The many masks of modern art

As far as painting is concerned, this has not been a particular good century for portraiture. We have been a bit too self-obsessed and too concerned with formal matters in art to devote a great deal of time or thought to capturing another person's character and likeness on canvas.

And besides, photography can still do it cheaper and faster.

Even so, portraiture has remained an important factor in 20th-century art.

Not perhaps in the sense earlier centuries viewed it: as an art devoted to recording pride in accomplishment -- personal, public, or royal, -- but, rather, as a means of probing into and of searching behinds the facade we humans traditionally present to one another as we go about our daily affairs.

We need only go back to the turn of the century to see how rapidly things changed after 1900 -- to John Singer Sargent's portraits of elegantly gowned and bejeweled ladies in darkened, genteel surroundings, and portly, dark-suited, and immaculately white-shirted gentlemen casually showing off their power and wealth.

Not that people didn't continue to dress up and show off; it's just that the best artistic talents were no longer recording it for posterity.

Whereas just a quarter-century before, artists of the stature of Degas, Manet , Renoir, and Lautrec had felt perfectly at home painting ladies and gentlemen in formal attire, the artists after 1900, as a rule, did not. Art, they felt, had better things to do.

Here, as in so many other areas. Edvard Munch led the way.

At first glance the portraits he painted immediately before and after 1900 have much the same formal, lazy elegance found in the works of Sargent, Boldini, and other society portraits of the period. But if one looks closely, the self-assurance and easy acceptance of position, so typical of Sargent's subjects , have been replaced by a subtle mood of anxiety, melancholy, and self-doubt.

This mood rapidly became quite general, and by the end of World War I, portraiture's focus had shifted from the portrayal of flashy social facade to nervous, interior gropings for evidences of individuality. Oskar Kokoschka's early portraits of the intellectuals of Austria and Germany make one wonder if a more unstable group of individuals had ever before assembled in such close proximity. And Egon Schiele was not far behind; he managed to make even a sleeping old man look restless and agitated in his 1916 "Portrait of Johann Harms."

Objectivity became the rallying cry in the early 1920s during what amounted to an international realist backlash that found primary expression in Germany's "Neue Sachlichkeit"m ("New Objectivity") movement. But it was a highly selective and subjective kind of "objectivity" that Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Max Beckmann advocated, one that was stark, acidic, and of the greatest urgency. Individuality became a matter of bristling alienation and hostility, and character was defined as the ability to survive the most awful circumstances.

Suspicion, distrust, and a general retreat from human warmth characterize the portraits produced by the leading European artists of the 1920s and 1930s. And this was even true of portraits intended primarily as formal exercises. The then-fashionable insistence on reshaping human form into patterns derived from geometry did little to retrieve the sense of human dignity extracted from portraiture toward the end of the 19th century.

As always, however, there were exceptions. Georges Rouault, in a series of lithographs executed during this period, produced a handful of humane and compassionate portraits. And Picasso, in any number of brilliant portrait drawings, proved that the portrayal of human character and formal innovation need not be mutually exclusive.

But these, together with Kollwitz, Balthus, Giacometti, and a few others were definitely in the minority. By and large, portraiture had become a peripheral activity, something artists did to earn extra money -- or to the extent of a self-portrait or a study for a friend.

Graham Sutherland's attempts to bring dignity back to portraiture after World War II did little to stimulate the art. While the works themselves were exceptional, public and private response to them was indifferent at best, and, as in the case of his excellent portrait of Winston Churchill, decidedly hostile and negative.

Even the very recent explosion of New-Realist art has done little for portraiture, for the simple reason that its artists are, by and large, more interested in the formal qualities of the human body than in its uniquely human character and personality.

And so portraiture today has pretty much been left in the hands of a few highly individualistic, even idiosyncratic, painters such as Alice Neel, Andrew Wyeth, Francis Bacon, Ivan Albright, and Larry Rivers -- and in the hands of a few of the cooler realists such as Jack Beal and Alfred Leslie.

By and large they have done well by it, although their impact on the portraiture of the future appears minimal, for we seem once again to have entered a period within which the portraiture of manners has taken precedence over the portraiture of character.

The highly touted portraits of Andy Warhol and Alex Katz are as flashy and surface oriented as the emptiest of the society portraits Sargent and Boldini painted roughly a century ago.

And Chuck Close represents the ultimate irony of 20th- century portraiture: total obedience to the cult of authenticity -- in this case the slavish copying of a photographic likeness as a premise for the creation of a work of art. And the result? A mocking mask of utter banality.

No, this has not been a particularly good century for portraiture -- at least as far as painting is concerned. We have, however, had more than the normal share of good self-portraits.m But then, that's not surprising, considering that this has been a century in which most of our best artists looked inward, probing for answers to the turbulences of the world around them. With this as their primary concern, there just wasn't time enough to look deeply at their fellow man.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.