I had never given portraiture much thought until early 2014 when a friend, Louisa Chircorp, proposed painting my portrait for the Archibald Prize. The result was both truthful and unflattering so I had to comfort myself with Rembrandt‘s comment.
But let’s be blunt about it, a portrait painting competition like the Archibald is a stupid idea at this point in history and its popularity as an annual media circus is an illustration of how Australia continues to be a vacuous colonial society. Its basic legal requirement, that the portrait must be a painting, is laughable at a time when artists use every communication media in existence and about as valid as requiring that the portraits should all be made of
The simple reality of contemporary art is that no medium is now any more or less valid than another and painting should not be given special privileges or legally enforced. So we are stuck with the ludicrous situation of an art institution enforcing the use of an obsolete image making technology because of an historical legal anomaly that it should have challenged decades ago.
But that’s a bit of a sideshow. The most interesting issue for me was the question of why portraiture? What exactly is the point, what would a meaningful portrait actually be like now, what would its purpose be?
Since the renaissance, portraiture plots the shifts in political power. At one time it was very much the province of the wealthy and powerful, sometimes alone and at other times slipped into religious propaganda, and it functioned as both memorialisation and intimidation.
Artists themselves were among the few lesser beings who could be identified but already self portraiture involved confession, revelation, self flaying.
The rise of the bourgeoisie extended the range of subjects and by the mid 19th century even workers and the underclass became identifiable. As the technology changed, cameras like box brownies made photography and portraiture both accessible to all but also more casual, more anecdotal rather than memorial.
And that’s where things were at about the time I was born in late 1950. As I thought about what the portrait means now I felt it could only be understood by looking at the history of photography since the mid 20th century so I decided to do a self portrait that demonstrated the changes in attitude to the portrait that had occurred during my lifetime. It was obviously never going to fit the archaic Archibald Prize criteria but I hoped it would encompass personal and social history and the fact that the portrait is more relevant than ever, but that contemporary relevance is far more malevolent than the hokey sentimental kitsch that dominates the Archibald Prize.
So the first part of my self portrait was myself at that time, taken maybe in 1951 and probably by one of the professional photographers found at all types of public events, nightclubs or in the street even.
When I did a bit of research I discovered this phenomenon has not been written about much. Despite its obvious importance the focus has been on art photographers rather than the more prosaic working photographers. But I’m pretty sure that’s how that photo was taken because it’s a larger print than the usual box brownie snap. I’m up and walking and just a few short years away from the moment my mother had to abandon me into my grandmother’s care.
Nearly twenty years on, probably December 1969 and I’m the smugly avant garde young conceptual artist, already well publicised, everyone predicting great things, and in a new relationship with a beautiful woman who was my first great love. This is the new casual, but almost formal, portraiture and I’m not sure who took it, either Robert Walker or photographer/film maker Lee Chittick. It was a large print but nonetheless thrown into a box and left to rot away with other art works of the period.
Another twenty years, around 1989 and we are into the era of happy snaps, cheap disposable cameras, colour processing and printing. Photos have become ubiquitous and unremarkable. It was taken by my then partner at a cocktail party in the Canberra home of friends who all worked as ALP political advisers, union officials and apparatchiks of various types. Despite appearances I was clinically depressed, my life and relationship in tatters and about to crash. It was a period I was lucky to survive, there had been even worse earlier but my resilience was wearing out by this time.
And then forward another twenty years to around 2011, the era of both the webcam and the selfie has arrived. So too has a sort of happiness, catching me almost unawares at the the end of a long marathon of distress. I’m old but recently married to the greatest love of my life, Wendy, a relationship shared with Max, the wonderful cat that adopted us in the first year of our relationship and stayed with us for over a decade until his recent death.
You know that some animals are as aware as you are and often smarter and more self possessed. Max was like that and one of the most important people ever in my life.
In some ways I made this work in his memory, in the way Elwood P. Dodd had his portrait painted with Harvey.
But of course this is the Archibald Prize and entering it is rather like dealing with the planning department of a particularly backward suburban council. You could of course comply exactly with the regulations but the result would inevitably be the mediocrity the Packing Room Prize invariably exemplifies. Or you can adopt a subversive compliance in an attempt to produce something better.
I used a variation of the technique I have used for other prints. I took the photo, used drawing software to edit and process it from a bitmap to a vector drawing then coloured in the drawing with real paint and a real paintbrush, a computerised paint by numbers portrait but a painting nonetheless, with many modifications to both the colours and drawing along the way.
And the final part, the QR code that leads to this blog entry. In fact the artwork is not just the image on the wall, that’s half and the other half is this because in fact we each now have a second virtual existence as an amorphous mass of information, images, metadata and activity history on the internet. A portrait of me is not just my superficial appearance, it is the identity embodied in my trail of information, it’s what you will find if you google my name, or images linked to my name, or any number of other searches you might do, all of which will still tell you far less than who I really am.
No google search will tell you for instance that in my teens, when I first saw Charles Laughton as Rembrandt, I knew as clear as day that eventually late in my life I would use that scene in an art work of my own. And I knew the same again when I saw Jimmy Stewart and Harvey together, that I would one day paint a similar painting. It was not a case of “That’s a good idea!”, it was a case of remembering my future. And now I have reached that moment in my future.
But the portrait is no longer significant in the way it was at the beginning of my life, it is indeed all vanities. We live in a corner of a global neoliberal economic system where narcissism is artificially generated by the culture, a culture that consists of advertising, entertainment and mass media, not the arts. Narcissism is essential to neoliberalism and the consumerism that is part of its functional machinery.
The digital selfie is not just ubiquitous, for some it is one of the central activities of life – and this example perfectly illustrates my contention for many decades that the real “art” of our time probably doesn’t look like art and is being made by people we currently wouldn’t call artists.
The issue now is how to escape our portrait. We are under constant surveillance as facial recognition software is becoming universal and unavoidable. You can be identified in a crowd of thousands by political powers who want to harm you. And we provide much of the data ourselves, voluntarily, you can be labelled and tracked every time your image appears on the web. The more you are identified the more your freedom is curtailed, the more your soul is stolen, leached away in the sheer volume of portraits. You are identified as an individual, but an individual just like everyone else.
It reminds me of a quote from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience:
The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. “I am no such thing,” it would say; “I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.”