When Art And Politics Intersect

Bill Clinton’s portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.  Today the artist who painted the portrait, which depicts Clinton with hand on hip standing in front of a fireplace, said that he specifically painted a shadow of a blue dress on the fireplace in the portrait as a reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  The artist, Nelson Shanks, said the shadow was a metaphor because the scandal cast a shadow on both the man and his presidency.

I don’t think the portrait of Clinton is a particularly good likeness, but I don’t have a problem with the artist including a reference to the Lewinsky incident in it.  For as long as artists have painted portraits, they have tried to reveal something about the character of their subjects.  Historical portraits often included symbols, messages, and other information.  Sometimes the depiction and symbolism is flattering, sometimes it isn’t.

When an artist is asked to paint a significant political figure, whether it’s a king, a pope, or a president, the artist inevitably will bring some of his views about the subject to bear.  In really good portraits, the artist’s perspective comes through loud and clear and helps to capture and define the figure and put him into some meaningful context.  Shanks’ portrait doesn’t meet that standard, in part because the reference to the Lewinsky scandal in the painting is so obscure that the artist has to explain it and most people who look at the portrait won’t catch the reference, anyway.  They’ll just see an awkwardly posed guy in front of a fireplace.

A Visit To The National Portrait Gallery

051I freely admit that I am a sucker for portraits. I’m fascinated by them, and I applaud the artists who create them. In my view, it takes a special talent to render a good likeness of a fellow human being.

If you also are a fan of portraits, then London’s National Portrait Gallery is a mandatory stop on your bucket list. It is an extraordinary powerhouse of an art collection that left an indelible impression on me after I spent four very enjoyable hours there on Thursday.

054The organization and, frankly, attendance at the museum contributed greatly to the enjoyment. Unlike the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery is not overrun with people jostling likes chimps in a zoo cage in front of every piece of artwork on display. There’s room, and time, to really observe each portrait.

If it’s a good portrait — and most of those on display in the National Portrait Gallery certainly fall into that category — then a little contemplation will inevitably cause you to feel as if you have really learned something about the individual being depicted. A good portrait tells you something about the subject that affords you a window of sorts into their soul.

059The Gallery is organized so that you can go start at the beginning and go forward in time, or start at the end and go backward. I chose the former approach, which puts you firmly in the realm of kings and high-ranking nobility at the outset, but then expands to include painters, poets, singers, scientists, politicians, and intellectual members of a drinking and social group called the Kit-Cat Club, among many others. As the subjects are broadened to encompass more of society, so to does the manner of depicting the subject — from icon-like early royal paintings, to portrayals heavy with symbolism, to full-length treatments, to more contemporary approaches.

I also respected the fact that the National Portrait Gallery barred photography of some of the pieces, in order to try to avoid damaging them. In an age when people seem to take pictures without caring much about why they are doing so, I would rather take the steps necessary to preserve the artwork itself for future generations. So, I obeyed the injunctions and refrained from taking a picture, for example, of the stunning and moving portrayal of a deflated Winston Churchill during the time when his handling of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign during World War I was under inquiry.

The other pictures included with this post, however, should give any fan of portraits an idea of what they can expect with a visit to this excellent museum. They include, moving from the top down, Henry Lamb’s 1939 Impressionistic portrait of a brittle and seemingly bewildered Neville Chamberlain, Joshua Reynolds’ far-sighted self-portrait from the middle of the 18th century, Lawrence’s 1773 depiction of Sir Joseph Banks, a scientist who sailed to the Pacific with Captain Cook and who looks like he is ready to break into a broad grin as he sits by his globe, and, below, Sir Thomas Lawrence’s riveting likeness of the laser-eyed Tory Prime Minister Robert Jenkinson, who radiates intensity of purpose from the canvas.

Robot Art

We’ve gotten used to constant advances in robotics.  Robots have beaten humans at chess and Jeopardy.  Robots do lots of driving and flying for us.  Robots have taken manufacturing jobs formerly held by humans.  Could the next frontier be robot art?

Not yet — but now a robot has been programmed to draw human portraits.  It’s an industrial robot that has been programmed.  The process uses a camera, software that seeks out contrasts while not focusing on every tiny feature in a human face, and the precise movements of a robot arm.

The result is a rendering of a human face that is competent and lifelike — but I wouldn’t call it art.  What makes a great portrait is not simply the professional technique used to create the likeness, but the creative spark that highlights the feature that really defines the subject.  Perhaps it is the spark in the eyes, or the set of the mouth, or the tilt of the head, but the skilled artist will always find and accentuate the special quality that defines the individual.  An artist who draws everyone in precisely the same way isn’t really a portrait artist in my book.

So, Russell’s chosen field is safe, at least for now.  What’s next — robot lawyers?