Let’s make it clear right from the beginning: portraiture is, without any doubt, one of the most important genres in the history of art. Together with landscapes, portraiture is probably the most used artistic genre in art in general. There are so many reasons for that, and all of them could be described by the powerful magic of portraiture. Despite all obstacles contemporary portraiture is facing today, it’s still alive, it’s still popular, and it will certainly be in the coming period. However, contemporary portraiture is facing some accusations saying it does not belong in contemporary art (not because of the artists of course, but because of the main characteristics of this genre). Particularly it is about painting portraits that are being targeted by some art experts; however, the portraiture, thanks to its magic, manages to survive in a tough competition of contemporary art scene.
Portraiture is the recording of an individual's appearance and personality, whether in a photograph, painting, sculpture, or any other medium. What makes it so magical is its ability to depict not only the physical but also psychological characteristics of a figure. When it comes to painting people, we simply like to watch other people’s faces and figures. There is something satisfactory in that process of observation (maybe even masturbatory – of course in the symbolic sense of this word, but sometimes literally, if someone likes erotic portraiture that is also a form of art). However, for a few decades already, painting portraits has been targeted as being too conservative, passé and that it does not “fulfill” the unwritten norms that define contemporary art. Nevertheless, portraiture (even the traditional kind that reached its peak in the 19th century) is still very popular among art collectors and art lovers.
One of the main characteristics of portraiture is that its function is the representation of an individual's appearance and personality. One of the biggest influences of conceptual art movement on contemporary art in general is the critique towards pure representation. Besides information that a portrait transmits to its viewers regarding the appearance of the subject, it’s also important for contemporary art that a portrait contains a context, identity questions, social issues. Not even symbolism can respond to these demands. However, there are so many examples of portrait artists who perfectly resolve these issues. Let us just recall the amazing art of Kehinde Wiley whose portraits are characterized by deep political and social expressions. The portraits by Chuck Close are also so innovative and original, that no one can say it can’t be considered as part of contemporary art.
With technological development, with evolution of contemporary photography and the expansion of social media, one of the main functions of the portrait – producing a likeness – is rendered irrelevant because we really don't need an artist to tell us what somebody looks like. It’s particularly the case with portraying celebrities (i.e. Elizabeth Peyton or even Andy Warhol). We can just google it now, and see an image of a celebrity. We also have countless photograph contests (such as World Press Photo Contest or URBAN 2015 international street photo contest) with amazing portraits often made by amateurs. We are surrounded by selfies, photographs on social media and Internet – and all of them being recognized as portraiture. So, what is actually the place of portraiture in contemporary art?
Yes, we are surrounded by portraits – we see representations of people everywhere. However, in contemporary art, portraits are much more than pure representation. It has managed to adapt its genre to the demands of contemporary art. Portraiture is still alive, popular, and people love it. It has changed its forms, it’s a bit different from what it once used to be, and it receives influences from different art movements (abstract art, minimalism, digital art). New artists creating beautiful portraits are emerging (just take a look at the works by Sascha Braunig), and they ensure the strong status of portraiture in contemporary art. The magic of portraiture is simply too powerful.
Featured Image: Hendrik Kerstens – Bag (detail). All Images used for illustrative purposes only.