Do Portraits Lie ?

Camera lies all the time. It’s all it does is lie, because when you choose this moment instead of this moment, when you… the moment you’ve made a choice, you’re lying about something larger. ‘Lying’ is an ugly word. I don’t mean lying. But any artist picks and chooses what they want to paint or write about or say. Photographers are the same.” –

Richard Avedon

On a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery I found myself musing on this question. I had come to see the “Starstruck” exhibition, a display of stills and costumes from both iconic and lesser well known Australian films. It was such a pleasure to stroll through the galleries and reacquaint myself with some of my favourite films and actors. Of course its clear that portraits of actors frequently lie because according to Camus:

“The actor’s realm is that of the fleeting. Of all kinds of fame, it is known, his is the most ephemeral. At least, this is said in conversation. But all kinds of fame are ephemeral. From the point of view of Sirius, Goethe’s works in ten thousand years will be dust and his name forgotten.”

Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus

“I think all art is about control – the encounter between control and the uncontrollable.” – Richard Avedon

After the exhibition I decided to visit some portraits from other eras. Its evident that only the portraits of people of a certain level of fame or celebrity are hung in the National Gallery. Some are politicians, others poets or generals, scientists and advocates who have sought to improve Australian life. Depending on the relationship with the portrait’s artist, it can be an opportunity to affirm the public image of the subject or allow unknown aspects, including the shadow, to be revealed

After some time, I found myself standing in front of a colonial portrait of a man of substance.

He had put his paper down-the Times of course- to look me squarely in the eye as if to examine me and assess where I sat in the social order of the day. The portrait had a powerful impression- but what if it was a lie? What if he was a swindler and conman challenging me to see through the charade ? Perhaps a fall from grace had occurred soon after the portrait was finished.

And then I moved to the portrait of his wife

To me she seemed submissive, lacking in confidence, dominated by an overbearing husband but if you look closer there is a scintilla of a smile and an awareness of something else in her eyes.

Of course such an assessment is entirely my own and comes from a person living two centuries after the subjects. How could I possibly know what is going on? But that is art for you, a world of mysterious possibility where the viewer brings the artwork to life through a very personal if not intimate relationship.

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