Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Turning the other cheek: Renaissance Faces

The National Gallery has a quite incredible exhibition on at the moment: Renaissance Faces, Van Eyck to Titian (until January 18). There is no shortage of masterpieces, both familiar - Holbein's The Ambassadors and Titian's Philip II - and less well-known - Vermeyen's Portrait of a Man (c.1540) with his delicate fingers and Gossaert's allusive A Little Girl (c.1530).

As with other shows (such as Citizens and Kings at the Royal Academy), you cannot fault the art on display, but there is one aspect of the curating which lets the show down. The thematic arrangement (identity, courtship, love, etc) is useful for comparing the various uses of portraiture, which can often seem like one face after another, so many ornate playing cards.

This failing aspect is the neglect of much of the artistic and art-historical theory (as opposed to social, political or historical purposes) behind these portraits. In the first room ('Remembering'), which shows the evolution of the portrait from side-view to Botticelli's divine Portrait of a Young Man (c.1480-5), a frontal slide of a youth the colour of fine porcelain, what seems to be a fundamental point of this changed technique is ignored: artists did not just turn the head after the fashion of Classical busts (tho' obviously this is important) but because it engaged the viewer.

The real revolution in portraiture is the third dimension, you might call it - to painter and sitter is added viewer, in a much more realistic manner than previous passivity for side-on portraits. By turning the face towards the viewer, we are forced to search the face and to consider ourselves relative to it. It is more than a medallion - it is a challenge. To demonstrate this change from 2D to 3D with such great paintings but such a theoretical motivation is to sell it short.

The aspect of symbolism and physiognomical convention is explored but not pursued as far as it could be. Pisanello's Portrait Medal of Leonello d'Este (c.1441) has a kingly lion, while the Gossaert features the ubiquitous symbol, the armillary sphere, representing temporal power. Women are shown with fine noble features to emphasise their own nobility, and vice versa as with Quentin Massys's ugly, lusty crone, An Old Woman (c.1513).

The questions this leads to is, How far can we trust portraits, and how far is their purpose even to represent? The opportunities for deception are noted, and Titian's Pope Paul III, bareheaded, bowed, broken, is a good counterblast to the idealism elsewhere, but limbo feels like the default state: the balance between nature and stature is not that often considered. As time passed, are we meant to assume that portraits became more accurate? It would be nice to have heard some critical voices on how important accuracy even was.

These are, as I said, not cavils with the quality of the art. It just seems that with such serious works on show, a more serious approach - instead of easily digestible thematic chunks - would have rounded out the exhibition.

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