Real and imaginary portraits

There is currently a small exhibition of works by Derek Boshier, Imaginary Portraits, in the National Portrait Gallery nestling above this year’s exhibition of photographs shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize. I was intrigued by this title as following the completion of Sophia in Striped Socks, I want to undertake more portraits myself. I am interested in how modern portraits can be made to have a contemporary feel, how the method of painting can be developed to produce a result which differs from portraits of the past by more than just the depiction of a different face. There is always that underlying question how can painted portraits achieve more, or something different, than can be achieved by the camera.

For those who have seen this year’s photographic showing, it seems like a tall order. Chosen from over 5,000 entrants there are some outstanding portraits there. Anybody who has visited London recently cannot have failed to notice Spencer Murphey’s stunning portrait of jockey Katie Walsh which is this year’s winner and being used to publicise the exhibition.

My personal favourite was of an African choirmaster standing in front of a blackboard, on which the first verse of the hymn Oh God our help in ages past was written.  What makes this photograph so compelling is the wonderful expression that has been captured. The colours too are just extraordinary; the wall behind him has an almost painterly quality.

Challenging Heights School, Ghana.Challenging Heights School, Ghana.

There was a small, yet surprising portrait of the Queen which I felt to be highly original, when I would have thought that the chance of originality had long been exhausted. It had been snapped in a lucky moment when, at a function, she happened to look towards the photographer.

Despite my huge admiration for the works on show, I tend towards the belief, almost in the face of evidence to contrary, that painted portraiture is in some way a higher art form. But the Boshier works were not the portraits to provide ammunition to support this thesis. Unlike the portraits completed by Bob Dylan (see 10 October) these were not as it turned out portraits of imaginary people rather they were of real people in imaginary situations. So we have a series of drawn self-portraits of Boshier in various situations for instance, naked, and with a future US President, also naked, and David Bowie acting as the Elephant Man. These, while quite pleasing, were in no way revolutionary. I have to remind myself that was perhaps too much to expect. They majority were made around 1980, which for many people is a lifetime away. On the other hand I greatly preferred them to the more recent work on show Black Dog (2009): a large painting which depicts a fragmented figure and represents, according to Boshier, ‘a symbol of self-identification.’

Portrait 2

The exhibition was still of interest however and that was in the chance to learn of Boshier’s take on portraiture. Boshier was closely involved in the development of pop art in the 1960s rather than been known for his portraits. Whereas many artists insist from working from life, still others from photographs, Boshier avoided such information.

“it’s very important for me to paint someone when they are not there, to use my imagination otherwise you paint only a physiological likeness.”

Dominant in the exhibition were two oil portraits on canvas, one of David Bowie, again as the elephant man, which is why his face is portrayed as so lopsided, the other of photo realist artist Malcolm Morley. Achieving a likeness away from the subject is no mean feat,  Boshier certainly achieved it in the case of Bowie. Not being familiar with Malcolm Morley’s appearance I looked up photographs and it seemed to be true in his case as well. Despite being a Bowie fan, I did consider Morley’s portrait by far the more interesting, although I was uncertain it achieved what it set out to do. Two faces are superimposed on top of each other supposedly representing the fact that Morley was part polite, part combative. It was hard to discern much difference between the two, perhaps in the slight downward drop of the mouth in the right hand of the picture there could be the hint of the confrontational, though equally it could be a hint of melancholia, yet I felt it worked extremely well as a painting

Portrait 3

The David Bowie painting appears better in a photograph than it does in reality. Both paintings were the same size 30 inches x 24 inches, both painted in oil on canvas and both used the same impasto technique. While this seemed to work with the Morley painting, in the depiction of Bowie possibly because it was painted at a time when Bowie was still young, the shading seemed crude and the colours worked less well. Malcolm Morely would have been nearly 50 at the time; while the impression is perhaps of an older face, the skin texture still seems more appropriate. Also the background of David Bowie seems too complex compared with the image of Bowie himself; possibly the jungle effect was supposed to be associated with elephants, in a kind of art pun but it seemed to me to give more of an impression of Bowie as Tarzan. Of course that is the way with the imaginary – it can lead anywhere.

Paul Klee and the Art of Experimentation

One of the great disadvantages of looking at reproductions of works rather than the original is that, even if you are diligent enough to read a painting’s dimensions, you tend to get no real  impression of size.  This is particularly so when an artist such as Paul Klee, currently subject of a major exhibition at Tate Modern, Making Visible, is popular among the producers of posters. Small wonder when an image is reproduced in six different sizes in order to fill differently sized gaps on bedroom walls that you come to expect the original to be poster sized, although perhaps if I had first seen the Tate’s rather fetching offering of tableware, I might have expected them to be mug-sized.  As it was, Making Visible was the first time I had seen original Klees. I was surprised at the outset how small many of the paintings were and at the same time how despite being small, they were so powerful.

The Tate has assembled over 130 of his works which are intimately hung in 17 rooms making it easy to study them and appreciate the fine draughtsmanship, the intricacy of the works and Klee’s amazing sense of colour. Klee was obsessive in keeping records and numbering his paintings, and in all he created over 9,800 works.  While this does not equal Picasso’s achievement of an estimated lifetime achievement of 50,000 works, it is still a huge number of paintings. It shows he was working consistently and fast. He started his diary and numbering system in 1911 and kept it up until his death in 1940, meaning that over the 29 years of his productive life he was averaging 338 works a year, close on one a day. If the art student can take just one single thing away from this exhibition it is the virtue of keeping working.

So, 130 paintings represent only a tiny fraction of what Klee achieved, but it still seems like a lot. As a number of reviewers have reported, it is too many to study at once and there is a danger of so much richness becoming indigestible. The Tate has assembled his works in chronological order; this allows you to see how the artist developed and how experimentation with colour, materials and form was at the heart of his practice.  It also shows how varied his practice was at any one time. At the same pont that he was producing exquisite abstract watercolours, in other paintings he could also be incorporating representational elements. He could be working on cardboard, on board, on burlap – quite possibly on anything that happened to be at hand.

The early works are mainly etchings and satirical drawings, he applied unsuccessfully to be a cartoonist on the satirical magazine Simplicissimus in 1906. It is interesting to see the effect of circumstance on his work. The early works are small by necessity as he was working without a studio and therefore had the inconvenience of being forced to paint in the living room or kitchen. Over time we see his paintings gradually grow in size until the year before his death and suffering from illness, they became quiet large.

Extraordinarily, seeing that colour was to become so important in his work it was absent until 1910. And even then in a fairly subdued way.  But the playfulness that characterises so much of his work is present from the outset. It was in 1902 when he was 23 that he returned to Bern to live with his parents and discovered some of his childhood drawings in his parents’ attic, he described them to sculptor Lily Stumf who was to become his wife as “the most important thing” he had done up to that point. This element of childlike wonder continues to be a major influence.

It can be quite clearly seen in works such as a Young Lady’s Adventure, created twenty years’ later in 1922. This is a somewhat strange work. The young lady’s face has a cartoonlike quality. Whilst predominantly in profile, there is the suggestion of a second eye or possibly ear. Her body is oddly proportioned with a wasp waist and just the merest suggestion of feet. In the background the shapes can resemble fish, or birds. While some have considered that the work was a portrayal of a fashionable lady, the more common interpretation is that it is erotic and the adventure she was seeking was sexual; the arrow is thought to be phallic. It is possible that it does not have this connotation, in Bauhaus where Klee taught, the work was known as the English Miss. Red arrows feature in a number of his other works apparently without phallic intent.

A Young Lady's Adventure 1922 by Paul Klee 1879-1940 

Ghost of a Genius completed a year later when he was 43, is similarly playful. The painting is thought to be a self-portrait and is clearly slightly self-mocking. It was produced by an interesting copying  technique which he developed, a bit like carbon paper, by which he painted black oil paint on the underside of a drawing and then used a stylus to transfer some of it onto board  or canvas. The black marks in the painting show where his hand rested.


Fish Magic completed in 1925 is also fundamentally a light-hearted work but here the richness of the colour is what makes the painting so arresting.


This importance of colour really started in April 1914 when just four months before the outbreak of war he spent time in Tunisia and was deeply struck by the colours of the landscapes.

He wrote in his diary “colour possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always I know it…. I am a painter.” The exhibition shows the way that Klee used different permutations of colour in different works, experimenting day by day, sometimes with pure abstracts, sometimes more figuratively but always achieving a richness which is immensely enjoyable. What I find particularly interesting is the way that Klee never settled on one style. He was constantly changing his approach and yet all his works undoubtedly bear his touch so that we can recognise them as his. We know from his numbering system which order he painted them and so we see Static Dynamic Gradation a work which is pure abstract painted immediately before Assyrian Game.



Whilst many of Klee’s works are light, enjoyable and perhaps warrant that dread term decorative, there was a darker side. Klee was drafted into the army but benefited from Germany’s unofficial policy of keeping successful creative people away from the front line. With friends not so similarly lucky, the tensions become visible in his art. Organisation is one of the painting that comes from this time. There is the playfulness that we associate with Klee, but the zigzag lines, the staring eyes and the partial heads, surely allude to the horrors of war.


Worse was to come. While Klee had emerged from the First World War with an enhanced reputation, with the rise of Hitler,  he became subject to Nationalist Socialist attacks and was condemned as degenerate; he and his wife Lily decided to take refuge in Bern. It was personal ill-health rather than injury which was to cause him the most suffering. He was diagnosed with Schleroderma, an auto immune disease which causes thickening of the skin and which in extreme cases, of which he was one, can also affect internal organs.

Over the years Klee’s paintings had gradually been growing in size, perhaps reflecting better studio space, more funds to buy paint and materials, perhaps growing artistic confidence. Schleroderma brought a step change in scale. With his hands too stiff to undertake the small, intricate paintings of his youth, Klee took to working large-scale, using canvas and oils rather than paper and watercolours, the works became bolder, though as can be seen in this detail of one of his most iconic works Rich Harbour, many of the motifs which had been seen in his work of earlier years remained.  Klee died in June 1940  from heart failure associated with the disease.  In the final year of his life he produced 1300 works.


It is perhaps one of the most impressive things about Klee – his sheer determination to keep experimenting right to the end so that the freshness remains.