Reflect on Portraiture: Beyond Likeness - 20th Century Experiments in Portraiture

I had a real struggle naming this week’s blog. I had planned to call it “Conceptual Portraiture” but then I realised not all the artworks I wanted to talk about are necessarily Conceptual. Still, there is something that made me put these artworks together, even if I struggle to articulate it. The link is obvious really; I’m saying they’re portraits but, like, where are the people? The portraits I’ve looked at in the rest of the blog series have all been images of people. But do portraits have to be representational likenesses of a person? Are there other ways to represent a person? These are some of the questions raised and explored in the works of Eleanor Antin, Robert Rauschenberg and Arman.

Traditionally, the face and body have been central to portraiture, we’ve seen and discussed this again, and again, and again. But why? For centuries it was believed that your outer appearance reflected your inner self. An ugly exterior reflected an evil interior. This idea is everywhere in fairy tales (think ugly evil witches and beautiful princesses). But we know now that it’s rubbish. Our natural outer appearance is not related to our character, personality, skills and interests, the things that make us who we are (although it can be altered to represent these things, through clothing, make up and body modification). As our way of thinking about ourselves has evolved so has the way we represent ourselves. This is the idea, or concept, that Antin, Rauschenberg and Arman are all thinking about.

 Eleanor Antin,  Blood of a Poet Box,  1965-1968, Wood, cardboard, glass slides, blood, brass, paper and ink, 2.8 x 29 x 40.5 cm, Tate.

Eleanor Antin, Blood of a Poet Box, 1965-1968, Wood, cardboard, glass slides, blood, brass, paper and ink, 2.8 x 29 x 40.5 cm, Tate.

Through, Blood of a Poet Box, 1965-1968 Antin explores ideas about biological uniqueness, creative talent and the similarities and differences between people. Antin filled a specimen box with 100 samples of blood from 100 poets she knew. The unique blood samples of each of the poets all appear the same when laid out in Antin’s box, you cannot differentiate one poet from another without reading the labels on the sample. As Jayne Wark remarks, Blood of a Poet Box reveals that “biology is neither identity nor destiny”. Every blood sample is different and yet also, visually, the same. Although blood may be unique, blood alone does not make us who we are.

 Robert Rauschenberg,  Self-Portrait (For the New Yorker Profile),  1964, ink and graphite on paper, (30 x 23 cm).

Robert Rauschenberg, Self-Portrait (For the New Yorker Profile), 1964, ink and graphite on paper, (30 x 23 cm).

Robert Rauschenberg also explores the idea of biological uniqueness in his Self-Portrait (For the New Yorker Profile), 1964. Rauschenberg was asked to send a self-portrait to accompany a New Yorker segment on him, instead he sent off his thumbprint. Although the fingerprint is unique to Rauschenberg, we cannot visually recognize it as a representation of him.  

Both Antin and Rauschenberg are exploring the idea of biological uniqueness. What they both demonstrate, is that our identities must be more than biological elements. And if this is true and our biologically unique attributes do not differentiate us from others, then what does make us individuals? And how can this be expressed in a portrait?

Antin explores this in her series, “Portraits of Eight New York Women”, 1970. These portraits are made up of objects and text which Antin presents as representations of women she knew. These pieces are difficult to decode, as we do not personally know the subjects like Antin. Still, there’s no denying that the representation of Yvonne Rainer is completely different from that of Carolee Schneemann, so Antin must’ve been onto something. From these pieces we get a sense of the women’s individual personalities and interests.

 Eleanor Antin,  Carolee Schneeman from “Portraits of Eight New York Women” , 1970, Mirror, jar of honey with honeycomb, easel, velvet throw, text panel.

Eleanor Antin, Carolee Schneeman from “Portraits of Eight New York Women”, 1970, Mirror, jar of honey with honeycomb, easel, velvet throw, text panel.

 Eleanor Antin,  Yvonne Rainer   from “Portraits of Eight New York Women” , 1970, Exercise bike, basket, flowers, horn, sweatshirt, text panel.

Eleanor Antin, Yvonne Rainer from “Portraits of Eight New York Women”, 1970, Exercise bike, basket, flowers, horn, sweatshirt, text panel.

Arman also tried representing people through objects. His Portrait-robot d’Iris, 1960, is a portrait of the gallery owner Iris Clert, which represents her through her possessions. It’s like looking through someone’s bedroom, decoding who someone is through what they own. If Antin and Rauschenberg revealed that identities were not related to nature, then Arman suggests they have a lot more to do with nurture. Or, in other words, we have the power to build ourselves through possessions. Today, we can even construct our identities online through social media.

 Arman,  Portrait-robot d’Iris,  1960, Personal effects of Mrs. Iris Clert in a box, City of Paris Museum of Modern Art.

Arman, Portrait-robot d’Iris, 1960, Personal effects of Mrs. Iris Clert in a box, City of Paris Museum of Modern Art.

Arman was asked to make the portrait of Iris Clert for a group exhibition which also featured Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg actually forgot to make his portrait, so he hastily sent off a telegram saying: “This is a Portrait of Iris Clert if I Say So”. This telegram is a fantastic example of Conceptual Art (and how artists can get away with anything if they’re famous). The telegram makes us consider the authority we give artists. Rauschenberg says the telegram is a portrait of Iris Clert and he’s an artist, so it must be. This reminds me of Titian’s Portrait of Isabella d’Este which looked nothing like her. Titian is an artist, so when he says this is a portrait of Isabella d’Este we believe him, even if he’s painted her 30 years younger than she actually was. I think Rauschenberg is poking fun at this sort of thing and seeing how much he can get away with (quite a lot apparently).

 Robert Rauschenberg,  This is a Portrait of Iris Clert if I Say So,  1961, Telegram with envelope, 44.5 x 34.6 cm), Collection Ahrenberg, Vevey, Switzerland.

Robert Rauschenberg, This is a Portrait of Iris Clert if I Say So, 1961, Telegram with envelope, 44.5 x 34.6 cm), Collection Ahrenberg, Vevey, Switzerland.

Rauschenberg’s telegram also reveals a key problem still being explored today: can an object ever truly stand in for a person? Can art materials ever create a satisfying portrait? Is oil on canvas really any closer to a person than a telegram?

Rauschenberg, Antin and Arman explored what portraiture was in the 20th century. But what, I hear you ask, is portraiture today? If you want to find out make sure you visit our exhibition Reflection. To find out more about the artists featured in the exhibition, have a read through Nathan T. Dean's interviews with the artists, so far he's spoken to David Hopkins, Sonja Benskin Mesher, and Milad Karamooz. I'll leave you with one final thought, can an interview be a portrait?

Opening Night 13th April 2018, 6-9pm.

14th April – 28 April 2018

Bibliography

Bowdoin College Museum of Art. “This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today.” http://www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum/exhibitions/2016/this-is-a-portrait-if-i-say-so.shtml

Wark, Jayne. “Conceptual Art and Feminism: Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, Eleanor Antin, and Martha Wilson.” Woman’s Art Journal 22, No. 1 (Spring – Summer 2001): 44-50.