My hobbyhorse: Important newspaper removed its taboo on modern realism.
News: My work: in books, magazines, sites, exhibitions, art card, and as a finalist.
With my beloved companion I like to go to the mountains. Out of many memories, this one kept coming back: ‘Cheers!’
I commissioned a portrait by myself. Yes, that look, that expression! I strove for the highest likeness, because that expression could easiliy get lost by the slightest stroke, especially at the corner of the mouth. And the rest was linked to that. Should the sweater be blue? No, a different color. The light? Should be softer. I made myself subservient to the painting, in order to achieve what I looked for. Now the painting is hanging in my workshop.
You can liken a face to a rolling landscape. But beware of the folds to be too pronounced. Then you get lumps and bumps. ‘It’s him, but my, has he changed!’ used to be the sarcastic comment of my father-in-law in such occasions. He would certainly have made that remark about this portrait of Duke Adolph of Guelders.
‘Pity’, I thought about this self-portrait by Edvard Munch (1863–1944). The delicate painting touched me, but that clear spot at the corner of the mouth seems like a little lump. Munch consciously freed himself from the classical tradition, but still: more freedom shouldn’t imply to leave such a lump on the face? It’s like a wart on a chin, you can’t stop looking at it.
A good likeness first of all requires precise form. That is defined by light and darkness. In your mind’s eye, colors should translate into tones of grey. It helps looking thru your eyelashes. A black and white photo of the painting-to-be can help even more. Jeremy Lipking is a master in that translation process. I once witnessed him mixing colors in a demonstration of portrait painting. He was able to achieve subtle transitions quickly and seemingly without effort, also in the warmer and cooler colors. (See also my Blog 2, on his demonstration of portrait painting).
Whether you start with a detailed drawing, or with daubs, whether you work with fine or a broad touch, sharp obervation is in order. By precision I don’t mean very finely painted. Bertrand Desmaricaux makes a sketch from life, from the model Ange, who seems about to speak – you expect an ironic remark... Heart-warming colors, pride and elegance. Surely, Hegel couldn’t dissaprove of this?
Cannon-ball Man by René Tweehuysen, is ‘sure in form, with a loose touch’, with attention to the skin of an elderly man. Even the scar on his forehead is rendered carefully. The cannon-ball has a special meaning for the man. It makes this wonderful portrait unique.
Eh, the inner self
The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1710–1831) saw this very differently. He got all worked up over ‘horribly resembling portraits’ – says Norbert Schneider in ‘The Art of the Portrait: Masterpieces of European Portrait-Painting, 1420–1670’. *)
Schneider continues, quoting Hegel:
'Painters should embellish the portrayed person and leave out all kinds of external elements, so that ‘they observe and recreate the general character and the lasting spiritual qualities of the subject’. According to this view, the spiritual character was the most important in a picture of a human being.' (Id.)
So the artist should embellish, and show the general character – was Hegel a Photoshopper avant la lettre? Beautiful women, all streamlined according tot the general character of current fashion?
Wait: Hegel also mentiones the spiritual character and lasting spiritual qualities. I could agree with that. However, without the ‘external elements’? Should we abjure realism? Really?
Hegel’s influence on the arts was and is vast. After more than two centuries his spirit still dwells among us. In my artistic youth I learned: ‘Don’t loose yourself in technique, that is dead and dumb. A good likeness of a portrait is not so much art as craft.’ That makes sense, I thought. After all, I wasn’t studing plumbing.
‘But there has to be a likeness’, I doubted, and that was of course all about ‘external elements’.
‘Yes, there has to be a likeness to the internal character’, used to be the reply. ‘That is the essence. You have to work magic thru your intuition and your artistic sensitivity.’
‘Look for the feeling behind the surface. Does that person feel red? Who is afraid of red? Fear, confusion? Don’t make it too smooth. Besides, who will know this woman or man in person, a hundred years from now? Think: it will still be a beautiful painting!’ Yes – that’s the sort of advice you would get a lot. It’s still going on. There are courses in ‘intuitive portrait painting’, where you ‘dig up something from yourself’. The portrayed person is just a booby. Anyway, you can’t blame Hagel for these modern ideas.
However compelling the expression of sentiment in the self-portrait by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880 -1938), it is clear that the external resemblance has been sacrificed to self-expression. That was not a problem for Kirchner. He resisted the classical tradition. Nevertheless, I can certainly appreciate his self-portrait, as an expression of his emotions.
Where is the miracle?
The emotions of another person really can be guessed from his or her exterior, up to a certain point.
Medusa’ appearance, as painted by Caravaggio (1571-1610), clearly shows her emotion of the moment.
Darwin was also interested in the emotions that show themselves in the expression of the face. They are extremely important in survival. Is there a present danger? How does that person look at me?
The interesting thing is: you can see feelings. How? They are muscles! The face has about fifty of them. Together, they can make a few thousand combinations. Behold: there is the inner life appearing externally: anger, sadness, gladness. And the muscles around the mouth and the eyes create the finer nuances.
Mona Lisa’s famous smile is partly due to muscles in the cheeks, near the corners of the mouth. They are controlled by nerves, out of the brain – the feeelings, the inner life.
Here is the miracle.
The portrait painter observes and sees. The portrait comes to life!
Pure technique is indispensable. For getting the proportions right, for example. That means ‘unfeeling’ measurement, seeing the subject in its abstract form. There are more of these basic techniques that have little to do with feeling.
Portraits lacking feeling can also come about by being concerned only with measurements. Or by defective observation. When I looked again at one of my landscape painting from a while ago, I remarked to my alarm that I hadn’t noticed its flatness. And this, while I was at work outside, I was all caught up in the depth, the space... I was seeing the space, wasn’t I? Despite that observation in plein-air, I hadn’t noticed the flatness of the painting!
This reminds me of listening to music. It comes to you thru the ears. But can you really discern the combination of sounds? At any moment, and as a part of the whole? Some-one playing an instrument, especially an accomplished musician, can do that. So it is with painting. Observation and representation develop and refine themselves thru the years.
Besides, to see the nuances of feeling, the portrait painter herself needs sensibility. That is a personal quality, which is added tot the technique.
The recent colorful portrait Siena Palio by Yvonne Melchers, with a wonderful expression of matter, clearly exhibits emotions. You wonder what is going on in this young man’s mind. Is is mistrust, annoyance? Mixed feelings. You can’t be sure, just like in real life. This adds suspense to this lively portrait.
‘Where’s the art?’, is the question that is often put at well resembling and crafty portraits. There is the idea that the ‘free portrait’ is obviously art, and a craftful one is just ‘craft’. Certainly a well resembling portrait can be poor art, but the same goes for the ‘free portrait’. Or for a landscape, or a still life or any other genre for that matter.
So in the end it’s about the question: what is art? Great art, or not so great art? These are tricky questions, lots of nonsense have been said about them, and they lay outside the bounds of this article.
That a well resembling portrait is not automatically art, is an understandable view. In a landscape painting, the artist can move around trees and mountains for the sake of harmony, expression, beauty. Nobody will be the wiser: it’s just a question of applying the rules of art. That is how it transcends mere copying. The requirement of resemblance in a portrait however is much more compelling. And limiting. Precision can lead to freezing – but not necessarily so.
Frans Hals used to paint more freely when he wasn’t dealing with a commissioned portrait. Maybe we should call it a face or a genre piece in stead of a portrait. Anyhow, as the great artist he was, Hals was also able to make great art out of well resembling portraits. And what about Rembrandt...
An example of a free and ‘tied’ work is the phantasy-rich Byzantium by Julio Reyes
He is exhibiting a wonderful play in this sublime painting with distemper and oil and goes a long way in free expression. At the same time it is true to form.
From this account you might deduce I am a dogmatic believer in realism. Should I point out that I am not? There are many roads that lead to Rome. Expressionism is one of many other approaches that one may enjoy, without being an in-depth psychologist. It makes no sense to apply the measuring-staff of realistic precision to more expressionist art. Neither does the other way round. One day this last form will speak for and from itself. It’s about the quality within a certain style.
I wanted to explain here that it is feasible to convey facial expressions by observing carefully the outer signals, where the facial muscles can reveal the inner life. A miracle of the human body!
*) Norbert Schneider, Portretschilderkunst. Meesterwerken uit de Europese portretschilderkunst 1420-1670, p.14.
**) Wikipedia, Medusa Murtola
My thanks to Jeremy Lipking, Yvonne Melchers, René Tweehuysen, Bertrand Desmaricaux and Julio Reyes for their permission to cite their work.
And thanks to Yvonne Melchers, Jeroen Strengers and Nico van Niekerk for their comments on the text.
The stubborn taboo of De Volkskrant on modern realism is vanishing quietly. Sometimes there is even appreciation! Surprisingly, Wieteke van Zeil wrote positively on Henk Helmantel, once called an objectionable traditionalist. She noted some children’s reactions:
‘Nevertheless, they hang around in front of the meditative painings of Henk Helmantel. I noted their gaze slowing down, as they underwent the atmosphere of the paintings. Such an atmosphere that film directors would consciously conserve, for their next movie.’
Volkskrant 30 oktober 2020
In 2020 till now, my work has been included in books, magazines, sites like Museum of Art, exhibitions (Møhlmann, MEAM), art-card; also as finalist in international competitions. See pages website.
Translation NL-EN: Jeroen Strengers