I blinked before she did

I’m not ashamed to admit that The Modern Portrait, the current display at the Scottish National Portrait gallery, had me in tears at lunchtime today.

To explain the effect on me, I could write about each portrait one by one but that would be a long and tedious read. Instead. I’ll write about self-portraits tomorrow, but first, here are a few portraits that stood out for me.

Annie Lennox’s portrait, ‘Annie Lennox OBE (born 1954)’ by Annie Lennox and Allan Martin, is hung at head height. She stares straight ahead, directly at the viewer, with her face nearly filling the frame, white with chalk or clay. The only colour comes from the tartan choker that she wears. For at least five minutes, we were in the unlikely position of staring directly into each other’s eyes with the intense intimacy of mesmerised new lovers.  Of course, I blinked and looked away before she did. It was an unnerving experience. What did she see in me?

‘David Millar (born 1977)’ by Nadar Kandar, is a close-up of a huge face, far larger than life-size, almost confrontational in its proximity to my personal space. Millar was a professional cyclist, banned from cycling after his arrest for the possession of illegal drugs. He lost his world title, but later won medals at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and is now a cycling journalist. Light glistens on the sweat all over his face, emphasising the stubble on his chin and the pores on his cheeks. There is a grim determination to succeed, not just against competing cyclists but against setbacks and the challenges of public opinion.

Some portraits raise doubts and questions in the viewer, for example the portrait of ‘HM Queen Elizabeth II (born 1926)’ by Julian Calder. The Queen stands beside a stream on a Balmoral hillside, draped in full regalia with trailing gown, and, perhaps not surprisingly, an odd expression on her face. Is this a Photoshopped misadventure in transposition, instantly switching her from the interior of Buckingham Palace to the Scottish hills? The accompanying notes talk of echoing great portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn, but is this admiration, social commentary or political satire?

‘Three Oncologists’ by Ken Currie has been on display in this gallery before, and indeed, may be on permanent display here.  It portrays three surgeons in front of parted curtains with complete darkness beyond. The accompanying notes discuss the surgeons describing their role as “retrieving people from the darkness”, which is a positive description of their pioneering work against cancer and it was this phrase that was the key to adopting this viewpoint. That phrase suggests that the curtains are the moment of death, yet with death in the air, the blurred appearance of the surgeons and the blood on their hands gives the impression of spectral ghouls.

But it was the individual photographs of related people by Taryn Simon that moved me to tears. Carefully sited in the centre of the exhibition, so you pass many others before you arrive at the emotional time-bomb, there are fifty-four identically sized photographs of individual people all seated against the same plain, empty background. These are ordinary people, in everyday clothes, often slouching and looking unhealthy, probably unaware of the poor first impression they make on this first meeting. The natural, unassuming poses are not as stiff as those in formal portraits or as self-conscious as those in self-portraits. Unlike traditional portraits, with their carefully positioned clues in the background, there is no information about these lives. We must take them on face value, but we should remember that their stories are no less profound. The accompanying notes explain that three of these people are triplets, the only known case of triplets affected by Thalidomide.

The name ‘Thalidomide’ still haunts a generation. According to the accompanying notes, there were 10,000 cases world-wide.  The drug was removed from the market in 1961, the year that I was born, so there was still a chance that my mother might have taken it too with similar effects on my body.

Some portraits are almost anonymous, which seems to contradict the fundamental purpose of a portrait. ‘Hope Montagu Douglas Scott’ by William Johnstone has no facial features, just blank flesh inside the clothes, but even more intriguing is ‘Susie Wolff: Portrait of a racing driver’ by Angela Palmer with its mysterious hints that there might be a head, anybody’s head, inside the blue crystal racing helmet, like a person’s identity inhabiting a fragile skull, a ghost in the machine.

My conclusion as I leave the display, is that portraits where the sitter’s eyes aren’t looking straight ahead at the viewer give the impression of shiftiness and unease, perhaps even dishonesty in their refusal to meet my gaze.

The display continues until 21 March 2021, so you’ve plenty of time to get there and see for yourself.

Wednesday, October 30th, 2019 art, Exhibitions

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