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Pathos is not enough

13 March 2014

The Great War in Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, until 15 June
Review by Brian Sewell, Evening Standard, 27 February

TonksIt is impossible not to share Brian Sewell’s sense of unbearable pathos in this exhibition, and irrelevant whether those feelings come from lost relatives or a sense of guilt that most of us have been spared such horrors. Let us with Sewell pass over the Orpens without comment, and think ourselves fortunate that the war wasn’t fought on artistic merit, since the Germans would have won hands down.

I have nothing worthy to add to Sewell’s heartfelt thoughts (and I join him in urging everyone to see the exhibition), but I have nevertheless a nagging sense that it is portraiture itself which is unskinned here, amidst these shocking pastels by Tonks (in whose shadow my mother was taught at the Slade) before which we still recoil in horror: the Coriolanian glory of wounds vanishes when it is the face that is disfigured. But a different, intellectual discomfort starts earlier in the exhibition: George V, shown in his Garter robes, with his sword resting on the floor, “subtly hinting”, we are told, at reluctance to take up arms. Beside him, Wilhelm II., in an identical pose, his sword even more static – but no such observation of placidity can be offered by the exhibition curators.

I don’t want to ask tritely “is it art?”, nor to trot out some glib witticism about portraiture as a sofa-bed, combining historical narrative and art without being very good at either. But the fact is that you turn to portraiture for story-telling at your peril. Portraits as history lessons or indicators of military strategy are as likely to mislead as to inform. And, as I’ve previously observed in my piece The mind’s construction, national portrait galleries are stuck with some quite big difficulties if they want to collect important people rather than important art.

Let’s move away from this exhibition to take the discussion forward, less burdened by Sewell’s “powerfully empathic” melancholy inspired not by aesthetics but “by the pathos of the young so early dead”. The turning loose of emotion is not the escape from emotion which great art can provide. What is it then about the truly great portraits that you can see round the corner – Rubens, Van Eyck, Holbein or (a personal favourite) David’s Comtesse Vilain XIIII with her daughter – that allows them to convey an impact of similar force, but without sledge-hammering us with the enormity of man’s inhumanity to man?

I’m afraid a blog isn’t where you can find full answers to such profound issues, nor any at all that are not dangerously close to banality or pretension. For the ultimate appeal of portraiture lies deep in the psyche, and the process stubbornly resists dissection.

A proper analysis would discuss Freud’s doctrine of “affective contagion”, which allows artists to share their intense feelings with others (and is close to Leo Tolstoy’s concept of real art as a mental union of perceiver and artist). It is only one step to move from contagion between perceiver and artist to that with the sitter in a portrait. And it takes us to Roland Barthes, who was particularly interested in photography but whose description of a process he called “induction” nevertheless seems to me particularly relevant (Fragments d’un discours amoureux, 1977, p. 163):

Le corps qui va être aimé est, à l’avance, cerné, manié par l’objectif, soumis à une sorte d’effet zoom, qui le rapproche, le grossit et amène le sujet à y coller le nez : n’est-il pas l’objet scintillant qu’une main habile fait miroiter devant moi et qui va m’hypnotiser, me capturer?

That skill, of representation that stops you in your tracks and compels attention, is the essence of good portraiture. It doesn’t happen with second-rate art, and when it works, it works without a preparatory narrative. It creates a story of its own – one which you can often enrich with further, historical narrative – but not one you can create by starting with a narrative and applying it to an inadequate picture.

Unlike Orpen, the artists I study in eighteenth-century France, as well as Rubens, Hobein and all portrait painters before the invention of photography, were unburdened by the existential questions of representation: obtaining a good likeness was unselfconsciously a clear and specific target – indeed disputes about their success filled the Châtelet and are a rich source of information about obscure painters who had fallen out with their clients and better established ones called in to provide expert testimony. (The conventional phrase “capturing a likeness” distracts from a more serious, Barthesian point: in a successful portrait, it is the sitter who captures the viewer.)

But that of course is a very incomplete prescription for recreating works that to modern eyes are dominated by conventions. What happened in dix-huitième France was that artists sought a formula for creating the arresting portrait, and confused it with the pursuit of the exquisite (where the special delicacy and unique surface texture of pastel offered a particular route to distinction). Excellence and the exquisite can and do overlap, in the finest works of La Tour or Perronneau; but they are not synonymous. The pursuit of the exquisite was legitimised by Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, whose publication in France in 1740 was taken as a justification for a short century’s display of conspicuous consumption, of the douceur de vivre or the obscene displays of luxe insolent that brought about a Revolution. We have been embarrassed about them ever since (as I discuss in Rococo and rejection) – with the exception of the end of the nineteenth century, when there was a brief return to the values of the heady days of the Ancien Régime before the world was again returned to sobriety by war.

I have taken you a long, long way from the mud and gore of the Somme. But now we are back again, with another unforeseen casualty of that war. Pathos is not enough (any more than patriotism, in Nurse Cavell’s words of which Brian Sewell movingly reminds us). But nor is the exquisite a certain formula for the production of great works of art.

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From → Art history

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