Sometimes a photograph, a chance remark, will spark a post for my weekly blog. Particularly when I think I am running out of subjects to write about. I can also draw from a store of things written over the years, but that may not be fair. Sometimes it may be a chance remark, or something seen on my morning walk. I’ve noticed for instance that in the tiniest fissures between the cobblestones, a dandelion like yellow flower (perhaps a taraxacum) has succeeded in putting down its roots and is blossoming. One here, one there. Attempts at survival.
However I decided to write about portraits. Two things started it all off. One was a remark by my great grandniece and the other was the fact that a woman I met only briefly sent me a portrait she had made – a thoughtful gift but it led me to wonder if that was how others saw me.
Whether in writing, or drawn or painted, or captured in a photograph of one kind or another, we always seem to be dealing with portraits.
In Pirandello’s novel One, No One and a Hundred Thousand, he broached the question of how we see ourselves, of how others see us. Every person gets a different version of someone. And in real life, we all show different sides of ourselves to those we encounter. Who I am to myself, can never be quite how the next person views me. No two people see us the same way. Portraits are slippery things, whether in words or drawn or painted, or in photographs.
A portrait is so much more than simply the transcription of physical features. It is a reflection of the spirit, of the soul if you like. It is another person’s impression, depending on the moment captured, on the individual criteria.
Is it you seen as a specific type or person? Does it reflect who you really are? Or at least who you think you are or would like to be? A portrait of a moment in time, of a mood.
The purpose of a portrait throughout history has varied. I could write a doctoral thesis on the portrait and I wonder how many have already been written.
Generally, a portrait is meant to present the sitter as a man of culture, or as a warrior to incur fear. It might be a symbol of power. A status symbol. Included in the painting would be a book or a statue testifying to travels and identifying the person as a man of culture, or referring to specific interests, perhaps botany, or marks of a profession.
Some people seem to have a clear idea of their appearance and accept what might be considered an unflattering portrait. I find it amazing that Goya could show his patrons with all their defects and get away with it. It is said that Holbein made Anne of Cleves more attractive than she actually was and Henry the 8th was disappointed with his future bride when he actually met her. Which led to an annulment.
A portrait might be a stand-in for the actual individual. An image. A likeness.
Which is perhaps why in some populations a photograph is thought to steal the identity of an individual. Which is also perhaps why we are loath to destroy a picture, a photograph, of someone loved or hated, even if we have innumerable copies stuffed into the envelopes in our drawers.
Then there are portraits that tell us of other times, of people we may have known, or perhaps not. A portrait of our past, of times gone by.
Now, in the twenty-first century– there is a superabundance of portraits, of selfies. Most perhaps are not interested in portraying the individual as they are as in telling us – “look I was here”.
So, to return to the portrait, let us ask ourselves if this is as others see us, or as we see ourselves, or as we would like others to see us. And then there are the portraits not of ourselves as individuals, but of moments that we hope to return to. All portraits are in a sense fleeting moments, and as the clock ticks on we somehow always try to remember what once was.