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For several centuries the pose in a portrait served as a key element, and was often joined chiefly with the sitter’s clothing, and occasionally the background, as crucial supplements. These three elements — the body held, covered, and situated — were enlisted to support the emotional meaning of the work. Moreover, the elements were generally in service to the look on the subject’s face. This look was meant either as an expression of a true identity or as a comment on the world (including the viewer) onto which the subject looked. The resulting overarching emotion might embrace hauteur or graciousness or melancholy, emotions that could possess an ironic cast, but were often presented as pure and unadulterated. This complex of emotions is usually what catches us and holds us, inviting us to return gaze for gaze, to repay alert sensitivity with open absorption.

More… “In Honor of Faces”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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Willem de Kooning made a portrait of Marilyn Monroe in 1954. The painting consists of a few splotches of yellow and blue paint. There are two sketchy and lopsided eyes in the middle of the canvas. Two wedges of red surely represent Marilyn’s lips. Is that an arm on the right? Maybe. There’s a human form in there somewhere. But this isn’t a portrait in any way that the Great Masters of European painting would have understood.

“Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction” Through January 11, 2015. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. 

You can see de Kooning’s painting today at an exhibit in Washington D.C. at the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution. The exhibit is called “Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction.” The point of the exhibit is to display the work… More…

We fill absences. This is what we do. Nature has her way of filling up absence with stars, atoms, frogs, dirt, human beings. Human beings, though, have their own curious way of filling absence. When we lived in caves, we filled the vacuum of the unknown with fear. In ancient times, gods filled the unknown. In 16th-century Europe, the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo filled the unknown with monsters.

“Arcimboldo, 1526–1593: Nature and Fantasy” Through January 9. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In the darkened rooms of the “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy” exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., hang strange and unwholesome monster faces. The portraits lining the walls are a perversion of everything we consider to be natural and right and harmonious about the human visage. In Arcimboldo’s “composite heads,” men are… More…

By Lyle Rexer In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes remarks somewhat enigmatically that in order to be a photographic portrait, a face must first compose itself into a mask. What does he mean, that the face must somehow perform for us in order to be recognized? Can we look at another person and experience that person as uncoded information — without a past, without presuming or jumping to conclusions about their present?  Don’t all portraits presume in order to give us some version of the person? Why look at them if not for that? Is it possible to let the person be, let the pure enigma of their being emerge? Surely that should be the advantage of photography, that it allows each human subject a complete autonomy.

These are questions that Andrea Modica’s portraits raise for me. The series “Best Friends,” which seems so simple on the surface,… More…