Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
24 June to 1 October 2017
What attracted me to this show initially was the whole idea of turning the tables. We are so habituated to seeing the male gaze directed at women in the history of Art, Photography and popular culture in general, I was intrigued to see what the nature of the masculine gaze turned inwards might look like. Or to be more accurate, what the exhibition curators might do with the overarching theme of “male image, identity and appearance from the 16th century to the present day”, selecting 28 works from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, London. Kate Anderson (Senior Curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) assisted by Ola Wojtkiewicz, have created an interesting show, exploring changing “attitudes to status, wealth, sexuality, masculinity and beauty.” The exhibition is part of a national tour of Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s final Self-Portrait c.1640, recently acquired for the nation by the NPGL with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund. For a relatively small exhibition it packs some punches, contains some fascinating work and gave me a lot to think about, particularly about inferred narratives through curation.
At the entrance to the exhibition Jonathan Owen’s Untitled (Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta) (2013, Sculpture (bust), marble, 58 x 30 x 56 cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) is an appropriate metaphor for masculine reconnaissance and the deconstruction of enshrined ideals. Taking the historical white marble bust of a bearded aristocrat, decorated for military service, Owen abstracts the head, re-carving and excavating marble until the individual face is transformed into an arrangement of geometrical hollows, resembling an architectural atrium and guarding an inner sphere. Traditionally the marble bust elevated on a plinth celebrates and memorialises ideals of masculine power, duty and nobility, reinforcing social hierarchy and individual status, but here the artist takes a sculpture from an age of Empire and critically reimagines it. The rigid Neoclassical form of masculine authority becomes something much more ambiguous, an interplay of positive and negative space, expanding form and ideas in the imaginative cavity of the head. Strangely there’s a cyber quality to this human form without an individual identity, potentially a new code of etiquette at work in a face composed as a structural framework. It has that sinister Dr Who feeling of something familiar and seemingly benign, comfortably relegated to history and yet alive in its altered form, as cold and intellectualised as marble so often is in the hands of men and state. It’s a portrait bust lacking humanity and individuality, focused on the power of intellect. The artist’s psychological archaeology conceals as much as it reveals about masculine identity past, present and future, which is an incredibly interesting position for the audience in terms of projection.
The intimacy of the exhibition space, accompanying soundscape and video by Mercury prize winning band Young Fathers (AKA Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and ‘G’ Hastings) encourages deeper contemplation of the works on display. The looped sound accompaniment to the show operates as an undercurrent of provocation, informing the images in unexpected ways as you encounter them. The timing and associations for each viewer will be different as they move through the space and within their own connective loops of sound, image, memory and meaning. The visitor meanders through fragments of haunted piano, natural sounds like wind moving through aged buildings, human breath, voice and chanted commands conjuring the playing, athletic or military training field. The video by Young Fathers, which is the final statement in the show and by far the edgiest work, is a brief, edited sequence of young men half in shadow, illuminated momentarily in the heat of red light, being directed in the manner of a photoshoot to express emotions or adopt a certain stance for the camera/ director/ viewer. The male voices in charge of the camera prompt the sitters; “snarl”, “laugh”, “batter your eyelids- you’re pretty, really pretty”, “have you given enough?”, “be a man, cry for me!” “look over here- smile”, “who loves you?”, this last question unsettlingly underscored by the kind of cheering background chorus you’d hear at a competitive sporting event. It’s survival of the fittest, the threat of being prey to whoever holds the camera and what that means in the political arena of gender. There’s the contradiction of public intimacy and the power differential between the filmed subject and film makers, provoking questions about the nature of the dialogue. I liked what this added to the visual/ auditory interpretation about what masculinity means, individually and collectively, in the 21st Century and in the context of the whole show. Although the directions given by male voices are not to female models or sitters, they are very familiar as such. It’s a dynamic of inequality which plays out terms of self-worth through dominance or submission to the commanding voice over. It’s a dialogue we’re not used to seeing between men in this kind of setting, but very telling in human terms. The real point is not just “Looking Good” but how the gaze is directed and to what ends socially, culturally and politically.
The works on display are incredibly varied from the dashing, highly Romanticised Portrait of a Man by Francois-Xavier Fabre (1809, Oil on canvas, Scottish National Portrait Gallery), John Pettie’s haughty, highly coiffed portrait of Sir David Murray (1890, oil on canvas, Scottish, National Portrait Gallery), in which facial hair becomes as potent a calling card as the artist’s signature, to much rawer, more confrontational works by artists such as Lucian Freud and Robert Mapplethorpe. What I found myself doing, going through the exhibition rooms several times, was reimagining the signposted hanging sequence. The five exhibition themes: Dress Code, Good Grooming, Men in the Mirror, The Male Icon and Modes of Manhood were provocative for me because they proved a bit too safely boxed. Less obvious labelling/ hanging, with works juxtaposed in more challenging ways to actively interrogate different themes or underlying questions, rather than comfortably illustrating them, might have been a better overall strategy. For example, why place Richard Ansett’s image of Grayson Perry (2013, chromogenic print, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) in the status of “other” by hanging it in what is essentially the alternative “Modes of Manhood” section? Give the man his due and challenge public expectations of masculinity by placing Perry in the Male Icon section! Not just to disrupt the perfume ad portraits of brand Beckham and super broody Gerard Butler, but because Perry’s status as a contemporary artist, social commentator, journalist and television documentary maker is Iconic. Single handed he has done more than anyone in recent years to encourage debate about what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Although visitors are free to draw their own conclusions about the Male Icons VS Modes of Manhood face off on opposing walls, this relegation seemed strangely at odds with the open stance towards masculinity present in individual works and in the aspirational nature of the show.
The image of Grayson Perry dressed as his alter ego Claire is one of a “plethora of masculinities” forming his identity and a vision of what masculine and feminine outside the box might look like. Hung adjacent to Robert Mapplethorpe’s Smutty (1980, Silver gelatine print, Artist Rooms, National Gallery of Scotland & Tate) and an exquisitely beautiful, melancholic portrait of dancer/choreographer Michael Clark by David Williams (1989, Silver gelatine print, Scottish National Portrait Gallery) notions of masculine and feminine become more visibly fluid through the lens, despite being thematically confined in the exhibition space. Ansett’s portrait of Grayson Perry/ Claire speaks resoundingly of the Self as masculine and feminine. Claire’s gaze meets the viewer’s, her red drawn eyebrows raised in confident punctuation, silently addressing the camera/viewer with a mature, worldly gaze. Standing steadfast in orange platform shoes, the exit door in the corner of the plush, red room appears too small, giving an Alice in Wonderland shrunken quality to the surroundings and heightening Claire’s dominance in the room. This photograph, taken for the BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, is a vibrant, unmissable statement in recoding dress and viewer expectations. The pattern on Perry’s dress incorporates his childhood teddy bear “Alan Measles”, it’s colourful and intensely psychological, an element that speaks of the formation of identity in childhood. Claire’s flamboyant style combines youthful bobbed hair with middle aged 1970’s party host dress, a contradiction of doll-like red lips and intellectually loaded “blue stockings”. Claire launches a “so what?!” stare to the viewer/ photographer, the playfulness of the outfit in tandem with the artist’s impending public address. Perry’s everyman status integration into the mainstream comes through in his TV appearances. All of his work raises a mirror to Self and society, never shying away from the complexity of being the masculine/ feminine humans we all are psychologically. Perry/ Claire is not just about fashion, grooming or being outrageous, he/she’s about being visibly him/herself, a living, creative force for reflection, empathy and positive change; a true male icon acknowledging the Feminine within himself.
A portrait that feels real amongst the pumped-up sport/ rock/ film star “Male Icons” wall is Nadav Kander’s image of Tinie Tempah (Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu), (Ink jet print made in 2011, National Portrait Gallery, London.) What shines through is masculine beauty through self-possession. Tempah is a rapper, singer, songwriter, with his own fashion and independent record labels. The portrait exudes confidence, pride and ambition but without aggressive dominance. He’s a man looking beyond the viewer and the confines of the frame, rather than measuring himself against them. Dressed in a white shirt, bow tie and diamond earing, his groomed success is refreshingly stained with shades of purple spray paint from the street. The fine paint splatter isn’t makeup, but identification and strength in the knowledge of where you come from. It feels like the foundation of the man and his character inhabiting the image. Tempah exudes the beauty of self-possession not in posturing but from his pores, nuanced with the purple sheen of nobility, the anti-establishment spray of graffiti and a natural blue/black lineage of pride. Although the head a shoulders image is traditionally composed, the introduction of different hues and attitude of the subject subverts this, becoming a much more layered statement of gender, class, race, artistic intent and individuality. The adjacent photographs of actor Gerard Butler and footballer David Beckham seem doubly one dimensional by comparison, simply selling a celebrity line on masculinity in black and white, as if the name / brand/ macho snarl were enough- and perhaps they are for a two second hit. However, in the Art and specifically portraiture, it isn’t just about looking good, flattering the sitter or selling a product, but being human and vulnerable on some level- traditionally considered a very un-masculine trait, especially for men in the public domain. In that respect, the relationship and trust established (even in a single sitting) between the artist/ photographer and the subject is critical. Individuality and identity are often about revealing that which is hidden, because in the words of T.S Eliot we all “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet”. For men, being strong is often a necessary part of that self- projection to the world, but strong doesn’t have to be overly aggressive, physical and in your face. It can be found in quiet, contemplative dignity, as we see in Kander’s very masculine, equally beautiful image of Tempah, subverting the super machismo normally associated with the Rap music industry. The independent spirit of this portrait is about more than the ego or status of the sitter, displaying layers beneath his worldly success, sprayed onto his skin and clothing, not to conceal who he is, but to reveal something about his core self, not just as a man but a human being. It’s exactly that kind of insight that sorts out the men from the boys; a level of understanding, integration, mutual respect and sensitivity in collaboration between the artist and subject.
A very ambiguous, intriguing collaboration between artist and subject unfolds in Untitled Man (Butcher Boys) Portrait No 472 by Gerard Jefferson-Lewis (Digital chromogenic print, made 2012, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Gift of the photographer 2013. NB/ in the exhibition this consists of one image only rather than a sequence of 3) The butcher’s white frock becomes a generic uniform, intensifying our sense of the individual face emerging from the ground of white and grey. The young man’s sensuous lips, eyes in mutual exchange with the male presence behind the camera, coupled with his “unfixed identity” in uniform is a compelling exploration of power, or perhaps the illusion of it. The series “Butcher Boys” has homoerotic undertones, of youthful, raw meat and (at least to this female viewer) the ironic suggestion of how women are often posed for the male gaze in a very different type of uniform. Jefferson-Lewis’s portrait is arguably more understated and complex. The male subject here is clothed in a metaphorical blank canvas, a frock of service and the purity of white. On one level, he can be whatever the viewer imagines him to be and yet his individual face stands out from the adopted costume with an expression that contains and projects his own desire. There is conformity and individuality in this image of a masculine presence that is seductive without resorting to clichés of rippling muscles and obvious physical virility. Here the proposition and exploration is sensuously cerebral.
Daniel Mytens’ portrait of James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649. Royalist, (1629, Oil on canvas, 221 x 139.7 cm, National Galleries of Scotland) presents a face to the world befitting Hamilton’s status as chief advisor to King Charles I. It’s the theatre of the portrait flanked by drapery on one side and an Italian marble column on the other. This richness becomes opulence in the silver threads and bobbin lace of his clothing, soft kid gloves, fine shoes and spurs. His eyes meet ours as sharp points of light like the tip of the rapier which hangs at his side. The background suggests dominion over sea and land. We are clearly faced with calculated masculinity, standing above us in the context of the royal court and the nobleman’s sovereignty over his own estate. Nearby is Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Lord George Stuart, 9th Seigneur of Aubigny (1618-1642), (Oil on canvas, circa 1638, 86 in. x 52 1/2 in, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) displaying an equally opulent but almost mythological persona in union with nature. The spring of flowing water, roses, foreground plants, together with the hoe or fork he’s carrying symbolically hooking into the tree in the background, position the male figure at the centre of the composition, but there’s a twist. Stuart is leaning on an ancient stone in this pastoral idyll with the inscription; “ME FIRMIOR AMOR” (Love is stronger than I am), an encoded admission of personal vulnerability from a member of the ruling class, harking back to the Classical world of Gods and nymphs. He’s not showing us his whole hand though, one is hidden beneath his robes of ochre/ gold and blue, as if holding something back from the viewer and this mysterious air keeps us on the backfoot as spectators. His luxurious hair and embroidered boots make him look effeminate to contemporary eyes, but this is a heroic image of manhood and learned passion which commands the space he occupies.
Anthony Van Dyck’s final self-portrait (circa 1640, Oil on canvas, 56 cm x 46 cm oval, National Portrait Gallery, London) speaks of masculine confidence in maturity, secure in his position as one of the most celebrated court painters of the age. Although dressed as a gentleman, the loose painterly handling of his clothes suggests that fashion isn’t the focus of the image. He’s reached a stage of life where he doesn’t have to accentuate the finery to know or tell the world who he is. What he sees in the mirror is his skilled accomplishment as an artist in his own right. His stature emerges in the presence of the man, his head turned towards the viewer in a three-quarter pose. He’s utterly composed and assured; intelligent eyes acknowledge his self-regard in the mirror and address the viewer. His turbulent hair gives him a strong, independently spirited air. He’s not playing at being anything, he’s just convincingly painting himself. The clothes he wears feel unfinished, almost abstracted from his conscious being. The man in the mirror can be the truth or a lie and here the former triumphs over the latter in an image that feels sketched, unfinished and imperfect. The focus is very much on capturing the face and identity of the artist as an individual and it continues to speak across the ages.
The artist’s touch also speaks volumes in Man’s Head (Self Portrait III) by Lucian Freud (Oil on canvas, 1963, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London). Rendered entirely in potently, earthy flesh tones, the artist’s furrowed brow of impasto hides his eyes as he squints to perceive the truth in himself. It’s a visual statement of Freud’s belief; “As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as the flesh does.” We can feel that physicality in animated strokes defining cheeks, brow and chin and in the caress of his parted hair. This life in paint is contrasted with the horizontal linear pattern of marks in the uniform brown background. He makes himself stand out, in an audacious and highly accomplished visual statement, making the most of a reduced palette and the immediacy of brushstrokes which have their own distinctive rhythm. Hopefully how various rhythms and themes harmonise, contradict or clash, leading to examination of the viewer’s underlying beliefs, stimulating debate about the nature of masculinity, will be triggered by the works on display. It is wonderful to see, even on a small scale, collaboration and exchange between national collections so that audiences can experience works which may not have otherwise toured to different parts of the country. On one level I can’t comment on what it means to be a man in the 21st Century, but this exhibition provides a window to the complexity and interconnectedness of masculine and feminine and the need for both definitions to be expanded, in our own minds and in the wider world. Portraiture is above all else the study of humanity, faces which are public, private and potential agents of change in how we perceive ourselves.