Friday, January 13, 2012

The Human Face

One of the things I find most perplexing about ancient, pre-historic art is the lack of portraiture. We take portraits for granted, sometimes relegating them to the Fine Art backwaters, along with genre painting, still-life, etc. Potraits may be commonplace, but it seems that ancient man did not share this with us. The daring artists, probably shamans, who ventured into the secret magic places and left us images of wildlife, hunts, plants, and deities, also left behind images of themselves. Most of these images are not what we would call Portraits.

Did ancient humans not have a need to create images of each other? Once society developed enough to create cultures and permanent settlements humans began to craft individual portraits. Until then, the focus may have been more on a magical aspect of art. Instead of being decoration for beauty's sake, art was maybe the most powerful tool in the shaman's bag of tricks. With sympathetic magic a painting of a succesful hunt would help to bring about an actual succesful hunt. In a world living with these ideas, a specific portrait of someone might indeed be seen as stealing their very soul, much like people who are first exposed to photography have reacted throughout the world. I wonder what changed in humanity to allow for the creation of portraits. The one below is from around 150 BC, and is a portrait created for the funerary rituals of a noblewoman.

It does seem to be that once the switch was made in humanity, the portrait became ubiquitous. To have a portrait of oneself was a sign of opulence, of modernity. The detailed studyof the human face, and the ability to portray that in paint, granted the powerful with a new tool. They could use portraits as propaganda. Whether this meant crafting a relief sculpture of the Ceasar for their coinage, which everyone would see and admire causing them to associate their ruler with their money, or whether it was a painting commissioned to commemorate a coronation, instantly granting it's subject the grandeur of royalty, the portrait was subservient to the whims of man.

Formal portraits have lost their power in an age of quick reproduction. Photography allowed the masses to obtain lasting images of themselves and their loved ones. Portrait paintings became out of fashion, while portrait photography exploded. Ancient man would see our world today and marvel in fear at our reckless use of images. As a species we create and display more portraits every day than could be imagined by our ancestors. We just call it "advertising."

While some may think this would be the death of the art portrait, I find it to be beneficial in a very specific way. By taking the requirement of exact reproduction away, photography leaves space for painters who can use their art to convey something deeper than mere surface. When the Outer is fully examined, it is the Inner which truly informs. Ancient man did not seek to portray an individual human. He sought to portray an idealization of a human for the benefit of all. Modern painters seek to paint the inner truth of their subjects, thereby granting them some semblance of immortality. The focus of portraits has shifted many times in the past and will shift again. That is a given. However, the past history of portraits does not necessarily point to their future. There is still endless room for innovation and creativity. That is the challenge to the modern artist, for the obsession with the human face continues unabated.


(originally published at

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