Crisis of confidence? The end of the age of portraits?
This portrait of King Faizal of Iraq, 1919, by Augustus John, seems to have been painted with none of the knowledge of the old masters.
The background is indeterminate — is it tent, is it desert, is it some other cloth? The subject would have been known to most of the viewers — King Faizal is the famous Faizal of Lawrence of Arabia. Little attention has been paid, it seems, to the lighting. The bright background takes attention away from the face, while the lighting on the face is harsh, and bears little of the signs of careful feathering which the Old Masters. As with the other paintings in this series, the portrait is to be found in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Looked at closely, there is no particular focus on the eyes, which appear detached. However, there is certainly more detail in the face than in the rest of the painting — the hands are almost flat, with no three dimensionality.
Augustus John was Britain's leading portrait painter of the period, and his portraits were considered notable for their psychological insight. However, after the first world war, his skills were considered to have declined. Interestingly from our point of view, his paintings before he became famous were much more in the style of the old masters, which tells us something important: John did not paint this portrait in this way because he lacked the skills to paint in the old way, but because he chose to.
When I was growing up, I had the enormous privilege, largely through the sacrifice of my parents, to attend two schools, St Chad's in Lichfield, and King Edward's, in Birmingham, which had traditions going back centuries, and portrait paintings documenting it. Looking at them, it always seemed to me that, round about the time of this portrait, the paintings became less imposing, less realistic.
Clearly, a change of taste has taken place, but is it a good one? I think, with hindsight, we have to agree that, no matter what the painters of the early twentieth century were trying to achieve, their portraiture was less compelling than that of the previous generations. At the same time, in the more conceptual works, we see an improvement of taste. The end of the 19th century was marred by the semi-pornographic creations of the 'Academic' school, which painted enormous canvasses, often from classical scenes, in photorealistic detail, which were often little more than an excuse for representing erotic acts under the cloak that they were 'classical'. Manet's famous picnic painting, with two men in full 19th century dress picnicking with a nude, was a stern rebuke to this double standard morality. Manet and the other impressionists determined to paint swiftly and by impressions, since the invention of the photographic camera now made painting obsolete.
Modernism brought many innovations in artistic technique, and restored abstract art from the place that it had languished since the late middle ages. But it did so as part of a machine-age that reduced the value of the individual. The First World War was a huge contributor to the loss of confidence that triggered it, and the Great Depression of the late 1920s further strengthened this.
What does all this mean for the photographer?
Today we have more techniques available to us than any generation of painters or photographers before us. But a superabundance of technique can lead us in two directions. On the one hand, we can go with the Academic painters, and produce work which is ever more photorealistically perfect (which is to say, unnaturally perfect), using a range of alterations to remove every blemish, and reshape bones to a more pleasing form. This may be acceptable in advertising (actually, it is, but it is not by that token always effective), but it tends to diminish the humanness of the sitter. Portraiture is part of the Renaissance humanistic project, of allowing the dignity and person of the individual to flourish. Before the Renaissance, we do not have portraits, but rather only the self-aggrandising statues of emperors and later kings, and other representations of the great and famous, or of the gods, or of the individual as a figure in larger scenes.
On the other hand, a desire to avoid the overuse of technique can lead to the same loss of confidence that we see in the Augustus John portrait above. John could paint the hands perfectly, but he chose not to. He could have given life and vigour to the face, and occasionally, he continued to do this, but he did not. The photographic equivalent is a refusal to postprocess at all — a naive attempt to let the camera capture only what the camera captures, with attention only given to focus and exposure at the time of shooting. But this too leads to a diminution of the value of the sitter. The sitter then becomes merely an excuse to press the shutter release, and the rest is a mechanical result. Equally, though, there is nothing 'purer' about this mode of photography. Even in the days of film, the photographer had already made a series of choices by the stock he chose to shoot with, and the paper on which he chose to print, even if the intervening work was handled mechanically by an automated lab. In the days of digital, the camera electronics are already at work, subtly improving the image, or perhaps making it worse, based either on the factory settings, or on choices the photographer makes in setting up the camera. No image exits from a modern digital camera without postprocessing already applied. The photographer, if she or he is an artist, not merely the operator of a machine, must then review the image, considering whether or not those initial choices were entirely correct, and how to rectify them otherwise. Deciding not to postprocess is a postprocessing decision in itself. Deciding on a minimal postprocessing is also a decision. Deciding not to fix errors in the capture process — for example, moving the focus from the eye-lashes to the eyes, or correcting for harsh lighting or incorrect colour balance created by less than perfect placing of lights, is not 'more pure' or 'more authentic', but simply a failure to finish off a task which has been begun.