Appreciating Abstract Portraits and Their Particular Aesthetics
Oct 3, 2016
Abstract portrait artists confront peculiar challenges. When we see faces in everything; that is called pareidolia. When we see everything in faces; that is called empathy. Abstract portraits inhabit a space somewhere between the two, and their artists must contend simultaneously with both. In some ways, the natural habit humans have of perceiving familiar visual patterns everywhere, regardless of whether they are actually there, can benefit the makers of abstract portraits. They need barely reference the human face or figure at all in order to evoke the sense of it. But the obsession for looking for faces and figures in an abstract image can also distract viewers from considering the other aspects of a work of art. Similarly, abstract portrait painters might benefit from the natural tendency viewers have to empathize whenever they perceive, even faintly, the image of a recognizable other. Whatever sensibilities an empathetic viewer bestows upon an image might work in favor of the concept of the work. But empathy can also interfere with understanding. Recognition of a familiar face or figure in a work of art could cause personal prejudices, generalizations and trepidation to arise in the mind of a viewer, which could undermine and convolute whatever ideas the artist originally had in mind.
Defining Abstract Portraits
In the 16th Century, Italians developed a hierarchy of what subjects were most respectable for a work of art. The most respectable subject matter was considered to be the historical scene, which usually ended up being some kind of mythological or religious episode. The second most respectable subject matter was the portrait. In a classical sense, a portrait was usually defined as the image of a human, most often depicted from the head to about the middle of the torso. But it need not only be that. A portrait can also depict the entire body, or just the face. And it need not only be an image of a human. It can be an image of any being, human, animal, fictional, mythical, spiritual, or any combination thereof.
To be considered an abstract portrait, an artwork must incorporate two faculties: first, it must utilize the concept of portraiture in some way; and second it must be abstract, meaning it must deal with the realm of ideas, or at least avoid a purely objective or representational approach to reality. What it does not have to be is one particular medium or discipline. An abstract portrait can be a drawing or a painting, or there can also be abstract portrait photography, abstract portrait sculpture, abstract portrait installation, abstract portrait performance art, etc. Any abstract aesthetic phenomenon that incorporates the figure of any being, real, imaginary, or any combination thereof, could be considered an abstract portrait.
Joan Miro - Head of a Woman, 1938. Oil on canvas. 18 x 21 5/8 in. (45.72 x 54.93 cm) © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
From an interpretive standpoint, what can be most difficult, and sometimes most controversial, about appreciating abstract portraits is that they are inherently personal. Social Constructivism postulates that everything we understand about life grows out of our experiences, and that all of our instructive experiences grow out of social interactions. In a psychological sense, one creature staring at an image of another creature is a social interaction. A viewer interacting with a room full of abstract portraits constitutes a community.
What is difficult about the personal nature of abstract portraits is that they invite contemplations far deeper and more profound than what might be invited by other types of abstract art. For example, an abstract geometric sculpture or an entirely abstract composition such as a color field painting or a monochrome could be interacted with solely according to its formal qualities, or its symbolic qualities, or its interpretive or contemplative qualities. But in addition to all of those elements, abstract portraits also force viewers to interact with themselves.
Frank Auerbach - Head of JYM ll, 1984-85. Oil on canvas. 660 x 610 mm. Private collection. © Frank Auerbach
The main challenge therefore of appreciating abstract portraits is to overcome inherent biases. When a viewer looks at a representational portrait, one that has been constructed to mimic reality as closely as possible, the mere fact of recognition assists the viewer to hold the image in a respectful light. A sense of artistic and pictorial mastery demands that the being represented in the portrait deserves special and complete consideration. But abstract portraits invite strange generalizations. One arena where this is obvious is with abstract portraits of already marginalized populations. Consider, for example, abstract portraits of women.
Two of the most famous abstract portrait painters are Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning. Together they painted hundreds of abstract portraits. Many of the most famous abstract portraits Picasso painted were of women, such as his famous Woman Weeping. But his most controversial was an abstract portrait painting of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, called The Dream. The painting is controversial because people think they see a phallus in the head of the figure. They interpret it therefore as an erotic painting. But is that just pareidolia? Or is it empathy? Or is it a voyeuristic preoccupation with the relationship Picasso had with the model? The fact that the painting is abstracted opens the door to interpretive leaps that allow inherent biases to come through. Does the painting truly show us something about Picasso and his mistress? Or does it show us something about ourselves?
The Women of de Kooning
A similar phenomenon occurs when people look at the abstract portraits Willem de Kooning painted of women. When other abstract de Kooning paintings are discussed, the qualities most commonly addressed are their gestural quality, their vibrant energy, their distinct brush marks, their distinctive palette, and the tension and passion conveyed through their expressive compositions. His purely abstract compositions are referred to as complex, intricate and powerful. His abstract landscapes are referred to as sublime.
But a much different vocabulary is used when referencing the abstract portraits de Kooning painted of women. Common adjectives used by viewers, especially critics, to describe these paintings are more along the lines of hostile, angry, violent, mad, misogynistic and insane. De Kooning noted that when he painted his portraits of women, he was hoping they would be perceived as simply being unique, and possibly humorous. He was attempting to convey in his own style the female form, in a classical and yet modern and abstracted manner, unlike anyone had done before. So what is it about the portraiture in these paintings that brings out such anthropomorphic remarks? Did de Kooning put those thoughts in the painting or did we?
Willem de Kooning - Woman I, 1950–2. Oil on canvas. 192.7 x 147.3 cm. © 2018 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (Left) / Willem de Kooning - Willem Woman, 1949. Oil, enamel, and charcoal on canvas. 152.4 x 121.6 cm. Private Collection. © 2018 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (Right)
Seeing Abstract Portrait Painters in Their Paintings
Instead of bring our own prejudices into play about the underlying meaning that exists in these paintings, another way to appreciate abstract portraits is to interpret the ways they communicate the thinking of the artist who painted them. For example, the abstract portraits of Paul Klee demonstrate the interest this painter had in color, form and harmonious compositions. They communicate his search for the geometric essence of nature, and the balance he sought to capture in his art.
Likewise, by looking at the abstract portraits of Robert Delaunay, we can see his evolution from a figurative painter into an abstractionist. Early portraits such as that he painted in 1906 of his friend Jean Metzinger can be appreciated for their advanced use of Divisionism. This painting captures the fascination Delaunay had with color, and the various abstract visual effects rendered when different colors were placed next to each other on a surface. It also communicates his search to flatten the picture plane and give equal attention to all parts of the image.
Paul Klee - Senecio, 1922. Oil on canvas. 40 cm x 38 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Scala / Art Resource, NY © ARS, NY (Left) / Robert Delaunay - Portrait de Jean Metzinger, 1906. Oil on canvas. 55 x 43 cm (Right)
What Abstract Portrait Photography Teaches
The most direct way to appreciate abstract portraits is to simply follow the path of the ideas they inspire. Ideas are central to abstract portrait photography. In the photograph Noire et Blanche by Man Ray, we see the face of a female human model posed beside a wooden mask. The face and the mask have a similar shape, and both share a common expression. Despite showing us objective reality, this image questions whether a photograph can show us what is real, by challenging the truth of our own visage. It is asking the viewer, “Which one is the mask?”
Far different, but also grounded in ideas, is the double image portrait photograph of Marcel Duchamp taken by Victor Obsatz in 1953. It shows an image of a contemplative Duchamp staring out the window, and superimposed above it a grinning, joyous Duchamp staring back at us. It shows us the serious thinker and the playful, satirical joker, both of which this artist embodied. This photograph teaches us how to appreciate all abstract portraits; as images that combine realities, as visions of worlds within worlds. They show us an image of ourselves, and also hint that there is more to us than we know.
Featured image: Salvador Dalí - Galatea of the Spheres, 1952. Oil on canvas. Dalí Theatre and Museum, Figueres, Spain. © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2018.
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio