My love affair with portraits
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 May 2004)

In bookstores across Canada this month, the face of my first fantasy lover looks up defiantly from the fiction tables. Doubleday has chosen Augustus John's 1919 portrait of the Marchesa Luisa Casati to adorn the jacket of Russell Smith's third novel, Muriella Pent, about a Toronto widow with cultural aspirations.

One day around 1944, I fell in love with that portrait. I was in a group of school kids being escorted through what was then the Art Gallery of Toronto, now the Art Gallery of Ontario. Our guide stopped before John's portrait. Its romantic intensity caught me. Instantly, it became the first notable painting in my life.

John, one of the marchesa's many lovers, saw her as a sexy, dangerous hellion. Exhibitionism was her art form. By entering a room, she turned everyone else into a spectator. Her lovers were her favourite audience.

In the most pleasurable way, the marchesa disturbed my Toronto-reared sensibility. English-speaking Canada was then narrowly Protestant, and feelings were kept at a suitable distance. Our culture carried emotional reserve to an extreme -- we were at the lunatic fringe of mental health, so to speak.

In this stifling atmosphere, my affair with the marchesa turned me into a lover of portraits. I'm still among those who coast past landscapes and religious scenes in museums, then lock eyes with the personages painted by Titian, Holbein or Van Dyck, staring back through their faces at distant centuries and forgotten sensibilities.

Last week, when a new royal portrait became a sensation around the world, those who care about the painted image rejoiced. We were delighted by Stuart Pearson Wright's tender, eccentric rendering of a gaunt Prince Philip with scraggly grey chest hairs, accompanied by a bluebottle to symbolize the insects that will feast on the Prince's corpse in the not distant future -- a reminder of mortality, borrowed from medieval art.

Pearson Wright's picture was rejected, on grounds of taste, by the Royal Society that commissioned it. The artist obligingly provided them with a more conventional work but exhibited this one as well. The resulting journalistic noise confirmed my belief that photographs haven't entirely replaced portraits on canvas and that painters still have something to say about personality.

This version of the Prince explicitly illustrates that painting can do what photography can't. The photograph, no matter how subtle, conveys a single moment. A good painting, on the other hand, incorporates an infinity of moments, embodying the sitter's past and future. Gertrude Stein complained to Picasso that she didn't look like his portrait of her. He said, don't worry, you will; and sure enough, she eventually did.

The clamour over Prince Philip's picture recalled the controversy surrounding the portrait of the Queen painted in 2001 by Lucian Freud, the most admired British artist alive. While acknowledging HRH's stature by painting her in the diadem she wears on the currency, he also made it clear that she suffers under the weight of that crown. Through his eyes she looks worried and severe, stoic in a way, but perhaps also angry, as would be natural in a woman dragged through hell by her son, several other relatives and the relentless tabloids. Freud poured decades of her life into that little picture, just nine inches by six, and posterity will likely reward him by making it a permanently famous image -- even though one of royalty's most persistent tormentors, the London Sun, had the gall to call it "A Travesty, Your Majesty."

Freud knew enough to expect notoriety. He's old enough to remember 1954, when a distinguished painter, Graham Sutherland, suddenly became a household name by delivering an insult (as many saw it) to the greatest politician of the 20th century, Winston Churchill. Parliament had commissioned a Sutherland portrait as an 80th birthday present, but the gift proved unwelcome and unpopular.

Sutherland called himself "the kind of painter who is governed entirely by what he sees." What he saw, when Churchill sat for him while still recovering from a stroke, was an ancient lion in decline, a fierce warrior in slow, grudging acceptance of the inevitable defeat that awaits everyone.

Churchill was not pleased. In public he called it "a remarkable example of modern art" combining "force and candour," but every one of his words was drenched in sarcasm. And sometime after Churchill's wife got it home, she burnt it. Still, the drawings and oil studies remained with Sutherland. The image survives.

Charles Baudelaire, a notable art critic as well as a great poet, wrote in 1859 that a good portrait is a dramatized biography. It can speak of youth, vigour, maturity, frailty and final decay. In Canadian art the perfect example is Alex Colville's full-length nude self-portrait, complete with enormous body-long scars, the grim souvenirs of three major operations. Finished in 2000 during the week when he turned 80, it says: This is what it means to survive eight decades.

In Canada only a few artists (such as the late Lynn Donoghue) have had the audacity to inject more than superficial meaning into official portraits. Most have traditionally shown their subjects as the subjects wished to be but surely never were -- untroubled and self-satisfied. Walk the corridors of our great corporations, stroll the halls of our provincial legislatures, tour our universities, and you see business, political and academic leaders embalmed in oil on the walls. A collection of official portraits is usually a collection of visual lies.

To be even slightly true, a portrait will imply conflict, tension, and the failure that's usually mingled with success. Artists like Pearson Wright, Freud or Sutherland, refusing to ignore pain and regret, can't immediately please everyone. Instead they give us portraits charged with life and death. And when both subject and painter are gone, the portrait may still tell anyone who really looks at it: An actual human being lived within that skin. That's the point Augustus John made 85 years ago about the Marchesa Casati, and Pearson Wright made this spring about Prince Philip.

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