In a time of easy access to technology and platforms that exalt us and others, is there really a need for portraiture and figurative art at all?
As an art form and as a method of record-keeping, portraiture has deep roots in civilizations around the world. Before the advent of photography, life was documented through painting, drawing, and sculpture, though only those with the necessary resources were able to be immortalized through portraiture. Amidst political and social upheaval, disease, disasters, and the instability of the drastically changing societies of the past, those with power sought to solidify their influence through portraiture. Paying artists to create grandiose artworks, both in scale and composition, portraits often portrayed nobility, politicians, and religious figures in ensembles that reflected their divine natures. These portraits were visual representations of those in positions of power, providing one way through which their importance, purpose, and worth were instilled in the world. A few examples of such artworks representing nobility and religious leaders are Portrait of Innocent X by Diego Velázquez, Double Portrait of the Dukes of Urbino by Piero della Francesca, or Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud.
Of course, there were many artists who sought to represent others outside of these factions, such as Hungarian painter László Mednyánszky, who actively painted those on the outskirts of society in a time where it was highly uncommon. In an era of social and political change, coupled with shifting access to artistic education, skills, and materials, these subject matters were depicted more fervently within evolving artistic ideals. Famous works of many impressionist, modern, and contemporary artists we are familiar with today depict their subjects in compositions that aim to document, raise awareness, protest, comment on society, or simply to honour those they hold dear. Francis Bacon’ Pope Innocent X, Miller Gore Brittain’sSocial Realism paintings and Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Bath all capture the shifting role of portraiture.
Today we mark an unprecedented exposure to massive amounts of media as never before seen in history. Aided by technology, social media, advertising, streaming platforms and more, we find ourselves in a world where we see incredible quantities of photographs and videos in the span of a day; raising challenges for current and future generations. This condition shapes our perception of reality, of ourselves, of others, and of purpose.
Like with anything learned, if we are unchallenged by media that actively seeks to counter a common narrative, it reduces and narrows our understanding and by extension, our expectations of the world, of people, of humanness, and of being. These images of being are reduced, sugar-coated, sanitized, worshipped in unattainable ways; to the point where we cannot recognize ourselves or others in them. We kill ourselves trying to reach an ideal that cannot, and frankly should not, be reached. This fantasy that has been created is strongly propped up by technology, privilege, and imagination. Thank God for the artist that sees through the cacophony and reveals the beauty of the truth.
The genius of an artist captures the world in ways that convey emotion, moving beyond what we can simply see. By tapping into our very soul, the artist destabilizes our worldview, challenges us to broaden our understanding, which hopefully will deepen our learning and our compassion, if we’re lucky. With portraiture and figurative artworks, truth is exposed. Artists celebrate what we are told not to celebrate, find beauty by holding space for peace and simple existence as humans in all our glory through age, temperament, place, social conditions, and more. Today’s portraiture doesn’t necessarily make us look beautiful but reminds us of who we are and how we are different; and that’s why it’s important.
Sophie Thériault, Gallery 78
Established in 1976, Gallery 78 represents artworks of established and emerging Atlantic Canadian artists.
We are pleased to provide a range of fine art services including art consultation, framing, in-home trials, delivery, installation, shipping, and payment plans.
796 Queen Street, Fredericton, NB
(506) 454-5192, 1-888-883-8322 (Canada)
Tuesday - Friday 10 - 5, Saturday 10 - 3, and by appointment.