Portraiture Examined at Zimmerli
By Linda Arntzenius
Babies, it is said, are pre-programmed to respond to the human face. Even the most minimal of representations, a smiley face, a triangle of dots for eyes and nose together with a line for a mouth will do. And the mind will make a face out of almost anything, as witnessed by those books of quirky photographs showing faces in the unlikeliest of places: car fronts, clouds, burnt toast, storm drain covers.
Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture at the Zimmerli Museum though July 13, offers much to think about when it comes to faces, and the way in which images of individuals have become ubiquitous in contemporary life, from “selfies” to snapshots identifying callers on Smart Phones and the aptly named Facebook. Portraits, as understood even a century ago, were representations that one had to “sit for,” to visit a studio for, and “undertake.” No more. Photography has democratized the portrait. Fashion and advertising have made us savvy and collaborative manipulators of content in a world awash with images.
Organized by curator Donna Gustafson, Zimmerli’s Andrew W. Mellon Liaison for Academic Programs and Susan Sidlauskas, professor of art history at Rutgers University, Striking Resemblance is a chance to take stock of what we expect from portraits of ourselves and others. Together with the 175-page exhibition catalog with some 130 illustrations, it examines portraiture from the 18th century to the present. To achieve such enormous scope, the curators have drawn upon painting, photography, sculpture, print media, film, and video from the museum’s own collections as well as items on loan from private and public collections. They have shaped their material around the distinctions of individual portraits, double portraits, and group portraits. Each section examines the ways in which people view themselves, their personal relationships and their own social contexts. Individuals, for example, are identified by face, by figure, or by fragments of images; double portraits naturally lend themselves to questions of similarity and difference; groups convey the tension between fitting in and standing out.
There is so much in this eclectic multi-media mix that it’s a challenge to single anything out, but there are a few not-to-be-missed items such as Philippe Halsman’s delightful 1955 gelatin silver print of Jackie Gleason in mid-air jump; the famed photographer Weegee, taken by an anonymous photographer; Weegee’s 1950 self portrait with budgie on head and cigar in mouth; and Gennady Gushchin’s photo collage blending of Mikhail Gorbachev with Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, titled Renaissance Portrait.
Stepping into a century’s gulf between formal oil-on-canvas painting and modern day selfies is Carte de Visite, Gary Schneider’s 1990 large-scale printings of nine small glass negatives dating to 1870 that he discovered in a New York City flea market. The nine photographs, all of women in similar poses, are installed in a row at eye level, just a few inches apart, conveying an intimacy with the viewer that is undermined by the similarities of their pose and demeanor.
Andy Warhol’s Factory-era screen tests of Edie Sedgwick, Ann Buchanan (crying), Lou Reed, and Dennis Hopper are worth pausing over, as is the face reflected in a handful of water by Oscar Munoz, titled Line of Destiny, 2006, and shown on an iPad for 1.56 minutes before the water disappears and the image with it.
Among the more traditional canvases, standouts are Portrait of a Lady with Parakeet, 1856 by Agost Canzi and Cecilia Beaux’s 1884 portrait of Ethel Page, in which the subject’s face shines like lampglow against its dark background. For social commentary, see the 1983 oil on canvas of Stalin by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, titled The Origins of Social Realism.
One section reveals the little known genre of eye portrait miniatures, surprising watercolor or oil on ivory works of individual eyes. Many date to the early 1800s. Some are contemporary pieces by the New York artist Tabitha Vevers.
Even if this painting had not inspired a movie, it would be a show-stopper. The film is Belle and the painting is a classic 18th century portrait of “sisters,” but in this case, the differences and similarities between them are highlighted by skin color. Both young women are depicted as aristocrats in gorgeous silk gowns and pearls. One is dark skinned, the other light. Because of its period, the viewer’s thoughts are immediately and reasonably drawn to slavery. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and a possibly enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle from the West Indies. Sent to live with Lindsay’s uncle, the first Earl of Mansfield, she was brought up at Kenwood House in Hampstead, alongside her cousin Elizabeth Murray. The 2013 British film now being shown in the United States was inspired by this portrait from the late 1770s. According to the exhibition catalog, the painting was formerly attributed to Johan Zoffany. It is on loan from the collection of the Earl of Mansfield in Perth, Scotland.
As is typical of the Zimmerli’s thoughtful curators, a table of books offers visitors a chance to sit down and examine the exhibition catalog and other relevant titles, including Eric R. Kandel’s The Age of Insight, Gary Schneider’s Portraits, and the disconcerting and charming Mirror, Mirror, selections from a unique collection of daguerreotypes amassed over decades by Stanley B. Burns, a New York ophthalmologist. It is charming for portraits of children and domestic scenes, and disconcerting for two unforgettable photographs, a dead infant “sleeping,” and “Man Holding Dead Wife,” circa 1845.
One other local exhibition of portraits expands the offerings on view at Zimmerli by showing a collection of earlier pieces by the itinerant New Jersey portraitist Micah Williams.
Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture will be on view through July 13 in the Voorhees Galleries on the lower level of the Dodge Wing of the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick. Also on view: Diane Burko: Glacial Perspectives through July 31; Odessa’s Second Avant-Garde: City and Myth through October 19; Stars: Contemporary Prints by Derrière L’Étoile Studio through July 31; and “Never such innocence again:” Picturing the Great War in French Prints and Drawings through July 31. For admission and hours, call 732.932.7237, ext. 610 or visit: www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.
Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street: Princeton Artists Alliance 25th Anniversary Show celebrates the founding of this local group with an exhibition of work by its members from June 17 to June 21 with a closing reception on Saturday, June 21, from 3 to 5PM Hours are Monday through Saturday, 9AM to 5PM For more information, call 609.924.8777, or visit: www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.
Grounds for Sculpture: Seward Johnson: The Retrospective, the largest and most significant exhibition in the park’s history is a presentation of work by its 83 year-old founder and featuring more than 150 of his sculptures, including Forever Marilyn, The Awakening, and Unconditional Surrender, through September 21. For more information, visit www.groundsforsculpture.org.
James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine St., Doylestown, Pa: The People’s Choice: Celebrating Michener’s Top 25 through July 20. A community-curated interactive exhibition for the museum’s 25th anniversary includes contemporary, modernist, impressionist works and sculptures. For more information, hours and admission, call 215.340.9800 or visit: www.MichenerArtMuseum.org.
Morven Museum and Garden, 55 Stockton Street: Micah Williams: Portrait Artist presents an unmatched look at New Jersey’s itinerant portrait painter Micah Williams (1782-1837) through September 14. For more information, hours and admission, call 609.924.8144 ext.106 or visit: www.morven.org.
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, 5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, Del: Costumes of Downton Abbey, designs from the award-winning television series through January 4, 2015. For more information, hours and admission, visit: www.winterthur.org.