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Book review: “The Portrait Now” by Robin Gibson

gibson...portraitRobin Gibson’s book The Portrait Now was published in connection with an exhibition of the same name, organized by Gibson, on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London from November 19, 1993 to February, 6, 1994.

It’s an elegantly produced, compact book that is itself a beautiful object, featuring images of 64 paintings, sculptures and other works with a modicum on useful, helpful commentary.

Most of the artists are British, as are most of the subjects. That may be part of the reason many of the pieces here didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t know the backstory. Still, the impact of art shouldn’t depend on what a viewer “knows” about the subject and/or the artist.

Another problem for me was the small, flat format which made the works all about the same size, far from how they would be experienced in a gallery — and made it especially hard to take in sculptures. Still, Gibson and the National Portrait Gallery went to great pains to present three-dimensional pieces well-lighted and –framed and all the art in rich, accurate color.

No, my difficulties were more rooted in my inability or maybe laziness to decipher the messages or statements the artists were making in their works. This, I think, is why I tend to favor representational art; whether in a landscape or a scene or a portrait, I find myself in a conversation with the artist and the subject.

So I found much of The Portrait Now beautiful to look at but unintelligible, as if written in another language.


The take-no-prisoners reality of life

Nonetheless, there were several works that caught my eye, such as Gaia and Dali (1982/3) by Sighard Gille.

gala-und-dali by sighard gille

Elements of this portrait of artist Salvador Dali and his wife in old age — Gaia died during its creation — might be dismissed as caricature. Yet, Gaia’s dark-browed, dark-eyed stolidity and her jutting resolute chin as well as the knobs and wrinkles of her huge hands seem to understand and face fully the take-no-prisoners reality of life.

A short commentary notes, “The portrait is a devastating study of the tenacity of old age, the almost animal-like grip on life tempered by the somber colours of the couple’s fantastic clothes.”

By contrast, Jean Muir (1992) by Glenys Barton, a ceramic bust just under four feet high, shows the British fashion designer as solid and self-contained — “a
forceful personality,” notes the text.



“By implication only”

Portrait of Bishop Desmond Tutu (1989) by Marisol is not directly representational, but its elements are straight-forward and to the point.


The red fabric of Tutu’s cassock is stretched to cover a large rectangular wood panel, and a fluorescent light shines brightly on his pectoral cross. The text quotes Nancy Grove:

Much of the sitter is there by implication only, his physical presence pared down to head, hand, cassock, cross and crook, but it is precisely in the differing treatment of these parts that the cohesive force of the portrait lies. The stern features of the hewn head and the strong grasp of the hand, the “real” crook with its reference to African craftsmanship and statesmanship, the box body symbolic in its size and colour, and the illuminated cross combine powerfully to convey the humanity and strength of the man, the stamp of his office and the spirituality of his calling.

I’m not sure why I respond so warmly to Tai-Shan Schierenberg’s John Mortimer (1992). I’m not familiar with Mortimer’s work as a writer and dramatist.

NPG 6160; John Mortimer by Tai-Shan Schierenberg

Maybe because  it’s a face that seems to change every time I look at it — now seeming about to smile, now seeming thoughtful, now just putting up with the labor of sitting still in pose. Then there are his jug ears,

And what’s going on here anyway? Mortimer’s chair is covered in a blue sheet. Have he and the artist come into a shut-up mansion for this sitting? And that dead bird hanging on the wall? And the portrait of someone else looming over Mortimer?

A lot to chew on.

Robert Hughes described “the squalor and general tattiness of the studio, the casual nudity and smell of warm bodies” in the mature work of Lucien Freud. It repels and attracts, and that’s the case with Freud’s Painter and Model (1986-7).


This work flips the long art tradition of the nude female model and the clothed male artist. Here it’s the male letting it all hang out, so to speak.


“The unhewn shoulder”

Of all the works in The Portrait Now, the one, I think, I’d most like to see is Self-Portrait (1985) by Glynn Williams.

glynn williams self-portrait

Even more, I’d like to touch the surface of the carved weathered stone. The text quotes Sean Kelly and Edward Lucie-Smith:

In this self-portrait the sculptor identifies himself totally with his materials. The head thrusts up irresistibly from the stone, the unhewn shoulder representing simultaneously both anatomy and the raw material. The sideways tilt of the head indicates a sense of struggle; the art of creation is not achieved without effort.

The upward aim of the eyes and the weight of the encasing stone — a metaphor for any artist.

Patrick T. Reardon

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