Bringing together portraits from the 20th century tothe present day, this exhibition – currently on view at Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery, London, traces a line through the varied approaches taken by artists to depict their subjects on paper.
Often focussed on the head and shoulders of an individual, a portrait typically seeks to convey something of a person’s personality and inner life through the treatment of their form and environment.
In ink, pencil, charcoal and paint, the artist captures the subtleties of their subject’s facial features and expressions to lay bare the interior landscape of the individual, as well as their own relationship to them, whether informed by lived experience or imagined encounters.
Certain motifs emerge and recur across particular groupings of work within the exhibition, drawing connective lines between the portraits. While some artists take prominent figures from both the past and present as their subject, others draw upon their immediate relationships to create likenesses of their friends, family and acquaintances, or depict themselves in self-portraits.
In turn, some of the portraits on view directly respond to art-historical lineages, as artists reconceive well-known images or works of art within the register of their own practice, while others seek to break away from the conventions of the genre.
Yet, despite this variety in approach, of foremost concern across the breadth of historical and contemporary works represented in the exhibition is a shared conceptualisation of portraiture as a boundless site of creative innovation and expression.
The earliest work on view, Francis Picabia’s La Chienne des Baskerville (c.1932–3), offers a starting point for several of these themes. Related to the French artist’s ‘Transparencies’ – paintings that layer art-historical imagery, including renditions of the female form, in surrealist expressions of the artist’s ‘interior desires’ – the line drawing depicts the head and shoulders of a young woman. This is overlaid with a sculpture-like torso of a female nude and a suggestively placed pair of hands. Purposefully untethered from clear narrative intent, the drawing encapsulates Picabia’s technically innovative synthesis of diverse references from mythology, literature and art history in a complex and elusive psychological portrait.
An engagement with art-historical imagery resonates elsewhere in the exhibition as artists reimagine visual references from the past through the lens of their own practice. Transposing iconic portrait paintings onto paper using charcoal, Robert Longo pays homage to the pioneers of European modern and post-war art, painstakingly replicating the modulations of each brushstroke.
In his 2017 monumental drawing of an X-ray of Édourd Manet’s last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), Longo recovers traces of Manet’s working process. Particularly compelling are the adjustments Manet made to the barmaid’s pose in earlier stages of the composition, before he settled on her assertive stance with her hands placed firmly on the bar. Multiple versions of the work are made visible in Longo’s intricately-detailed depiction, standing at 2.5 metres tall and over 3 metres wide, showing the viewer what usually remains unseen under the layers of paint to reveal alternative histories.
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