In 1862, inside a poorly-lit studio, Paul Cézanne put the finishing touches on his latest canvas, a self-portrait. Outside, all across Europe, a different method for image-creation was taking the continent by storm. The appearance and steady advancement of photography completely overturned painting’s representational dominance, and redefined the economic value of a portrait. It turned out that people believed in the image captured by a camera more than the real thing. Holgrave, the young daguerreotypist of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851) remarked, “While we give it credit only for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon, even could he detect it.”
In the West, portraiture began in earnest in the fifteenth century during the Renaissance, when artists focused their attention on the individual. As the primary method for recording family lineage and marking historical events, it soon became fashionable among royal households and titled families. The practice was not limited to the elite but embraced by artists and the bourgeoisie alike. After the emergence of photography, the refinement of photographic technology for capturing likeness forced portraiture to move further away from realism. Composition, light, transition, form, and texture were no longer the main criteria for evaluating a picture, instead becoming jargon thrown around for attention. Having been blurred to the point of non-existence, the canvas could no longer maintain the line between subject and object. Portraiture had been emptied of its representational, symbolic, and observational value. In China, the miasma of confused ideologies and economic reform caused portraiture to develop according to a different logic than that of the West. For many contemporary artists, portraiture was the starting point of their formal studies in drawing. Within the institutes, scores of painters trained in Soviet socialist realism shook off the restraints of classicism, instead choosing to paint the lives of ordinary workers, reflecting a deeper appreciation of society. After the Cultural Revolution, the customs of everyday life began to replace historical events as subject matter more and more. In the 1990s, a new generation jumped onto the international stage: the subjects of Liu Xiaodong’s paintings were filled with an indolent air of idleness; Fang Lijun drew faces that disdainfully sneer at each and every orthodoxy and solemn dogma; Zeng Fanzhi’s main subjects had faces full of fear and helplessness, and outsized and unbalanced hands. Each and every one of these has become a symbol of its time, and subsequently elaborated upon. Despite its relatively short history in Chinese art, portraiture’s impact on contemporary art is profound. So it is perfectly understandable that the Minsheng Art Museum would choose it as the subject of one of a series of exhibitions on painting. Painted and drawn portraits by 76 artists— from superstars to new talents— have been collated and presented in this show, titled “Face.” The earliest work dates from the 1950s, but many more were created in 2012. “Face” is organized by artists’ representative works, emphasizing display over criticism, connection over differentiation. Although the exhibition espouses “openness,” in actuality it appears to display the conservatism and cunning of academic research.
From the sheer volume of works presented here, it is not hard to discern the awkward position of portraiture in contemporary Chinese art. As the exhibition’s introduction correctly posits, portraiture has gone from being “lifelike” to “unlifelike.” The lack of “immanence” in the act of creation itself and the visual description of another has allowed portraiture to become a highly symbolized shell. But unlike mechanical forms of art, drawing and painting have been endowed a halo of authenticity that allows them to find a space on gallery walls, enticing collectors to compete viciously for these expensive commercial objects. Viewed from this perspective, this exhibition evidences the inescapable decline of the art of the portrait. Tang Lingjie (Translated by JiaJing Liu)