[The following article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]
I have recently taken to reading lots of books about birth and early childhood development — well, it makes a change from worrying about whether painting’s dead, doesn’t it? Thus it is that I have learned more over the past month or so than I ever wished to know about the way in which people respond to each other’s faces.
A newborn baby, apparently, has an absolutely innate interest in the human face — not only his mother’s face, either, although within days he can recognise this, but in all human faces. The part of his brain responsible for this achievement develops early, long before birth. Stranger still, within the first week or two he is drawn not only to actual human faces, but to man-made images of the human face, with black-and-white, full-face line-drawings being the preferred media. This fascination is not, however, you may be pleased to learn, primarily aesthetic in motivation. Babies, it turns out, are also amazingly adept both at ‘reading’ emotion — affection, anger, boredom, amusement — in other people’s faces, and at mirroring what they find there. It’s part of the way in which we learn to relate to each other — to function socially thorough the course of our lives. One can think of all sorts of reasons why the development of these abilities should have been smart moves in evolutionary terms. That, however, need not detain us. The point is simply that curiosity about our fellow creatures’ faces is entirely natural, instinctive and universal. There is, put starkly, nothing we’d rather see, and nothing we are better at seeing.
The potency of cheap printed portraiture
If you think that this smacks of overstatement, you can test the thesis yourself. Pay a visit to your local newsagent. Scanning the shelves — newspapers (both broadsheet and tabloid), magazines covering a variety of topics, community free-sheets — what do you see? Chances are that your gaze will be confronted by a wall of human faces, their two-dimensional eyes seeking contact with yours. It’s a basic rule of newspaper layout — and one, incidentally, that much visual-media-based advertising seems to follow, too. Perhaps recalling those early infant days, female faces are believed to be more enticing than male faces, friendly faces more alluring than cross or impassive ones — while the most popular images of men tend to have what are traditionally seen as rather feminised features (smooth skin, big eyes, rosy lips). Or to put it another way, there’s a strong commercial imperative reason behind our ongoing persecution by those pandemic images of Britney Spears, David Beckham, Prince William, whatever identikit nonentities won Fame Academy and the late Diana, Princess of Wales. However rational we may believe our own behaviour to be, however slyly we may justify our own expenditure of 40 pence on today’s Evening Standard, the fact remains that faces somehow do get to us, draw us in emotionally and make us want to know more. Iconoclasts smash faces — ‘deface’ images — as a matter of priority. Men dying in combat apparently experience visions of their mother’s faces. Faces matter. There is, apparently, only so much human nature we can outgrow, try though we might.
The National Gallery’s current touring exhibition, Making Faces, provides a good opportunity to ponder all this. True, it is a modest exhibition, enormous neither in scope nor in aspiration. It had already appeared in Bristol and Newcastle before pitching up in London. Some of its strongest works are, in any event, part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection. Given all these limitations, it was bound almost by necessity to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast, throwing a few dozen paintings into a small space, conjuring up a catch-all theme and then hoping for the best.
But don’t let that put you off. There are still plenty of reasons to make your way down to Trafalgar Square. For one thing, the exhibition is free, having been generously sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Bernard Sunley Charitable Foundation. And for another thing, it includes some absolutely delightful pictures. Also it’s certainly more coherent than its predecessor, the wretched Paradise. Finally, although one can charge forward too far and fast along this route (are you listening, Sir Nicholas Serota?) there is, nonetheless, a case to be made for shaking up the arrangement of familiar pictures, hoping to expose an unappreciated relationship or to spark off a moment of novel revelation. The hang, in this case, is playful and understated rather than the usual high-volume broadcast of curatorial self-importance. But in any event, how much of an excuse do you need to visit what is, after all, blasé though we may be about it, one of the greatest art collections on the face of the earth? If Making Faces provides that excuse, then it’s all to the good — and if you find yourself seeing the world slightly differently in its wake, well that’s even better.
What else is there to say by way of introduction to this small but strangely compelling exhibition? First and foremost, despite what some other reviews seem to suggest, Making Faces is not an exhibition of portraits. True, many of the works on show are portraits — but these only just outnumber the history paintings, devotional works or the exercises in social comment, sexual fantasy and existential horror. This is one reason why likeness becomes a less important theme than qualities such as expressiveness or intrinsic visual drama. Nor should this surprise us, really, once we stop to think about it. When it comes to historical portraits, how could we begin to judge their versimilitude or otherwise? How on earth would we know? Just to pick an example that has nothing to do with this exhibition but which makes the point neatly enough, when we think of Charles I, chances are that the image that comes to mind is one fresh from the hand of Anthony van Dyck — all regal glamour, laced with the faintest proleptic whisper of impending tragedy. Never mind that every portrait of the king — one thinks here of the work of Daniel Mytens — shows a shorter, considerably less elegant, marginally more down-to-earth fellow. Van Dyck’s images, we realise, show what such a person ought to look like. For that reason we gladly suspend disbelief in favour of enchantment. This capacity to foster happy deception is, after all, one of the qualities of great art, just as the ability to detect yet enjoy such deception is central to the wholehearted appreciation of art.
Sex, sisterhood and shellfish
The distance between artifice and accuracy is one of the fascinating strands that runs through Making Faces. One of the finest paintings present — and, incidentally, one of the few genuinely capable of thriving against the fire-engine red walls — is Goya’s magnificent Dona Isabel de Porcel. On one level, the work was a commissioned portrait of the wife of some long-forgotten minor bureaucrat. Yet if all it did was to represent her features accurately, why on earth should we care about it? But of course it does so much more than that. One doesn’t have to take much of a leap of imagination to suspect that Goya enjoyed this particular assignment perhaps a little bit more than Dona Isabel’s husband might have liked. Goya had, as do many men, a particular ‘type’ that appealed to him. Perhaps Dona Isabel approached it more closely than most. At any rate, what was meant to be a portrait has been elevated, here, into the stuff of full-bodied sexual fantasy — the slightly damp-looking curls, the flushed cheeks, the plump bosom only just encased within the black lace shawl, the remarkably full lips — and, most notably, those impossibly huge, luminous, indeed slightly bulging eyes. No one, frankly, has ever looked quite like this, which is perhaps just as well, because real life would render these exaggeratedly large and emphatic features freakish and unpleasant. As a fiction, however, they are stunningly successful. This is one of Goya’s most perfect paintings, which is saying a lot.
But it was also an excellent decision on someone’s part to place this masterpiece next to Sargent’s The Misses Vickers. The Edwardian society painter complained plangently about having to travel to ‘the dingy hole’ of Sheffield to paint the daughters of this armaments magnate — ‘three ugly young women’ as he put it, not entirely gallantly. Yet if they really were ugly one finds no trace of this in his group portrait. Slim, graceful and with three very distinct sets of exaggerated features — big eyes and rosebud mouths set out against porcelain skin — their appearances are as skilfully idealised in the fashion of their era as that of Dona Isabel was in her own. The hanging ensures that the shift in taste becomes a locus of interest in its own right. The plump young matron, with her confident deportment and flirtatious half-smile, is replaced by this demure, virginal grouping set out against the background of a dark, airless room. Yet one can’t help but feel that Sargent was idealising to order here. Failing to fall in love with these girls in the way that Goya seems somehow to have done with Dona Isabel, Sargent falls back on playing super-sophisticated formal games with the positioning of an outstretched arm or the arc of a turning page, the rigid pattern of a chairback or a silvery little still-life in the distance, which seems to have charmed him at least as much as any of the sisters. One is intensely aware of artifice here, but then awareness of artifice is a civilised pleasure in its own right. Perhaps no one ever conveyed this as well as Sargent did. The Misses Vickers is a tidy example of this.
Both Goya’s portrait of Dona Isabel and Sargent’s portrait of the Vickers girls were commissioned pieces. In each case, the artist’s decisions about pose, costume, format and finish had to compromise with those of his paying patron. We look today for directness, charm and painterly bravura where an earlier generation of viewers may well have read claims for wealth, social prestige, virtue or simply cognisance of up-to-date fashion. We are drawn to speculate on the relationship between painter and subject because we have grown up in a time where great painting is supposed to express something real and important about its creators’ inner lives, rather than simply to complete a job of work and fulfil a contract.
Yet even those of us inclined to insist on this sort of kill-joy caveat are able to go a bit weak in the knees at the painting that has been placed next to the Goya and the Sargent. Hogarth’s The Shrimp Girl was, evidently, painted to please no one but Hogarth himself. True, the red wall does this magnificent exercise in subtle tonality no favours at all, and a certain sort of viewer will find it hard to resist moving the painting across the room to join Auerbach’s Julia (1987), with which it has affinities. Never mind, though. Always one of the most shockingly effective works in the National Gallery when encountered casually, this brilliantly free, funny, adorable sketch of a painting only gains force from the company it keeps here. The Shrimp Girl’s rounded breasts, ready smile and illusion of arrested motion rhyme delightfully with their counterparts in Goya’s painting, while the wild yet weightless flurry of brushwork, executed in that silver-and-rose-based palette, casts the Sargent in a whole new light. The roughest of sketches — she doesn’t even have eyelids, for heaven’s sake! — the image is nonetheless wholly believable, wholly alive. And this, on reflection, and in conjunction with these other two works, tells us something important about the whole business of looking at pictures of faces. One doesn’t need much of a subject, much of an available context, even much in terms of finish to find a human face fascinating. The artist can hold back, letting our eyes and minds fill in the detail. It is in this sense that pictures of faces, however they are made, connect with us at the deepest, most instinctive level. We simply can’t help but meet the Shrimp Girl’s wide-eyed smile halfway. Our own human nature somehow makes us care, even when there’s really no earthly reason why we should.
Face to face
These are three pictures which, in their various ways, I very much like — the Sargent, normally Sheffield-based, is a particular treat. Of course, there are others that leave me cold. Is there anyone out there, for instance, who is capable of responding to Sassoferrato’s Virgin in Prayer with a truly satisfactory blend of religious devotion and aesthetic oomph? Sorry, but try though I might, I simply can’t manage it. Devotion chokes in my throat when faced with this catastrophic level of plaster-statue kitsch; aesthetic admiration stops short as one suddenly feels with a sickening lurch the truth of all those boring things that David Hockney is always arguing about the early use of the camera lucida. There’s something creepily dead about this painting, which I usually avoid whenever possible. And at the other end of the spectrum, what about Renoir’s La Premiere Sortie, to give it the better of its two titles? Cute girl, mucky handling, rules of perspective jettisoned to no great purpose — yes, it’s all the slackness, sloppiness and self-congratulation that linger like a miasma round the worst sort of Impressionist daubs — blurry pointless bilge to satisfy a sentimental and uncritical bourgeoisie. Why not include a nice puppy or something , perhaps with a silk bow round its neck, and be done with it? And yet, exploring my dislike of these two very different works — both of which I’ve seen dozens if not scores of times — for the first time it occurs to me that in each of them, the principal subject averts her eyes, throwing the emphasis back onto her situation, rather than encouraging direct contact, person to person, however simulated and fictional. Could this be part of the reason why neither painting really works for me? It is at moments like this that Making Faces makes one, in fact, see these faces entirely anew.
And then there are some odd, even surprising choices. It’s obvious enough, and quite right, to include ‘normal’ portraits such as Philippe de Champaigne’s famous treble portrait of Cardinal Richelieu — although worth remembering that this was created less as a work of art than as a businesslike set of instructions to the sculptor Francesco Mochi who was carving a bust of the great statesman. (I hadn’t, however, realised that the completed bust was decapitated in 1793 and the head used as a counterweight for a roasting spit — a minor addition to the catalogue of unforgettable evil attended on that unfortunate ‘revolution’, but interesting nonetheless.) It was also a good choice to include a bracingly austere portrait by Cranach of Martin Luther (borrowed from Bristol) in which everything except the face itself is reduced to richly articulate minimalism — a painting that still begs to be reproduced in cheap printed versions, teetering on the fence that separates fine art from fine propaganda. And one absolutely unforgettable addition is a portrait of a black man who might or might not be the ex-slave, author and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, dated to about 1780 and attributed only to the British School. Luminous and sensitive, this image is both beautifully-painted — a reminder of the way in which even rather ordinary painters are sometimes capable of raising their game when confronted with the unfamiliar challenge of African skin — and powerfully direct. Whoever this broad-featured, strong-browed, confident-looking man may have been, one is somehow left feeling one has had some sort of direct encounter with him. It is a measure of the quality of this work that it can hang on the wall alongside a good Moroni portrait and can bear the comparison. Borrowed from Exeter, it is almost reason enough in itself to encourage jaded Londoners to visit this exhibition.
To look or not to look?
The oddities, where they appear, are odd for a variety of reasons. Wyndham Lewis’ Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro is weirdly cartoon-like — a sinister, grinning, luridly-coloured creature awaiting animation. Its creator’s purpose in painting it was, as far as we can know, so very different from that underlying most of the works around it that it tends to look a little lost here, if only because Lewis was so evidently not painting an image of a real face, but of a deliberately, indeed disturbingly unreal face. Nearby, meanwhile, hangs a Warhol silkscreen portrait of Joan Collins. It was an interesting decision on someone’s part to represent Warhol not with a more meaningfully iconic gold-ground Marilyn Monroe portrait, but instead with a late (1985), high-camp, low-energy studio work. What strikes the viewer more than anything else, though, is the simple boredom of the surface. Like the raw materials of cheap popular print mentioned above, this is an image that exists to be scanned for a second, recognised — and then one can move on, safe in the knowledge that one has missed nothing — disposable art for a generation that is good at channel-surfing but bad at concentration. One is left wondering whether the simple printed phrase ‘Joan Collins’ would, ultimately, have conjured up more — gone deeper or wider in terms of richness of memory or quality of nuance — than this gloomily demotic, cynical exercise.
This sounds negative. I wonder, though, if the presiding curators were not rather slyly encouraging this sort of negativity. Who, in Making Faces, are Miss Collins’ companions? Across from her hangs the aforementioned portrait by Frank Auerbach of his wife Julia. Now, for anyone who knows anything about Auerbach’s working methods, the contrast could hardly be more poignant. Auerbach has been painting Julia — and indeed many of his other models — for decades. His practice? For days and days he’ll drive and delve with fierce, haptic, glutinously thick strokes into the face of his panel — only to scrape away the pigment the next morning and start all over again. If you don’t like this work, obviously, you may read this method as self-indulgent irresolution and preciousness. If, on the other hand, you agree with me that, for better or worse, Auerbach is probably the most important painter working in Britain today, then you may well consider that what is lost in terms of paint or recognisable images is richly repaid in terms of accumulated, patient, hopeless yet dogged looking. You may find something poignant and powerful in this recognition. Or to put it another way, it isn’t just Hollywood versus Camden, fame versus hard-won familiarity, slickness versus struggle that’s at stake here. It goes deeper. Warhol, famously, wanted to be a machine — Auerbach wants, I think, to be Titian or Rembrandt or late 1940s de Kooning, and although his achievement does not approach that of even the worst of these three painters, at the very least his aspirations speak to theirs.
You do, honestly, get more out of a good Auerbach the longer you force yourself to look at it, in the same way that an irritable love-hate friendship sometimes comes to mean more, a few years on, than any succession of well-behaved yet shallow social niceties. But just to sharpen the poignancy, Auerbach and Warhol are joined here by Julian Opie’s Nantra, Pool Attendant. ‘I try to make a universal symbol for each individual I draw’, says Opie. But of course what humans are hard-wired to care about is not the universality of a face, but rather its specificity — otherwise, we’d constantly be confusing our own mothers with any other woman possessing the conventional array of basically symmetrical features. One can admire Opie’s work as the nice, sharp, savvy graphic design that it is, but it won’t haunt anyone’s dreams the way that the Shrimp Girl might. At best, in its own way it speaks for the tendency of its age to value a lack of engagement, failures of empathy or affect — the coolness that doesn’t get involved, or hurt, or compromised — and in that sense, the image is as idealised as any other in the show. It may well be the case that in two or three hundred years, this Opie will still be placed in galleries — assuming, which incidentally I do not, that such things will still exist — alongside the Goyas and the Hogarths. If so, however, the prospect of what such things will say about our times is more than a little sobering.
Every picture tells a story
Other works, here, probably speak more as period pieces than as great art. From the Museum of London comes The General Post Office: One Minute to Six by George Elgar Hicks. This is, in its own way, another reposte to Warhol’s image of Joan Collins. That silkscreen surface asks to be scanned — whereas Hick’s big narrative canvas, dated 1860, demands to be read like a Dickens serial. Every face, every set of clothing, every letter or parcel not only tells a story but demands that we listen, assimilate, judge. Here is a survey of Victorian London at its most unguarded. Hicks runs smoothly through the social types, from the demure, upper-middle-class girl, surely clutching a love-letter, to the brutish, malformed pickpocket who’s just been apprehended by a very tall policeman. Once again, the work was a clever inclusion, because it reminds us of the extent to which we expect, even now, that the ‘character’ of a face ought to agree with its social and economic standing. It would be strange, at least in a literary context, if the virginal girl had stubby features or really bad skin, in the same way it would be odd for the messenger-boys to evince aristocratic hauteur or poetic dreaminess. It reminds us, in other words, how very much looking we can do, pace Warhol and Opie, given half a chance — and indeed, how little we can help ourselves from looking.
One final oddity is Ruskin Spear’s Haute Couture (1954), a large work executed in oil on board. I’m delighted that someone thought to include Spear, who is all too often written out of history, since his son-of-Sickert neo-realism continues to be seen, mistakenly, as the sort of pointlessly retrograde art-historical cul-de-sac that could only happen in art-phobic Britain. Having said all that, however, this particular work was a distinctly odd choice. It shows, roughly, a fashion-show in progress — but only just shows it, because the scene is squeezed into a tall, largely monochone panel that seems nearer to the Japanoiserie of Whistler than anything one would expect to encounter in the 1950s. But never mind. On the right, a slim and stylish model paces proudly along the catwalk, while on the left, a brooding, saggy-faced, over-made-up old crone watches her reflectively. The brief catalogue for the exhibition (at £3.50, an entirely worthwhile little publication) identifies more than a note of anti-semitism in this caricature-like portrayal. The catalogue may well be right. But if so, the picture’s inclusion makes a sort of sense, if only because it reminds us how little we need, visually, in the presentation of a face to start to read not only narrative or character, but also quite a lot of other nuances into the scene we are watching — ideological or historical, racist or anti-racist, instinctive or conscious. We look, after all, not only with our eyes, but also with our minds and memories and cultural expectations. It’s a measure of the success of Making Faces that it can remind us of this in a fresh, persuasive way, yet without making some great enormous fuss about it.
The camera doesn’t lie — does it?
For all its lucidity, however, Making Faces is dominated by a dog which, while never actually barking, growls menacingly throughout the proceedings. He’s called Photography.
There’s no denying that photography is now the primary vehicle, other than personal experience, through which we encounter the human face. How many celebrities of the past seventy years or so do we now imagine through painted, rather than photographic images? All the way from Charlie Chaplin to Churchill to the Beatles to Margaret Thatcher or Diana, Princess of Wales, our mental iconostases are festooned with the stuff of flash-bulbs, receptive plates and analogue imagery, rather than canvas and pigment. Who, I wonder, was the last person to be remembered first and foremost through his or her painted, rather than photographed appearance? The most famous handmade portraits of the past century seem, on the contrary, either to spit on photographic versimilitude or, alternatively, to evince a discouraging desperation to snuggle up with it. One thinks on one hand of Picasso’s Gertude Stein or Dora Maar — literally turning themselves inside out in order not to look photographically ‘real’ — and on the other, Hockney’s languorous Bel Air fantasias or Chuck Close’s monster viages, worked up from Polaroids and faithful to their memory. Or to put it another way, it’s part of the modernist predicament that one either paints for photography, or against it. We have seen, in the collision of Auerbach with Warhol and Opie, evidence of this cleavage in action, and in some ways it is hard — and not even necessarily desirable — to hold oneself aloof from the battle. If photography is there to tell us what people really look like, what’s the point of painting people? And if the only point of painting people is to do the things that photography arguably cannot do — to interrogate or interpret them — then what’s the point of making paintings that look like people at all?
The answer to this rather tail-chasing dilemma lies, I think — and this is a strange thing for any Tory to hear herself saying — in technology, of all places. For more than a century now, the more perceptive sort of observer has realised that the ‘truth’ told by photography is, at best, subjective, equivocal and frankly slippery. Through its own framing, its selectivity of interest and emphasis, its cropping and scene-setting, its captioning and accompanying commentary, photography constructs the world as much as it reproduces it — which is to say, as partially and unreliably as any painting. (It should probably also be said, and not only out of good manners either, that some other extremely intelligent observers, including Professor Roger Scruton, have made precisely the opposite point, believing that photography really does represent reality in a direct, consequential way, free from aesthetic choice-making of the sort that governs painting.) Either way, though, a minority of professional quibblers have at the very least seen the ‘realness’ of photographic representation as a contentious area. But that still leaves a large majority who were convinced that photography told, and tells, uncomplicated truths. We still see this, for instance, in the almost total lack of a visual-arts response to the tragic events of 11 September 2001 — what is there to say, when photography has said everything already? And at the other end of the spectrum, if Madonna evinces signs of cellulite or Britney Spears seems in danger of starting to let herself go, only photographic evidence really convinces us of these grave truths. Print media no longer has any need of the engraver or lithographer at all. In general, we believe the photograph like we believe nothing else.
Yet into this trustful Eden a serpent has insinuated itself — digital photography. The arguments made by Professor Scruton and others regarding photography rested, in large part, on the fact that no matter who was handling the camera or manipulating the raw materials of the photo-shoot, ultimately photography itself was a simple chemical reaction — the effect of light on a sensitised plate. The fact that the photographic plate had to be right there with the subject, in the same place, gave the whole business of photographic image-making a kind of relic-making stature, while the unthinking nature of that chemical reaction ensured that photography was the stuff of science and fact, not art and imagination. But that was analogue photography, and while Soviet propagandists and fairy-folk-spotting hoaxers found their various ways round its simple rules, it could lay claim to a sort of conceptual integrity that its digital offspring never even pretended. Digital photography, in contrast, has always had something labile, whorish and unstable about it. One pixel lost or added, here or there — what does it matter? There’s no negative to keep — no clear line between accident and invention. And for this reason, the print media rightly love it, because it can be made to produce ‘better’ — which is to say, clearer and brighter and more persuasive — images than its predecessor ever could.
Yet as time passes, and the brand-name ‘Photoshop’ becomes more familiar, the audience for photographic images is rapidly learning to become less trustful of the images all around it. Some publications have countered this by making public declarations about the percentage of digitally manipulated images they use. Others have simply ignored the issue. And while high-profile credibility disasters like the case of the Mirror’s so-called ‘prisoner abuse’ photos have made cynicism the stuff of high-ish politics, the proliferation of estate agents’ brochures featuring skies of unlikely blue and lawns of unlikely green have brought cynicism down to earth to become the stuff of our everyday lives. We are, I think, only a few years away from bringing up a new generation which is just as distrustful of photography as it is of every other medium. All of which again raises the question — if neither photography nor hand-made art has a claim to absolute authority any more, is it not time for art to start articulating anew the sorts of claims it can make most strongly and exclusively? Is there a way in which painting can pique our inbuilt curiosity about our fellow creatures by ‘making faces’ in a way that no mechanical means can hope to parallel? Are we looking at the end of a great and ancient tradition, or simply at yet more evidence of its flexibility and resilence?
Those, in any event, are big questions that will have to wait for another day. Yet it is somehow typical of Making Faces that one feels inclined to raise them in the first place. There are lots of oversized, bombastic, ‘blockbuster’ shows each year, most of which charge £7 or £8 a time to confer what they claim will be a unique, unforgettable, never-to-be-repeated experience. A few live up to this billing, more or less. Most, as the late Francis Haskell reminded us so powerfully in his final book, do no such thing. Making Faces makes no such claims, charges no such West End prices and has failed to dominate the media with its press-releases. Yet in its own modest, intelligent fashion, it manages to achieve that rare thing — not only making us look anew at the familiar, but in fact making us look anew at our whole way of looking.
Making Faces will remain at the National Gallery from 15 July – 26 September 2004. Admission is free. A brief catalogue is available for £3.50.