Walking around most art museums, it is easy to find works of art depicting people, painted or drawn from life. Through the centuries, portraiture has documented royal dynasties, social hierarchies, and changes in fashion. Often associated with commercial enterprise, commissions from wealthy patrons historically offered artists a means of financial security and the results have produced some of the most extraordinary portraits in the history of western art, by artists such as Holbein, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Gainsborough - to name but a very few.
Portraiture – and self-portraiture – has also, necessarily, been a highly revealing enterprise. This is especially true of images made in the twentieth century, when the notion of identity was extensively and rigorously examined. Modern and contemporary portraiture often focuses on the excavation of the modern psyche and the exploration of issues of gender, religion, race and sexuality. This is particularly true of artists such as Mapplethorpe and Arbus who, in different ways, confronted social and moral questions with great frankness.
Perhaps more than any other artist, Diane Arbus’s photographs taken in the 1960s demonstrate an extraordinary capacity to uncover the full compass of humanity. Arbus’s aim was to ‘photograph everyone’. She frequently made portraits of people living in the margins of society, and through a direct engagement and empathy with the people she photographed, and unswerving, frontal gaze, Arbus created images that still have the ability to move audiences today.
Mapplethorpe’s interest in portraiture stemmed from his concern with the beauty of the human form. Much of his work has a strongly classical and sculptural quality. Highly staged, and carefully lit, he frequently drew from religious iconography, often transforming his sitters into modern day saints.
Portraiture frequently offers a frame of historical reference, acting as a memorial to a lost era - Richter’s monumental 48 Portraits commemorates a great faces of the twentieth century. This work also challenges the idea of portraiture as painting from life – the images were painted from pictures in an encyclopaedia, and later the paintings were photographed. Richter not only interrogates his sitters but the medium through which they are presented. He frequently took sources from magazines and photographs in this way to examine the mediation between different forms of visual communication and to question the validity of painting. This use of portraiture as a means through which to examine the process of painting is relevant within contemporary practices.
Alex Katz’s portraits of his friends and family from the 1970s onwards led to a revival of painterly-ness and a move towards realism, at a time when artworks had become increasingly ephemeral and abstracted. Artists have frequently made images of their peers and the people they knew. Mapplethorpe and Warhol’s portraits of stars and other artists suggest a desire to capture the quality of fame and celebrity, while hinting at compelling narratives of the artists’ personal lives and their private circles.
The portrait of the artist developed with particular power and force in the twentieth century. The iconic image of the maker – whether as mystic or as everyman – has had a profound effect on contemporary culture and in many cases have become synonymous with the output of the artist. Within ARTIST ROOMS there is a striking self-reference in portraits of and by certain artists: Gilbert & George by Warhol and Richter; Mapplethorpe by Warhol; Warhol by Mapplethorpe; Warhol by Warhol; Beuys by Warhol and Beuys. Together these provide a unique snapshot into a particular moment in time and allude to the wider relationships between artists.
Self-portraits by artists have had multiple lives and uses: as therapy, as honest unveilings, or the site for masquerade and deception. In Warhol’s self-portraits he used disguise and theatricality to stage his personality. There is also pathos and uncertainty, particularly in his Self-Portrait with Skull in which Warhol takes the art historical memento mori. This symbol was also used by Mapplethorpe in one of his last self-portraits in which he holds a walking stick carved into a skull. The self-portraits in ARTIST ROOMS by Mapplethorpe and Warhol, and also by Francesca Woodman, are poignant and prophetic testaments to the fact that portraiture often serves as a reminder of our own mortality. While portraits present the face of another, the most effective and profound images draw our attention back to our own identity and existence.