The idea that the bourgeois self exists through the portrait allows us to revisit another commonplace of portrait criticism. Earlier I betrayed dissatisfaction with some blind spots of materialist criticism. But this isn’t to say at all that subjective-emotive art criticism has all the right answers. One of its core assumptions is that a portrait records a preexisting personality; that it serves as a personal mirror. ‘A private dialogue, a lonely old man communicating with himself while he painted’, is how one critic explains Rembrandt’s late self-portraits.
This idea is both obvious and untrue. First of all, a portrait is much more than a channel of communication; it is an act of creation. A mirror relays a pre-existing likeness, whereas a portrait creates one. Moreover as intimate and personal as a self-portrait may be, it is never a ‘private dialogue’. There is little about a portrait that is merely inward or private. Painting is a hands-on activity that generates a concrete artefact. In the work of art the subjective objectifies itself, and the inner becomes outer. Self-portraiture secretly wants an audience; it asks a public to ratify from the outside who one takes oneself to be on the inside. This way of cultivating external forms throws into doubt the notion of some internally looped personal self.
Far from being inward, a self-portrait requires a painter to adopt an external viewpoint. The artist depicts himself not by looking inward but by looking at what other people see. Self-depiction here is filled with the acknowledgement of other people’s gaze. It is a confession about the ghostliness of the so-called inner self. Had Rembrandt possessed perfect self-transparency, it is unlikely he would have returned again and again to the mirror over his seventy-eight selfportraits. Rembrandt wasn’t himself until he painted himself. And more than a means to construct an identity, self-portraiture was internal to his sense of self. It was just what it felt like to be Rembrandt. There is a hint of this in his working method. Not for Rembrandt the job of merely capturing his own likeness. The stakes were higher: it was a matter of finding himself. As a pupil described, Rembrandt never began a portrait by contouring or defining his general features but rather by ‘violent, flurried strokes … Painting by means of these strokes, he worked so slowly, and completed his things with a tardiness and toil never equalled by anybody’.13 Rembrandt didn’t ‘block’ the face and then fill it in.
He didn’t have a theoretic overview of a likeness; human presence was something he needed to paint his way into, layering and moulding one brushstroke at a time, building towards a climax of recognition that came, or not, at the end of three months, often more, a delay not every Amsterdam patron was willing to endure, which is perhaps why Rembrandt so frequently turned to the long-suffering mirror. Rembrandt worked ad hoc, resisting the easy lure of summarily sizing up the sitter. Hence the iterative paint strokes, the clotted, glutinous, lumpy texture of his surfaces, particularly of the late period. They are of faces travelled through, explored, delved into. Above all, they are incorporate faces, heavy with mortal flesh, with ageing and physicality. We can see the welts of paint laid on, one after the other. We feel the toil, and the duration of making enters the portrait and time becomes one of its dimensions. These searching, overlapping strokes are like a process of approaching; they ask permission for ingress. They are the work of acquaintance.
They acknowledge the perfectible, never perfected labour of adjusting to a reality that is more commanding and elusive than painting itself, though it requires painting to come into its own. That reality is the face—civic bourgeois identity in the flesh.
This long, drawn-out painterly labour is a lesson to us whose idea of portraiture is irremediably tainted by photography. Today, in the vast majority of cases, portraiture means snapping a picture. And photography doesn’t go much for the soft-footed work of acquaintance.
The camera is a hunter, not an interlocutor. It ‘catches’ or ‘captures’ a moment. It snaps and snags. Photography is an aesthetic of shoplifting, not of confession. It is also a rhetoric of extreme reduction for it crams the vast and fluid presence that is a human being into a split second snatched out of the air. It purports to trap the human form of life in a quantum. Think of the crushingly vacant eye of Hal 9000, the supercomputer villain in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey. Here the aesthetic of soul snatching meets the aesthetic of murder. Hal records without seeing, and this is why murder comes so easily to it.
As for the human eye itself, it doesn’t see in 1/500th-of-a-second brackets. Cutting into life, a photograph shows what no one actually ever sees. Its nature is forensic, and its use archival. A portrait, for this very reason, it cannot yield since it cannot describe and doesn’t wait on a face. It doesn’t have the active patience to suffer a reality to emerge. And without the creative patience that is description, without the labour of seeing one’s way around the landscape of a face, the human face is but a wan abstraction, a graph, a marker—this independently of how true to life its record may be.
Perceiving the abstract nature of photography depends on whether we remain alive to the danger against which Rembrandt is warning— the danger of distraction. Rembrandt’s romance of the face reminds us that our existence hangs on each other’s gaze. We are humans thanks to the moral work of mutual depiction. Nothing is so common as to dismiss a face as a thing or a type. Nothing is so tempting as casualness, especially in our photographic, televisual culture, where offhand attention is a style—the ‘cool’ cat, the slacker who ‘chills’, the Facebook selfie flashing the orthodontically standardised grin that makes one look like a photograph even before the picture is taken (there is such an undertow of conformity in our scramble for personal recognition).
Real portraiture is the opposite of casualness. To portray is an act of looking-at that is also a looking-after. It makes a face matter. It may be informal but it is never casual. And because it is not casual, its products are never generic. A photograph cannot care because a camera lens cannot see what it records. And no matter how great or intelligent or kind a photographer is, he or she cannot force the camera to care. This is why a good portrait photograph is good in spite of being a photograph; it is good by virtue of being lucky—because the button was pushed at the right moment.
Take, for example, the world-famous 1984 photograph of the emeraldeyed Afghan girl also known as the ‘Afghan Mona Lisa’. The moniker alone speaks volumes about how little we think of portraiture, or how little we expect of each other. As photography goes it is a striking picture of a strikingly beautiful face framed by a Holbeingreen backdrop and a cinnamon headscarf. If the picture is beautiful, however, it is because the girl is beautiful. Photojournalist Steve McCurry was a lucky man with the right equipment. But his skills were of a technical not moral nature. He may well be a big-hearted human being; but the point is big-heartedness is not required to produce a great photo of a face. A photographer doesn’t need to be especially attentive, patient, responsive or committed. In principle there is no reason why the ‘Afghan Mona Lisa’ couldn’t be the work of a sociopath. We wouldn’t know the difference.
By contrast, imagine a portraitist who is narrow-eyed, cruel, callous, shifty, incurious, absent-minded: their pictures are likely to be caricatures, mangled nightmares—the gropings of soul-blindness. A psychopath can presumably make a good mathematician, perhaps a piano virtuoso, a master of systems; to be a good portraitist it takes an artist who, when at the easel, is morally awake.
Late twentieth-century portraiture is alive to the moral vacancy of photography. Andy Warhol turned out reams of photo-painted portraits that are really an elegy to portraiture: bleached and flattened facial logos that are more trademarks than persons. How quickly has mass-processed photography leached the lifeblood out of a face. Warhol makes portraits of persons who are never truly seen, only recognised—congealed in the formaldehyde of fame, crudely outlined and daubed in the neon glare of instantaneous mass recognition: cognition without encounter. Your face, my face: who has time to notice? The camera lens does it for us. Truly the camera has cheapened the human face, taking the labour (of love) out of it. What took months for Rembrandt to reckon with, the lens shutter dispatches in a trice. And there is a price to pay for efficiency. The camera’s indifference wears hard on the face. There hangs over it the glassy reminder that in between the eye and the sitter there stood a recording device implacably devoid of concern, sociopathically casual. Warhol’s masochistic charm, we might say, consists in showing what happens to the human face when we allow ourselves to be recorded without being depicted. We revert to flesh, or its postmodern equivalent, plastic (think of Jeff Koon’s embalming treatment of Michael Jackson, or Pierre and Gilles’ cryogenically candied faces).
Genuinely depicted flesh, by contrast, is never just flesh. Rembrandt’s famous painting of the flayed ox shows a carcass, which though dead is anything but lifeless. In fact, you might say it isn’t dead enough. Whatever we depict as dead is understood to have lost its life. And whatever lacks life is not lifeless. For what lacks spirit by definition ails, is bereft, is soulful—is as throbbingly soulful as that carcass that still screams for the life wrenched out of it. Nothing that is truly depicted is ever lifeless. If meat could not be dead stuff to Rembrandt’s eye, then how much less a human face?
The novelist Jean Genet disagrees. He argues that Rembrandt’s late self-portraits proclaim a painter who ‘had to recognize himself as a man of flesh—of flesh?—rather of meat, of hash, of blood, of tears, of sweat, of shit, of intelligence, of other things too, ad infinitum’. Actually this statement disproves itself (at least with respect to blood, tears and sweat). To recognise oneself as meat assumes the power of self-recognition. To be merely meat, to be meat all the way, would take away the ability to see, let alone represent one’s self as such. Thus the announcement that one is meat, plastic and shit should be construed as a roundabout refusal to be just that.