September 19, 2011

Face to Face at The Johnson

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A portrait is a brief glimpse into someone’s soul, an impression of personality and a map of the forces that have shaped him up to that point. That much is obvious. What is less so is the question of exactly whose soul you are looking at. When painting a portrait, the artist doesn’t just paint a picture; he creates an entire person, projecting his impressions, prejudices and assumptions onto the sitter in the frame. So when you look at someone’s portrait, you not only see into the soul of the person you are looking at, but also that of the person holding the brush.

It’s not really so strange a thought, but it is one that pops up fairly consistently in the Johnson Museum’s exhibit, “Face to Face”. The exhibit features a modest variety of portraits, from a Julio-Claudian bust of an Egyptian prince, to several paintings by Max Beckman, to two 17th century Persian pieces.

For me, the most enjoyable and fun pieces to look at and think about were undoubtedly those by Beckman. The first Beckman painting, titled Austernesserinnen (or “Oyster Eaters”) is a bright, colorful, and absolutely absurd depiction of a woman right in the middle of eating an oyster at a restaurant. It seems hardly a flattering picture, especially considering that it is of Beckman’s wife. In the background, however, looms a shadowed silhouette, foreshadowing a war-torn future. Another, of fellow artist Sabine Hackenschmidt, features sharp angles and dark grays to portray what appears to be an incredibly stern and severe woman. Then you notice the arched eyebrow throwing a witty challenge at you. Subtleties such as these make Beckman’s works feel like puzzles to be solved, forcing you to look past the initial impressions his broad strokes create.

The portrait of Beckman’s second wife, Quappi in Grau, is another case in point. Surrounded solely by gloomy grays and greens, at first the subject appears almost impatient and angry, tired of sitting in motionless silence. On second look, however, not only do dignity and patience begin to appear, but also a quiet nostalgia, as the sitter seems to remember times gone by. This encounter was interesting to me for two reasons. The first was that I only held this impression after I had read the Museum’s note on the portrait, which claimed that the colors of the painting gave Quappi a serene and dignified look. I suppose it should not be surprising, but it was arresting to me that my entire perspective on this piece could be changed by a mere suggestion and change of angle. Quappi’s almost reminiscent depiction in this portrait is especially notable because Beckman painted it after his exile from his home of Germany during the Second World War.

While Beckman’s works combine various shades of colors with subtle surrounding elements to portray his sitter, Egon Schiele’s simple illustrations use minimum lines to convey a striking impression of his subjects. A man hidden behind his glasses and the hands he rests his head on seems to stare penetratingly ahead, while his bright, vivid eyes appear lost in thought. Another, a constant patron of Schiele’s, looks like he has just returned from a long day at work,  collapsed on the first chair at hand, his fingers restlessly fiddling with something as he stares blankly ahead. Undoubtedly the most unusual, though, is Schiele’s self-portrait: his head is over-large, with half-lidded eyes staring into the distance, his mouth gaping wide in internal agony. All this with his hands nonchalantly placed in his pockets, arms pressed to his sides. Just a few lines and a monochromatic color scheme tell the audience an alarming amount about the tortured soul of a man they have never even met.

Instead of giving just an individual artist’s take on a subject, the older pieces in the collection tell more about how an entire culture can shape an impression. The Julio-Claudian bust of Ptolemy of Maurentia displays typical Roman features on a young man, one of Greek, Roman and Berber ancestry, and who was an Egyptian prince. Instead of viewing the man supposedly represented by this work, you see the representation of an entire culture, stretching and shaping his features. On the other side of the room hangs a portrait of a ruler of Persia made in the late 18th century, and thought to have been painted by two different artists. This piece I find fascinating primarily because it combines the impressions of two different people, which just seems like an incredibly strange thought. Would those impressions clash? Mix together? Is one right and another wrong? Does it even matter that I’m seeing an entity even more fabricated than usual? I doubt anyone will ever find the answer, but the questions themselves are what really make the works interesting in the first place.

One of the most interesting things about this exhibit, and one of the things I liked the most, was the way your interpretation changed with each additional moment spent looking at each piece. A change of angle made an impatient woman look thoughtful, closer inspection made a serene smile look sneering and guarded, and knowledge about a painting’s creation changed my entire perspective on what I was seeing. In the small and bare looking gallery it was surprising and amusing to find such an amalgamation of impressions and personalities mashed together on a single canvas.

Original Author: Fiona Modrak