A portrait of the artist and the sitter

Painting the Century
November 24, 2000

Do 'real' painters look down on portraiture? And just where does it fit into the fine art movements of the 20th century? asks Chistopher Ondaatje.

In 1817, the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon wrote this in his journal: "Portraiture is always independent of Art and has little or nothing to do with it. It is one of the staple manufactures of the empire. Wherever the British settle, wherever they colonise, they carry and will ever carry trial by jury, horse-racing, and portrait-painting."

This idea of portraiture as independent of art and pre-eminently a medium of historical record was the attitude that led to the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery in 1856. Portraits were not expected to be great works of art. In fact, Sir Charles Eastlake, then president of the Royal Academy, was very insistent that portraits should not be looked at with regard to their merit as works of art, but as "authentic likenesses of celebrated individuals". The idea that portraits were not really to be regarded as works of art has probably contributed to the low esteem in which they have been held in 20th-century art. Throughout the century, artists, writers and critics have been interested in issues of form and not of content and in the freedom of artists to devise their own composition independent of the constraints of providing an acceptable likeness.

Yet, just as many artists have ignored issues of representation, so others have maintained an interest in the visual and aesthetic challenge of how to depict the human form. Some, such as Picasso, were perfectly willing to undertake portraits of friends and lovers. Some, such as Kokoschka, began their careers painting in a more traditional style. Others, such as Lucian Freud, have turned their backs on the conventions of their period and have chosen to concentrate on a more traditional interest in the body and flesh. Some contemporary artists, such as Jenny Saville, have managed to be bracketed with the avant-garde in spite of having ostensibly traditional interests in paint. Thus, if one looks back on 20th-century painting from the vantage point of a new century, one can see that figurative art has been a much more continuous interest among artists than has generally appeared in conventional narratives.

Now the status of portraiture is the subject of a major exhibition titled "Painting the Century" at the National Portrait Gallery and of an accompanying book celebrating the extraordinary revolution in styles and attitudes towards the portrait in European and American art from 1900 until the present day. It carries a fascinating introductory text by Norbert Lynton, formerly professor of the history of art at the University of Sussex, and short, intelligent essays on each of the pictures by Robin Gibson, the gallery's chief curator. Both the exhibition and the book are exceptionally ambitious, consisting of 101 portraits, including some cultural icons and some of the most important works of art from the 20th century. Many foreign pictures have never been seen before in this country, and there is a particularly strong group of Russian paintings from the 1920s.

In the book, each of the works is described in its historical and cultural context together with biographies for all the artists and time lines for the main social, political and cultural events in each decade. Paintings are presented in a very strict chronology, in contrast to the tendency of Tate Britain and Tate Modern to display works of art ahistorically. The result is a unique overview of portraiture from 1900 to 2000 that clearly demonstrates the great continuity of portrait painting throughout the century against the flow of modernism.

Looking through the exhibition, it is clear that it is not really about portraiture as it has traditionally been conceived. There are very few commissioned portraits of individuals. By 1902, a picture by Cuno Amiet titled Hope demonstrates the use of portraiture for completely different purposes. Here the interest is much more in the emotional life of the artist, in his relationship to his wife and the birth of their stillborn child, and in the concept of the portrait as a record of the inner life.

This turning inwards of portraits to an interest in the emotional lives of their subjects is also evident in one of the striking juxtapositions of two pictures: a magnificent portrait by John Singer Sargent of the colonial administrator Sir Frank Swettenham, painted in 1904, and, immediately beside it, Picasso's haunting Woman in a Chemise , dating from 1905. The unexpectedness of this contrast helps one to change one's image of the Picasso and to see it as belonging to the same world as that of Sargent.

But just as one begins to think that there is a consistent narrative, the organiser dashes one's expectations. If the exhibition has a single message, it is to confound any belief in a linear account of the development of portraiture. By adhering to a strict chronology, ordered according to year of production rather than the development of style, the exhibition quickly makes it evident that, in any one decade, there was a mass of different styles and approaches to subjects that coexisted quite comfortably.

The star piece from the second decade of the century is a flamboyant picture of the Russian avant-garde theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold by Boris Dmitriyevitch Grigor'yev: huge, vigorous and angular, demonstrating the extraordinary vitality of Russian culture just before the Russian revolution. Is this a portrait? It is more a piece of theatre from the era of Stravinsky and Russian constructivism. It hangs near another fine work, The Commander (On the Deck of a German U-Boat) by Claus Bergen, showing the officer with his back to the viewer, surrounded by the prow of the boat, the sea and the sky. Again, one asks oneself whether or not this is strictly speaking a portrait. But it is certainly a magnificent work of art in the German romantic tradition.

If the first two decades are dominated by images of men, the 1920s belong to women. The year 1921 is represented by a picture of Winifred Radford by Meredith Frampton, painted in neo-Renaissance style; 1922 by another of the remarkable works lent by Russia, a portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova by Kuz'ma Petrov-Vodkin. As the director of the National Portrait Gallery remarked to this reviewer: "It is a useful antidote to any suggestion that portraiture is an exclusive concern of the English-speaking world to remember that the Russians pay equal respect to their portrait collections and, indeed, have versions of the National Portrait Gallery in the State Historical Museum and Tretyakov Gallery, both in Moscow."

If the dominant note is the depiction of private lives, there are also political portraits. Lenin appears for the year 1924, the year of his death, portrayed by Isaak Brodsky in working-man's garb. Mussolini's portrait, on the other hand, painted by Gerardo Dottori in 1933, is a futurist image of Fascist might, surrounded by aeroplanes and the Umbrian countryside. As a record of the second world war, there is another portrait by Frampton of Sir Ernest Gowers and his colleagues in an underground bunker, a classic image of the British war effort, hard-working and studiously unheroic; and, alongside it, a curious painting of Hitler by George Grosz dating from 1944, which shows a seated Hitler mopping his brow against a hellish backdrop of fire and a river of skeletons.

Two great portraits represent the late 1940s. The first is the Salvador Dali of Sir James Dunn, an enigmatic image of a Canadian steel magnate draped in a kind of gold toga; and for 1949 there is the celebrated portrait of Somerset Maugham by Graham Sutherland. This demonstrated that it was perfectly possible for a modern artist to paint a portrait in a style that was unsycophantic. There is no sense of the sitter being more important than the painter or vice versa - rather, the picture suggests an effective balance of mutual respect. But, of course, the idea that portraiture might be allowed to provide an unflattering image was famously shattered by Lady Churchill's unfortunate decision to destroy Sutherland's later portrait of her husband - an indication of the way in which portraiture always has to contend with demands beyond the purely artistic. In fact, one may wonder why the exhibition does not include the surviving oil sketch for Sir Winston Churchill , which would have offered a way to refer to one of the iconic images of the century. Happily, this is both discussed and illustrated in the catalogue.

In the second half of the exhibition, a move away from pure portraiture is more pronounced. Andy Warhol's silkscreen portrait of Elvis Presley displays no interest in medium or personality and instead consists of its subject's public persona as replicated through the international media. It is more a commentary on the apparatus of fame than a study of an individual sitter. Indeed, the subject is drained of any individuality. And then there is Jean-Michel Basquiat's idiosyncratic portrait of the great media manipulator himself. Basquiat's image of Warhol is wilfully jokey, showing him as a tousle-haired banana. But even in the second half of the exhibition, there are some fine portraits, such as Portrait of Patrick White at Centennial Park by Brett Whiteley, John Wonnacott's highly traditional portrait of the aviation chief Sir Adam Thomson, and a challenging, anatomising, photographic self-portrait by Cindy Sherman (one of very few photographs in the exhibition).

Painting the Century is the excellent book of a great exhibition of a sort that is unlikely ever to be repeated on this scale. It is a tribute to the wide knowledge and good judgement of its author, the sole curator of the exhibition, Robin Gibson, who has worked at the National Portrait Gallery since 1968. At a time when it is not always easy to perceive any consistent or coherent narrative in the way 20th-century art is displayed at either of the Tate galleries, the National Portrait Gallery is to be congratulated on maintaining itself as a flagship of scholarly yet accessible interpretation. Its latest exhibition ably encourages visitors to look at, and reflect upon, the nature of portraiture over the course of our century. It is a splendid, highly enjoyable achievement.

Christopher Ondaatje is a writer who sits on the advisory board of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and a benefactor of the new Ondaatje Wing at the National Portrait Gallery, where "Painting the Century" runs until February 4 2001.

Painting the Century: 101 Portrait
Masterpieces 1900-2000

Author - Robin Gibson
ISBN - 1 85514 289 9 and 313 5
Publisher - National Portrait Gallery
Price - £30.00 and £20.00
Pages - 268

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