The changing character of portraits and portraiture

Portraiture as an art has moved out of the drawing rooms of the privileged and been subverted to depict ordinary people in realistic frames.

ByProma Chakraborty
The changing character of portraits and portraiture
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Have you ever wondered if you are worthy of a portrait? Perhaps not.

Back in the day, the privilege of having a portrait done by an artist was mostly restricted to the elite and entitled, both men and women. Naturally, these portraits were flattering and not unduly realistic.

Those who have watched the popular Netflix series The Crown would be familiar with the infamous portrait scene featuring Sir Winston Churchill near the end of Season 1. The portrait was commissioned by Members of Parliament to honour Churchill on his 80th birthday. Graham Sutherland, known as a modernist artist, painted an “unflattering likeness” which was not taken well by the prime minister.

On unveiling the work at a public ceremony, he conveyed his disapproval by calling the portrait “a remarkable example of modern art”. Intended to be displayed in the House of Parliament, the portrait was taken away and later destroyed.

“Outside/In: An exhibition of Portraits” has brought together the works of some contemporary artists. These are not commissioned paintings; instead, the brochure tells us, “this bastion of representation comes under systemic attack by artists who speak from subaltern, feminist, queer, non-western spaces, who have subverted this genre to speak of the unrepresented and unheard, the silent majority who have been consistently been written out of history.”

The exhibition attempts to drive home the changing character of portraits. “Portraiture is now no longer a singular encounter with the subject, but it transforms into a narrative of our times that is being told through the individuals who are chosen to speak about the now.”

The group exhibition puts on display the works of 10 noted artists, for whom the idea of a portrait is fluid. Extending from within themselves, it revolves around questions of identity, existentialism, trauma and belonging. The “Outside” in the title indicates collectives and communities, their ideas and their right to agency and representation.  

To some of these artists, making portraits is inevitably a dialogue with history, as they deconstruct the genre through insertion of autobiographical anecdotes. To some others, the genre’s potential as historical document offers great subversive potential, allowing them to create portraits of ordinary men and women—their labour, their reality and their aspirations.

Retired radiologist Sudhir Patwardhan is a painter of people. His aptly named People Series, on display at the exhibition, features several portraits of motley people he has crossed paths with in the city. Treating his subject with a certain intimacy, Patwardhan creates sketches of people from the archives of his personal memory. The 70-year-old artist’s medical background and understanding of the human body further helps in coming up with interesting subjects from his observation on the streets. The familiarity of the faces in all his works is oddly unsettling.

Mourners, another set of faces striking for their expressions, will leave the viewers deeply moved. Gieve Patel’s series of three portraits features women in mourning. It seamlessly communicates the various stages of grief, right from shock to the utter despair of people pushed to the sidelines of society. “The act of making portraits is not only a celebration of the human form and the ability to capture the inner lives of the subjects, but an acknowledgement of the fragility of the body and its inevitable mortality,” reads the note.

Such immortalisation can be seen in the works of Atul Dodhiya, who adds a personal touch with a canvas of his wife Anju. This is displayed in the Egyptian Girlfriend series that is inspired by the Fayum mummy portraits from ancient Egypt. Dodhiya revisits the portraits of women in history, and morphs Anju’s face onto the portraits of the subjects, creating an interesting conversation between the female subjects across time. Re-imagining well-known works, Dodhiya urges the viewer to look at the sitter as more than a muse—an active subject determining the work in her own ways.

Thematically different yet equally emotive, Thukral and Tagra’s Windows of Opportunity explores the socio-political issues behind the Punjabi diaspora, a subject quite close to them. The series portrays the desire of the youth to leave their nation and live out their fantasies in America, Europe or Australia, fantasies perpetuated by the mass media. The Windows of Opportunity they seek are featured through the portraits of young individuals framed in airplane windows, waiting patiently to escape.

Repudiating this fantasy, the portraits look to be encased in frames that resembles pinball machines, likening the process of getting a visa or living abroad to a never-ending game where one is thrown back and forth, jostled between reality and fantasy.

Featuring a gamut of such emotions, the exhibition explores a vast variety of portraiture which also includes self portraits.

The art of portraiture has been one of the most enduring, complex and evolving discourses on human nature. Today, self-portraits are arguably the most practised art form as selfies with filters and shutters inevitably find their place in social media profiles.

The exhibition is on display at Vadehra Art Gallery till June 3.

This article was first published in Patriot.

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