere to Western canons of the beautiful body. Instead, she looked to redesign herself in the model of great works of art in the past—adding horns to her forehead, and aspiring to carve her face into the resemblance of Mona Lisa’s smile. Orlan’s disturbing work has a
number of implications for portraiture and for the place of the body in late twentieth-century art. Her work exposes the pressures that women are under to make their bodies perfect, and their willingness to undergo
the pain, anxiety, and humiliation of surgery in order to do this. But Orlan also has seen her work as stressing women’s ability to control their own bodies in a technologically advanced culture. Thus plastic surgery becomes the ultimate means of self-control, with women choosing the shape of their own bodies as they would a new garment in
a shop. The fact that Orlan conceives of her work as self-portraiture is revealing, as she carries the idea of self-portraiture as self-construction to the ultimate extreme.
Another method used by contemporary artists has been to objectify body parts in their self-portraiture as a way of defamiliarizing the image. The American photorealist Chuck Close, for instance, has produced what look like portrait photographs of his sitters—none of whom is known or famous. However, these are not photographs
but painted imitations of photographs. By blowing up his paintings to a massive size, and by not touching up the blemishes, blotches, and wrinkles that inevitably appear in the photographs themselves, he forces the viewer to focus on the formal qualities of these portraits. The relentless use of surface detail compels us to see the image as something almost abstract, with the body taking precedence over the face and the identity of the sitter.
Other artists also use photography as a means of focusing on and thereby objectifying the body. This can be seen in Bruce Nauman’s hologram series, which includes a variety of photographs of his own distorted facial parts. While Close uses the whole face but forces the viewer to look at formal aspects rather than personality, Nauman makes it impossible to see his self-representations as in any way representative of his identity or personality. Instead, he makes a familiar body part such as a mouth appear odd or monstrous. It could be questioned whether
Nauman’s works are portraits at all, but he was particularly concerned to base his corporeal investigations on his own body.
In addition to the politicizing of the body in Orlan’s and Saville’s portraiture, and the objectifying of the body practised by Close and Nauman, late twentieth-century artists have explored the mind–body duality that has been prevalent in portraiture from its inception. Artists could, for example, portray their own body as a way of expressing something essential about their identity. This method was adopted by the British artist Jo Spence, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and used photographic self-portraiture as a way of coming to terms with her own
response to her illness. Spence labelled her naked body ‘property of Jo Spence’ as a way of stressing her anger at a disease that caused the removal of one of her body parts. Spence called her art ‘phototherapy’, as she used it partly as a means of working through her own medical and psychological history.
The body could also serve artists as a way of transcending those limitations that they associated with the social veneer and superficial roleplaying of postmodern consumer culture. As we have seen in the discussion of Sherman and Mapplethorpe, Deleuze and Guattari describe the dichotomy between the excessive emphasis on face and surface in Western capitalist society and the contrasting power of the body in ‘primitive’ societies.
Although Deleuze and Guattari could be accused of romanticizing primitive cultures, in the way Jean-Jacques Rousseau had done, they also express the frustration of many artists with a Western consumer culture that has become increasingly superficial and driven by image.
The fascination of many late twentieth-century artists with the monstrous or excessive or ugly body can represent attempts to counter this obsession with image and surface. Among many artists who have employed this idea in their portraiture is the Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer, who was associated with the Vienna Actionist movement in the
1960s. Rainer photographed his own body repeatedly, and he then did violence to those images by painting over them or scratching through them. His works thus provide a representation of his body that has been cancelled out or damaged. In these works he deliberately attempts to remove the body from its socialized state and bring out
some of its more elemental qualities.
These are only a few examples of artists in the second half of the twentieth century who have found the body a more useful focus for portraiture than facial likeness. In works such as these, portraiture has gone so far that sometimes it is no longer recognizable as portraiture. It could be argued that none of these works are portraits since they do not fulfil portraiture’s traditional function of conveying likeness. However, it is perhaps more fruitful to see the portraiture of recent years as contributing to the variety and versatility that has always characterized the genre.