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.

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