Portrait of Dorian Gray?

12 01 2013
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Princess Catherine, by Paul Emsley. (Image via bbc.co.uk)

Oh dear.

No doubt about it. Portrait painting is an utterly thankless task.

William Dobell found this out the hard way when his controversial painting of artist Joshua Smith won Australia’s foremost portrait prize, the Archibald, in 1943. The decision caused two Royal Art Society members, Joshua Wolinski and Mary Edwards, to take legal action against Dobell and the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Trustees, alleging that the painting was a ‘distorted and caricatured form’ and should not have qualified as a ‘portrait’.

Dobell declared that his approach was not to “copy” something, but “to create something”. He declared: “To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation.” Photography initiated a revolution in the visual arts. With the rise of a technology that meant a true physical likeness could be captured and preserved for time immemorial, it opened the playing field for visual artists who could play around with physical representation and look beyond and beneath a subject’s surface.

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William Dobell, ‘Portrait of an Artist’ (Image via australia.gov.au)

Consider for a moment that this was well before abstract expressionism got an airing here in Australia. It was almost a decade before the landmark exhibition, French Painting Today, brought the work of Picasso, Braque, Léger, Chagall and Matisse to our shores. In that climate, Dobell’s Portrait of an Artist, as innocuous as it looks today, caused an absolute uproar. Fortunately, common sense prevailed, and Justice Roper upheld Dobell’s prize, observing that although the painting was “characterised by some startling exaggeration and distortion… (it) nevertheless bore a strong degree of likeness to the subject.”

Speaking of ‘distortion’, what does any of this mean for the larger-than-life-size official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in London? Well, there’s certainly nothing controversial about the method or approach the artist has taken. Hell, the first thing that sprang to mind as a point of comparison is the nauseatingly saccharine portrait of myself at the age of 14 with my younger sister drawn in St Mark’s Square in Venice by a pavement artist. A charcoal sketch that I would like to make clear is currently rolled up in a tube in my father’s wardrobe. It is not framed. Or hanging in public. Nor shall it ever be. We just keep it for laughs.

What of the depiction of Catherine? The Duchess declared the portrait to be “just amazing”. Damned by faint praise, perhaps?

Maybe they decided to commission a portrait that would last for a couple of decades. Catherine at the age of 50. Won’t need updating anytime soon, anyway.

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Nothing new under the sun: lessons in appropriation 101

16 04 2010

Ever since Marcel Duchamp signed a (thankfully, factory-fresh) urinal ‘R.Mutt’ and presented it at the 1917 Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition in New York (illustrated at left), art has been as much about ideas as it has been about the objects that artists make. For many contemporary artists, the object itself is a by-product of the artistic process, and far less important, if not virtually irrelevant, to the action of making the artwork which for many artists is the principal artistic activity.

Artists like Sam Leach, whose Wynne prize-winning painting is attracting such controversy at the moment, appropriate other artists’ imagery under the very reasonable assumption that there is nothing new under the sun, and that the premise of ‘originality’ is something of a furphy in the world of art. For example, renowned American artist Sherrie Levine uses her own camera to take photos of famous works of art, and then signs and exhibits them as her own. Her best known series, one of which I reproduce below, is after the photographs of Depression-era photographer, Walker Evans. Levine took her photos from  a book in which the Evans photos were reproduced. So, she printed a photo she had taken from a print of a photo in a book which was printed from a photo of a photo… see what she’s doing there with your idea of what is original?

The most exciting contemporary artists make works of art that are a whole lot more than simply technically proficient visual representations of something else. After all, we’ve got photography to do that these days. Appropriation challenges our preconceptions about originality – what does an artist’s ‘signature’ really mean? For example – when Picasso’s Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986 by a group calling itself the Australian Cultural Terrorists, Juan Davila painted a perfect replica of the painting and presented it to the NGV. He wrote a letter to the gallery to accompany the painting, saying that he was presenting it ‘to allow you to have the same masterpiece at no cost’ and so that the gallery could ‘direct your attention to contemporary art in Australia and the plight of young artists, ignored for so long by your gallery.’ Needless to say, the NGV declined Davila’s gracious offer and, much to the gallery’s relief, the painting was returned intact.

The question of arts funding aside, it cuts to the heart of one of the issues that artists who appropriate other artists’ imagery have been wrestling with for decades – if it were an exact replica of Picasso’s painting, how would it diminish an audience’s experience if they were viewing the replica rather than the original? What is it that differentiates one from the other? If art really is about visual experiences, why should it matter if you stand in front of a faithful copy of a famous painting? In a physical sense, the object you are looking at differs in no way from the original. One of the ideas that these artists are playing with is that the very idea of  the ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ object is perpetuated simply because it serves the market’s best interests. For various reasons, I don’t totally agree with this – humankind’s propensity for worshipping genius as embodied in art objects goes back much further than that – but that’s for another day.

Sherrie Levine.jpg

In short – the argument that Sam Leach should be stripped of his prize because he has ‘copied’ another artist’s work is, to be polite, painfully simplistic (although, see yesterday’s post for my ponderings on the question of copyright, which is another issue altogether). It does still leave open the question I raised about whether or not he was eligible to enter the competition under the terms of the prize, however. But that’s one for the AGNSW trustees to figure out.

(images: Marcel Duchamp, ‘Fountain’, via: http://www.tcf.ua.edu; Sherrie Levine, ‘After Walker Evans’, 1981, copyright Sherrie Levine, via: www.artsjournal.com)