THE FACE IN TENSION, PORTRAYING PORTRAYAL
by Andrea Pinotti
The image of the human face presents itself to us as a force field crossed by countless unresolved tensions. Creating a figure of the face, portraying it, means taking up a millenary challenge each time, one that has inspired artists since anti- quity. In each case it means engaging once more with those forces, which are polarized into pairs of extremes. If we consider the very term for the representation of a face in the various European languages, it immediately emerges as intimately dialectical, poised between movement towards the interior and movement towards the exterior: while the Italian “ritratto” and the Spanish “retrato” echo retraho (retain, protect, safe- guard), what survives in the term “portrait” – used in both English and French – and the German “Porträt” is protraho (bring out, make emerge, reveal).
In his masterpiece The Golden Bough, James Frazer tells us that for so-called primitive mentalities (which, however, also distinguish many modern populations) the portrait – be it historical or photographic – is seen as an image that imprisons something of the person portrayed: it takes it away and, at the same time, it entraps a part of the subject’s life. It is certainly no accident – as Ernst Jünger emphasized – that the first verbal form used in the German language for the act of photographing was abnehmen, meaning to remove, to take away. Hence the potential violence implied in the act of portraying: bringing out something that wants to withdraw.
This dual movement manifested in portraiture – the emergence of something that withdraws – introduces us to a further tension, among the most radical to cross through ancient theories of the image: the one juxtaposing representation of the visible with figuration of the invisible. Xenophon tells us that when Socrates went to visit the painter Parrhasius, they discussed the ultimate aim of painting. While agreeing with the artist that painting is the imitation of things that can be seen, the philosopher is said to have added that this imitative process can also address the invisible, that is, the character of the soul and its sentiments, which reveal themselves to the outside through one’s eyes and gaze. Aristotle referred to the painter Polygnotus as ethographos, as he was able to render one’s ethos or character. Moreover, Pliny narrates that Zeuxis succeeded in portraying Penelope’s inner qualities (mores). Pliny also tells us that Timanthes, who depicted the tragedy of Iphigenia, was forced to cover her father’s face with a veil because he had run the entire gamut of expressions of sadness in portraying the other characters’ faces. In turn, Aristides of Thebes, the first ethographos capable of painting the spirit and passions, achieved the height of expressiveness when he painted the anguish on the face of a dying mother who feared that the child at her breast would suckle blood instead of milk.
We could continue to cite other ancient anecdotes that, along the same lines, incessantly vary the feeling of admiration we have always felt regarding the ability to render interiority – the spiritual in the material – through lines and colours. In this sense, the human face constitutes the quintessential force field in which the tension between the visible and the invisible is manifested and may even be reconciled: in other words, in its being part of the body (and thus fully visible) yet at the same time a privileged place in which the invisible soul (character, the stable personality and even the fleeting mood) is revealed. This is the place where the invisible inside comes out visibly. When it comes to faithfully capturing this transition from inside to out, legend has it that certain artists had absolutely no compunction. The aforesaid Parrhasius supposedly tortured a prisoner so he could truthfully portray a face racked by pain. It is said that Michelangelo even crucified a young man so he could effectively depict his agony.
From Parrhasius to Michelangelo, we have spanned a large part of history, from antiquity to the Renaissance. Despite the many centuries separating these two eras, however, the challenge taken up by artists somehow remains the same: succee- ding in rendering the invisible spirit using the lines and colours offered to the eyes of the observer. Leonardo also confirmed this in his Treatise on Painting: a good painter must paint two main things, man and that which is “expressive of his mind”. If he does not succeed, then he will produce figures that are “twice dead”: first because they are painted and thus not living, and second because they are incapable of expressing the vitality of their character.
Thus, when I look at a portrait, this establishes a circularity that is wholly similar to the one experienced when I look another person in the face. I only know about their inside, their soul, starting from the outside, from their facial features, and yet these external features (the turn of the mouth, that wrinkle, the asymmetrical eyebrows) are meaningful only if I understand them as an expression of that person’s interiority. As observed by Georg Simmel, a philosopher who, in the early twentieth century, devoted insightful pages to the subject of the face and portraiture, this is not a vicious circle but a virtuous one – indeed, the only chance we are given to understand the other person.
But if the portrait is alive, then that means it can also be killed. Pope Pius II recounted that in 1462 his bitter enemy Sigismondo Malatesta was put on trial for lèse-majesté of the pontiff. However, given that the “wicked and iniquitous man” had been tried in absentia the pope settled for burning an image – in front of Saint Peter’s – reproducing the man’s features so faithfully that it seemed to be him in flesh and blood. Therefore, in the second half of the fifteenth century the medieval custom of executiones in effigie was still used, bringing us to the magical power of images in general and of portraits in particular. Far from being mere representations of their models, at times they took their place, standing in for them and serving in their stead: true doubles.
If an image can serve the purpose of sending someone to the afterlife, at times it can also call that person back to this life. We are talking about the vogue of spirit photographs inaugurated by William H. Mumler in the 1860s. These images, which exploited double exposure, were passed off as capturing the ectoplasm of the dead evoked from the realm of the dead during séances. In 1911 James Coates published a book entitled Photographing the Invisible (a topic that brings us back to the dialectic of visible and invisible that was our starting point). We would be wrong to relegate these beliefs to the anthropology of primitive cultures, whose traces have allegedly survived in a wan modern version, perhaps in the form of folkloristic superstitions or exotic voodoo practices. The magical significance of the portrait, which nineteenth- century literature drew on very effectively (with The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and The Portrait by Nikolai Gogol), conti- nues to be manifested even today when, in destroying the picture of a person dear to us (cutting up or burning a photograph, or simply deleting it from our computer), we are overcome by an irrepressible sense of discomfort. This proves just how much this power – above and beyond evolving mentalities and technological progress – is innate in images and portraits in particular.
In particular: because, in portraiture, what emerges in its greatest radical- ness is the experience we have of the image not as a mere object, a thing among other things, but as a quasi-subject with which we engage in a relationship that is somehow similar to the one we would establish with another person. It is a truly empathetic rela- tionship, as long as we do not consider this term in the simplistic feel-good way that so often marks discussions on empathy today. In fact, this is not about all of us making up in front of a glass of wine, but of grasping the other person in his or her irreducible extraneousness, which can strike a chord in us in a relationship of both harmony and dissonance.
The portrayed face concentrates this possibility at the greatest level in the representation of the eyes, which – uncoincidentally – are traditionally considered the mirror of the soul. The portrait we observe observes us, and it has to do with us. Or perhaps the eyes we see portrayed look away from us, turn elsewhere, exclude us from the intercourse of exchanged glances. Studying the genre of group portraits in seven- teenth-century Dutch art, Alois Riegl noted that among the portrayed figures gazing at each other there is often at least one who looks out directly at the spectator. This creates unity on a dual level: internal, of the figures among themselves in the fictional space of the image; external, of the space of the image that, through the bridge created by looking towards the outside, forms solidarity with the observers’ real space, making them participants in the represented scene.
The dialectic of this dual orientation can be found well outside Dutch pain- ting whenever we are dealing with the direction of the glance in the image, and thus also in photography. We can consider the interplay of glances concentrated in the grie- ving lamentation around the corpse of Nasimi Elshani in the so-called Kosovo Pietà by Georges Mérillon. We can consider this volume of portraits by Max Cardelli sub specie oculi: in other words, concentrating on the glances of his models, who at times look us straight in the eye but in other cases lower their eyes in a form of modesty or shyness, and in yet others look elsewhere and even avoid us, turning their backs on us.
Michael Fried proposed two terms to refer to the polar extremes of this complex interplay of glances: theatricality and absorption. In the first case, the portrayed figures seek the eyes of the observer, to draw him or her into their representative game; in the second, they mind their own business, so to speak, and act as if they didn’t even realize they were being observed. As if, because, as Richard Avedon said, a photo- graphic portrait (but we could extend this argument to painted portraits) is “a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed”.
But to whom does this face belong, this face that, turning to us or refu- sing to meet our eyes, comes towards us in an image? As we know, a face does not suffice to create a portrait. Hans Georg-Gadamer keenly observed that when we are looking at a portrait, we realize that it is indeed a portrait and not a genre painting (the fishwife, the nobleman, the soldier, the array of professional figures put together by the photographer August Sander in his People of the 20th Century) even though we do not know the individual represented in that image. In genre images, the flesh-and-blood model, with name and surname, must vanish from the painting, become universal and serve as a human type. A genre painting in which the model can be recognized is a failure. Instead, a portrait is a portrait, and it does not become so only when I can give the figure an identity. We can even recognize – the sublime paradox of the portrait – someone we have never known.
Thus, what does a portrait do with a portrait? Could it be the fine physiognomic sense that Diderot and Hegel demanded of every good painter? Evoking physiognomics means opening up a very complex chapter in our cultural history. In its centuries- old development, which goes from the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise Physiognomics to Giambattista Della Porta, Charles Le Brun, Lavater, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Klages and Kassner, and culminating in visual criminology, the tradition of physiogno- mics is polarized in the tension between type and individual, diverging between the extremes of the universal stereotype (practised par excellence by medical, psychiatric and legal semiotics) and the expression of unique distinctiveness (that can only involve portraiture in the strictest sense). Recourse to the photographic device in criminology is highly instructive in this regard, because it interprets the polarity between indivi- dual and type in an exemplary way. Towards the late nineteenth century, Alphonse Bertillon, head of the identification service of the Prefecture of Police in Paris, deve- loped the so-called portrait parlé, an identikit combining fingerprinting with a front and profile portrait of the criminal, along with a written description of the person’s distinctive physical features. This ground-breaking method of the modern mugshot, which would become famous with the name of bertillonage, aimed at cataloguing the individual criminal. During this same period, Cesare Lombroso collected photographs and death masks (in both cases they are imprints – the former with light and the latter with wax – to index criminals’ faces). The aim was to arrive at the “criminal type”, a series of shared physical features that would make it possible to identify the typical murderer, rapist, counterfeiter, thief and so on.
When one aspires to some form of taxonomy, classification or generaliza- tion, this individual is irremediably lost along with their life, story, actions and passion, the inseparable traces of which are borne on their face (in essence, individual and not shareable because they pertain to them alone). Yet we know this from our everyday experience, as we approach others in their individuality also classifying them based on types and stereotypes; we encounter individuality in the context of a generality, on the basis of which alone this can stand out as a figure against the background. As is evident, this issue also affects official portraits, which are often idealized, delegated to render the individual in their political, social or religious role, in the authoritativeness of their position: a task that must negotiate between rendering individuality and genre conventions.
This polar tension between type and individual – which is negotiated on a case-by-case basis, arriving at fragile and provisional compromises – converges into a broader tension that restricts and opposes a pair of concepts that our minds have always questioned: the one and the many. If you think about it, I am unquestionably me, I am myself as an individual. And yet, to take up Pirandello, I am one hundred thousand: I am a bundle of actions and reactions, of phases and events, of changing moods and bodily transformations. I am a multiplicity that unfolds over time, conver- ging in the unity of self. More often than not, this convergence is conflictual, lacerated, imperfect and rough around the edges, as emphasized by Rimbaud and Freud, inter alia.
It is precisely from the standpoint of temporality that the different possibi- lities of the portrait can be divided. And its difficulties also differ. Among the German idealists, Hegel admired Dürer because he was an artist who was miraculous at rende- ring life in its entirety using only a few strokes. In turn, Schelling was convinced that true portraiture did not consist of the commonplace imitation of the human face, but of summarizing in a single moment all the individual actions and moments crossing a lifetime. In this way, the portrait would resemble someone even more closely than they would resemble themselves in the individual moments of their life. Inheriting these philosophers’ aspiration for the whole yet also considering it impossible to truly achieve, Benedetto Croce arrived at a bizarre conclusion: if every portrait resembles its model at a particular moment in a person’s life, a perfect resemblance would be possible only through an entire series of portraits executed or potentially executed in each moment of that person’s life (and what anachronistically come to mind here are examples that Croce had no way of knowing, from the Brown Sisters photographed by Nicholas Nixon every year since 1974 to the photographer who, in Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty, exhibits his face photographed every day of his life starting from birth). Indeed, a photographer Croce could actually have encountered, Aleksander Mikhailovich Rodchenko, warned: “Don’t try to capture a man in one synthetic portrait, but rather in lots of snapshots taken at different times and in different circumstances.”
To better understand the tension that, in the force field of portraiture, arises between representation of the instant and the summary of an entire life, we must once again turn to Simmel’s discerning analysis regarding the way a spatial art such as painting (but we can also extend this to photography) makes the temporality that constitutes life itself – life that is manifested in the transformations of the body in general and the face in particular – a visible expression. Pondering the possible modula- tions of pairs of opposites that are expressed in portraiture (being-becoming, form-life, stagnation-movement), the German philosopher chose three emblematic cases that paradigmatically identify three solutions of the compromise between these extremes.
The first is offered by Renaissance art, as we find it represented by famous works such as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Titian’s Portrait of a Young Englishman. This “classic” approach to portraying the human being, shifted entirely to the pole of being, entails isolating a specific moment in life, which is extracted from the incessant flow of vital moments and is stylized in an idealization. The aim here is to render the atemporal, the universal, which are frozen in the present. This is why many Renaissance portraits seem enigmatic to us. The artist disregards the life path culminating in the specific moment that is captured, ignoring the tangle of past and destiny, contingency and need, leading to that face, to those features. The figure looks “reserved” precisely because he reserves the right not to reveal his life. According to Simmel, Michelangelo was a master of this approach, the quintessential artist of impersonal typicality. For him, life is always the life of humankind in general, never an individual existence; all his figures are universal.
At the opposite end, in the heart of modernity, we find the art of Rodin, devoted entirely to portraying the becoming. The sculptor abandons himself to Heraclites’ flux, the incessant passage of time that, devoid of memory and of a connec- tion between past and future, always concentrates on the moment of the pure present. It is the fleeting moment of life, without a before and without an after, that is parado- xically captured here in the figure. And along with the moment is the instantaneous mood, the pathos of the moment, captured like a snapshot, and more the object of pathognomonics (the study of the transitory effect) than of physiognomics (investiga- tion of permanent character).
In between these two extremes is Rembrandt. The great portraitist (and self- portraitist) certainly captured the individual moment of the face. But in this moment (as in every moment of life) there is life as a whole. This face – in this expression, here and now – is the result of the unrepeatable and highly unique path that produced it. The present thus embraces all of the past and is projected towards the future. Simmel notes that this is why Rembrandt’s faces seem perfectly comprehensible to us. They can be read like an open book, and the page that has been captured sums up all the prece- ding pages as well as those that follow. This is why his best portraits are those of old men and young people. If every moment of life is life as a whole, this holds true both looking back and looking ahead. The height of a life already lived is concentrated in the old men’s faces; in the faces of young people (such as the portraits of his son Titus) we find the height of life yet to be lived. What resounds here is the ancient motif of the metopòskopoi, prophets who, starting from Apelles’ portraits, could determine how many years the portrayed person had left to live and how many had already elapsed.
This aspiration is certainly not foreign to photography. Philippe Halsman said that, in portraits, he tried to render “the visual symbol for the entire personality of [his] subject”. If symballein means staying together, the portrait that captures the moment contains the three temporal ecstasies of present, past and future. This also calls to mind Roland Barthes, who said that “the great portrait photographers are the great mythologists”. If mythos is history, story, narration, then the portrait photographer is the one who, in the image of a face, condenses the story of an entire life, past and future.
So far we have discussed painted portraits, extending the argument to photographic ones and vice versa. Should we have done that? At first glance, one might say both yes and no.
Yes, because historically the photographic portrait evolved from the painted one (inheriting the physiognomic problems we discussed), in an intricate rapport of emulation and competition between media that stirred the late nineteenth century above all, and then presented itself again in various forms in the decades that followed, up to today. Pictorialism (photography that seeks to imitate painting) and photorealism (painting that strives to simulate photography) are the extremes marking this force field in tension, in which a particularly relevant moment is represented by those painters who did not base their work directly on flesh-and-blood models, but on the mediation of photographs, as was the case, mutatis mutandis, with Edgar Degas and Francis Bacon. For those in a hurry who are looking for shortcuts, today the process is instantaneous: just download an app, the Prisma photo editor, and in a matter of seconds you can transform your own photo portrait into a work à la Munch or à la Roy Lichtenstein.
No, because we are talking precisely about different media that articulate the visual dimension with different techniques, materials and forms. Particularly with regard to the photographic image, it has been emphasized at various points that, as opposed to the painter, who can work starting from memory or imagination, there must be something or someone in front of the camera (be it analogue or digital) in order to obtain a “photo-graph” (as the etymology of the word suggests, “writing with light” that records the imprint of the object on the support). The nature of photography as an “index” (referring, as a result, to the cause that produced it) is associated with its power as an “icon”, of the greatest possible resemblance between the image and what the image is an image of. In everyday language, we often hear people compliment very realistic paintings with words such as, “That’s beautiful! It looks just like a photograph!”
Because of its indexical nature, many authors have underscored the lethal character of photography. Roland Barthes referred to the photograph as a troubling “return of the dead” and Susan Sontag defined it as a “melancholy object”. Even if taken a second earlier with a mobile phone, the photographic portrait offers me a person’s face in their irremediable past being; the way the image shows me this face, I will never see it again, as it pertains to the “has been” of that human being. As Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace”.
But, again because of its indexical nature, from the very beginning the photo- graph has been associated with the representation of truth, the documentation of reality: “It really happened because we have a picture of it!” Except that we are forced to admit – historical data at hand – that, by its very nature, a photograph can always be manipulated, touched up, transformed (and this was the case long before the advent of Photoshop).
So how is the relationship between image and truth structured, viewed particularly in light of the photographic portrait? In other words, the portrait that, in the words of Edward Weston, is supposed “to record the essential truth of the subject; not to show how this person looks, but to show what he is”. In this regard, the photo- graphic portrait has often been interpreted as the decline – or even death – of the true portrait. In its cold and objective impartiality, in its quantitatively determinable viewpoint, a mechanical apparatus could only render a passive imprint of the face in front of the camera, without being able to compete with the warm expressive rende- ring of character, considered the exclusive prerogative of the portrait painter. From a historical standpoint, this mechanical vision of photography may have been under- standable at the dawn of this medium (when, as is always the case with the advent of new optical devices, its novelty arouses both enthusiasm and fear), but it seems profoundly reactionary and grotesque when, as sometimes happens, you still hear it repeated today. As if the photographer is merely one who clicks a button and cannot tap into an array of modulations of the image (both analogue and digital) fully compa- rable with those of a painter. As if there were no difference whatsoever between the impersonal machine that spits out passport photos (which are so objective that, para- doxically, no one recognizes themselves) and the portrait of my face that photographers can take – naturally putting something of their own – their own – into it, in which all I can do is grasp something of my own. As Avedon observed, “A portrait is not a like- ness.... All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth”. Because the “fact” is transfigured by the “opinion” of the photographer.
A book of photographic portraits like the one you are examining now represents the definitive confutation of the theory that portraiture has declined in the transition from painting to photography. At the same time, this confutation also justi- fies the possibility of referring, together, to the painted portrait and the photographic one as portraits. In other words, we are talking about images that are not mimetically faithful reproductions of the exterior features of a face, but that reflect the dialectical process of retraho/protraho we discussed in the beginning: extracting, and expressing in an image, what is behind the face being portrayed. Therefore, in the portrait we find not only what we would have seen if we had simply looked the model in the face, but something else, something more, that can only come to life in the image. To borrow the paradoxical quip of photographer Imogen Cunningham, “The thing that’s fascinating about portraiture is that nobody is alike”. In the portrait, the portrait arrives at knowing and making known (to the observer and even to the person portrayed) something that not even the models knew about themselves before seeing it expressed in an image.
So let’s venture into one last parallel between painting and photography, which is also a question to the photographer who is offering his portraits here. A proverb that was very common in Tuscany in the late fifteenth century and then spread to the European artistic culture went: “Every painter paints himself.” Therefore, the portrait is not only the visible trace of the invisible soul of the people represented, but also a display of the painter’s soul: a self-portrait. This proverb was used long after the Renaissance and into the twentieth century. Drawing on the words of Paul Valéry, Merleau-Ponty said that the painter takes his body with him when he paints. The image always and inseparably brings with it the eye of the person who produced it, as well as his hand, his manner. Could it be any different with photography? In this final tension between portrait and self-portrait we thus ask ourselves (and him) if in all the portraits we are contemplating here we are also seeing the eye, hand and face of Max Cardelli.