To be a part of human society is to be a part of a continuous drama of interaction, of cultural tradition and cultural change. As animals we are particularly animated and being able to engage with one another – to read facial expression and have our own read – is just one of the pleasures of being human. The viewing of a portrait, however, is that rare chance to see the face held immobile. A portrait wants to be scrutinised and invites us to come up close. To come so close to a real human being would be impolite, yet to do so with a portrait is good manners – to appreciate the artist and the person portrayed is to recognise the value of identity…but is a portrait only ever of a face? Is a portrait really about the sitter or the artist? Does a portrait have to be representational? Does a portrait even have to be of a person…can it not be of an idea? This exhibition stages a dialogue for such questions, bringing together a variety of portraits, thoughts and intentions to examine whether any portrait can ever really be taken at face value.
The initial pleasure of this exhibition is in its variety. Interwoven throughout the show are famous names such as Lucian Freud, Richard Billingham and Tracey Emin. Although important, their work by no means dominates the show, each exhibit contributes to the conversation being had about portraiture. This conversation travels from the relationship between sitter and artist, to portraiture as a reflection of an artist’s intention through to the self-portrait. Tradition and innovation are continuously discussed with portraits skilfully rendered in oils hung next to collaged photographs or else the flickering projection of Emin’s troubled teen years. Whether there is value to be found in each work or not it does not matter, what matters is the value of seeing a collection of work where each has been made by an individual with their own thoughts of what constitutes a portrait.
This exhibition demonstrates that medium is no barrier in the progression of a traditional discipline, showing us the versatility of oil in the hands of an imaginative artist and the importance of embracing alternate technology, be it photography, film or elephant dung, (in the case of Chris Ofili). Yet, despite their differences each work is united in their appreciation of humanity, examining identity through the individual and their relationship with society.
There is a simple yet profound pleasure to be had in looking at a traditional portrait. No one should underestimate the power of a face subtle and expertly painted and no one should underestimate the excitement of diverging from tradition in the pursuit of alternate concepts and ways of creating art. This exhibition may be a retrospective of the Arts Council’s portraiture collection but its conclusion is one of the exciting future portraiture has and the limitless avenues the artist may take in exploring humanity through the individual.
Rebecca Barwell is an artist and writer based in Lancashire.
Photography courtesy of Abbot Hall Art Gallery.
Face Value: Portraiture from the Arts Council Collection, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal.
27 March – 13 June 2015