How has oil-based portrait painting influenced portrait photography?
Info: 5150 words (21 pages) Dissertation
Published: 24th Nov 2021
This thesis presents a discussion based on the theme of portraiture and its relationship with mediums such oil-paint and photography. The fundamental characteristic that could be associated with a successful portrait is defined by Cynthia Freeland. Creative outcomes by painters; Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter are viewed in contrast to photographic portrait outcomes by Annie Leibovitz and Jingna Zhang. These outcomes are viewed in regard to Susan Sontag’s analysis of photography and its relationship with the camera.
This thesis will be presented as a soft back book. The book will be hand stitched in order provide the piece with an execution, I feel embodies the intimate nature of portrait art.
This thesis will be black and white due to my critical analysis of coloured portrait paintings and portrait photography. The text will be black on a on a texture white background.
The book will be constructed by hand using white textured satin silk paper (250 gsm) The book will be bound with black thread as to not introduce colours that might affect the viewing of coloured art content.
The book will be printed in Times New Roman due to its simplistic nature that’s essayer to read and digest
Introductory chapter - explains the structure of the dissertation how my research and analysis will be presented.
Chapter 1 – is divided into two subgroups with one titled Francis Bacon and the other Annie Leibovitz.
The Francis Bacon titled chapter showcases my analytical review of his work ‘Study after Velázquez’s’ portrait of Pope Innocent X’ and the techniques, I feel he has stylistically developed to produce provocative immersive outcome the capture the essence of the subject
The Annie Leibovitz chapter showcases my analytical review of her work in response to my findings regarding bacons work. I explain similarity’s that suggest Bacons approach to have informed Leibovitz.
I also explain how Leibovitz work in regard to conceptual problems presented my Cynthia Freeland overcomes the suggested obstacles associated with the photographic medium.
Chapter 2 - divided into two subgroups with the first being titled Gerhard Richter and the second being Jingna Zhang.
The Gerhard Richter-chapter showcases my analysis of his fusion between the two selected mediums of painting and photography. I explore his outcomes in context to Susan Sontag and her views stated in her book ‘On Photography’
The Jingna Zhang-chapter showcases my analysis of her graphic techniques in contrast to previously explore photographic outcomes.
The conclusion – showcases how my research and analysis has answered my theme and thesis question ‘How has oil-based portrait painting informed portrait photography?
A portrait in its most simplistic form can be described as a painting, sculpture, or photograph, created with the intent of representation through recreating likeness, personality, and mood of the sitter, thus memorializing the figure for generations to come. A key aim of portraiture is depicting the sitter so as to convey his or her ‘‘person-ness’’ and is central to our modern understanding of portraiture as Aristotle explained “ The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” (Aristotle, 384B-322BC)
We can describe this aim as voiced by Aristotle as being supported by characteristics and objectives listed by Cynthia Freeland in her book ‘portraits in painting and photography” by saying that the painter or photographer seeks to convey the “subject’s unique essence, character, thoughts, and feelings, interior life, spiritual condition, individuality, personality, or emotional complexity.” (Freeland, 2007) how this objective is met involves the use of varied techniques to showcase significant external aspects of a person, such as “physiognomy, in addition to the depiction of features such as status and class through the use of props, clothing, pose and stance, composition and artistic style and medium” (Freeland, 2007). But ultimately, we expect an effective portrait to convey the subject’s subjectivity. The sitter should appear to be autonomous and a distinct person, with a unique sense of individuality and depth of emotions.
Through conducting methodical research into the work of modern-day contemporary photographers; Annie Leibovitz and Jingna Zhang in contrast to works by more traditional contemporary painters; Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter, I aim to identify how techniques, relating to Freeland’s ideologies regarding compositional structure, has been developed by painters and gone on to inform and influence the photographer's creative approach to portraiture. I will discuss the conceptual conflict associated with Portraiture as expressed by Cynthia Freeland regarding artistic expression vs remaining true to the sitter to identify the considered approach’s both mediums take when creating portraiture in regard to this dilemma.
This dissertation will be divided into two chapters and a conclusion. The first chapter stages my analysis of Francis Bacons work ‘Study after Velázquez’s’ portrait of Pope Innocent X’ (Bacon, 1953) in contrast to Annie Leibovitz photographic reportage of Mick Jagger in her piece ‘Mick Jagger, Chicago 1975’ (Leibovitz, 1975) and describes how my research has developed.
The second chapter will present a cross-analysis between Gerhard Richter’s piece ‘Untitled (9 Nov 1999) 10.1 cm x 15 cm, Oil on photograph’ in contrast to Jingna Zhang’s piece titled ‘Dark Eros Komi-Shedding Wednesday” while referencing the concepts in regard to the fundamental nature of Photography as expressed by Susan Sontag in her book ‘On Photography’ The third chapter will conclude this study by demonstrating how my research and exploration has provided me with an answer to the research question “How has oil-based portraiture painting influenced portrait photography?”
The first artist I will be discussing is British figurative painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992). I selected Bacon as a topic of discussion due to his success as a portrait artist despite him having little to no formal training and as a result relying on appropriating and manipulating photographic “images from books and mass media-publications…into what became, for him, the equivalent of conventional preliminary studies.” (Daniels, April 6th, 2009) Bacon's use of photographic outcomes in the infancy of this creative process is noteworthy as it demonstrates photography’s artist value as well as paintings' ability to develop on the photographic medium.
Bacon's mastery of the painting media allowed him to fuse complex symbolism with mark-making techniques that combated the convectional themes associated with his often ‘iconic’ subjects, choosing to display instead of the intimate vulnerability and humanness of the subject.
Through visually voicing the intimate psychology of the sitter he distinguishes himself as creative; embodying what can be considered the fundamental nature of art as voiced by Edgar Degas who stated, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
The painting titled ‘Study after Velázquez’s’ portrait of Pope Innocent X’ belongs to a series of 50 oil-paint recordings developed by Bacon form 1949-1960. Pope Innocent x is presented sitting on a throne before the viewer as a pale, ghost-like figure which provides a visual impact that immediately sets a dark and morbid tone of the piece, especially when viewed in contrast to the Velázquez referenced piece titled, “Pope Innocent X” (Velázquez, 1650). Bacon introduces the themes of absence and loneliness through exploiting contrast created between lines of paint; extending down the piece, dividing the background, and the figure. This stylistic approach creates the appearance of the sitter fading in and out of existence while being encaged with his environment.
The concept of isolation and solitude relating to the pope Innocent x, is presented as an internal struggle due to Bacon's implementation of this architectural cubic chamber. The introduction of this layered montage of images presented within this caged space is a considered approach, applied by Bacon to convey the dark complexities of emotions that relate to the reality of life. The Pope's status, prestige, and wealth are encapsulated within a space he cannot escape. Bacon implies the Pope to be suffering in his environment due to him being depicted as screaming, a conceptual choice referencing a famous scene from Eisenstein’s silent movie (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) where imperial soldiers and Cossacks conduct a brutal massacre on the city’s population, concluding with a close up of the face of a wounded nurse with pince-nez, who is screaming in agony and terror.
The context behind this of this referenced scream suggests Pope Innocent x, as a victim and introduces the theme of violence and rage into the dialogue of this piece. This visual absence of what might be distressing the subject directly leaves the viewer to analyses the origin of this distress as an internal struggle associated with the Icons position. This inference is supported when analysing the behaviour of theses cubic chambers when coming into contact with the Popes
Throne, a clear symbol of his power and prestige associated with his titled ‘Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.’ The cage seems to form out of the throne creating relationship and dialogue between the two.
The layered montage of images coupled with complex mark-making skills presented by Bacon creates a narrative and dialogue that alters the relationship between the subject and the viewer. The physical materiality of the piece and the, immediately invisible concepts, behind the work, challenge the audience to ask the question; why Bacon? because of his use of cubic-caged chambers in unison with symbolism, creates a dark, tormented environment that approaches the light, the strong, conversational narrative of the Pope, as misleading. By representing grief and suffering as its own space, coupled with the compositional choice to presenting Pope Innocent X as existing within this environment, Bacon has created a Portrait that enforces Frank Stella’s fundamental understanding of art, “ After all, the aim of art is to create space – space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space within which the subjects of painting can live.” (Anon., 2020) When digested in context with Freeland’s elements for constructing a successful portrait Bacon work ticks all the box’s
Annie Leibovitz is a photographer well known for her portrait work done of famous, iconic figures. I have chosen to discuss Leibovitz's work in contrast to Bacons, due to the compositional techniques she employs to capture the nature of her subject. It is important to note, Freeland voices a concern directed towards the plausibility and comparability between portrait-paintings and portrait-photography, when she suggests photography as “a problem for portraiture, namely, the cameras ability to Catch a person off guard and thus to present a less than desirable image to the world” (Freeland, 2007) like Bacon has done.
However, Leibovitz's intimate relationship and approach to image making for me silences this concern. Leibovitz like Bacon creates work around the theme of pop culture and as such is challenged with presenting a new or original approach to subjects that viewers are often familiar with. Through the aim of dismantling reality that upholds the viewer's ideologies, Leibovitz employs Techniques that link strongly with Bacons paining’s and suggest a level of objectivity that contrasts Freeland’s statement.
Leibovitz describes in her book ‘Photographs Annie Leibovitz 1970-1990’ how she approached concepts such as transparency and intimacy between the viewer when presenting her subjects to be viewed; “ I believed I was supposed to catch life going by me- that I wasn’t to alter it or tamper with it.” (Leibovitz, 1982) This reportage approach Leibovitz took when capturing her subjects provided her outcomes with an execution that felt as though she was absent at the point of the image being captured, thus leaving the viewer feeling as if that had intruded on a personal, private moment. she is able to present a scenario, that provides insight and mirrors, like Francis Bacon, a level of realness and truth that seems objective and truthful. A clear example of Leibovitz to the ability to do just this is presented in her 1975 photo of Mic Jagger performing on tour.
In this piece, Leibovitz imitates the concepts tackled by Bacons Pope Panting’s regarding loneliness present in the life of Icons, by showcasing the physical demand involved with maintaining of one’s power and status associated with the Icons position. The viewer has showcased a portrait of Mick Jagger, leader of the Rolling stones, with the state of his body being put on display and offered as a subject worthy of review. His tensed muscles expose his ribcage forcing his veins into view, tearing away at the glamorous ‘Godlike’ facade associated with the singer, by revealing the taxing physical and emotional demand the subject’s performances demanded of him in contrast to the effects it was having on him.
Leibovitz, like Bacon, has chosen to showcase this icon with his mouth open and when analyzed with the state of his body, changes the more palatable narrative of him singing contently into a microphone to a physical scream, promoting a warning and speaking to the icon’s human fragility. Leibovitz describes her aims for this piece stating “ I wanted the photograph to show the amount of energy that’s involved in a performance, and how he put out everything that was left in his skinny body, using everything he had” (Leibovitz, 1982)
There is a level of transparency presented in both ‘Study after Velázquez’s x’ and Mick Jagger 1975 showcases darkness associated with people in positions of power that tears away at the promotional depictions of that seem to glorify figures and instead exposes a vulnerability that ranforced the concept of humanness. Bacon being an artist relying on oil-paints implements architectural cubic chambers encapsulating the presenting the concept with the environment feels best showcases is the concept. Leibovitz adopts this same visual technique explored by Bacon, by focusing on elements of the figure that the viewer readily identifies as alarming, problematic, and painful. She uses these visual elements to construct concepts that showcase the direct demand the environment is asking of the subject and the subject seeming inability to meet it much longer. Through doing so the iconic subject like Bacons Pope Innocent is made venerable.
Freeland goes to make a statement that questions the presence of artistry involved with portrait photography stating “When a photographer succeeds in a portrait that reveals the sitter’s inner states or psychological traits…Consider first the view that the success of such an image depends wholly on non-artistic factors stemming from the very medium of photography. Whereas a painter must work to craft the exact tilt of someone’s head, the brightness of their eyes, or the gesture of their hand, the photographer simply snaps the shutter and records all of these as they are manifested by the subject.” (Freeland, 2007)
However, I feel that elements of artistic expression are made clearly visible and evident when further analyzing Jagger’s body. Although Leibovitz is unable to complete and utterly change the structural integrity of her subject's body as Bacon did when presenting Pope Innocent x even commenting on the seldom times she recalls the body acting in an objective manner stating she on recalled two times in her career when“ people sort of lost it with their bodies when I was photographing the. One time was with Keith Richards because he was on something, and again with Ray Charles, because he is blind. The pictures show how the body would react if it weren’t trying to correct itself” (Leibovitz, 1982)
she instead uses compositional construction and timing to present elements to Jagger's body that are digested with the same shock and fear inspired by Bacons painterly portrayal. Through analyzing lighting, tone, and position while waiting for the Jagger to reach the high of his scream, Leibovitz effectively achieves her outcome in a creatively artistic manner. Leibovitz has relied on the compositional structure in place of Bacon's visual cubic chambers. The positioning of the camera makes the picture seem to capture Jagger from a point of view experienced by a fan at his concert. The link between the viewing angle coupled with the presentation of his carcass like body creates an intentional, conceptual relationship between the audience and main subjects.
The link between Bacon and Leibovitz's work is commented on within her book, stating “Jagger seems almost transparent in some of the photographs you took back then, such as the one in which his torso looks like a carcass in a Francis Bacon Painting. It’s ugly-beautiful.” (Leibovitz, 1982) Leibovitz through employing skills that link with Bacons visceral cubic chambers showcases how compositional techniques developed by painters to portray complex and provocative concepts and provide a seemingly unedited view of reality, have informed the image-making process of photographers.
Through both artist’s creating portraits of icons, they were able to take advantage of the preconceived ideologies the public had previously developed due to their subject’s famous nature and reinvent this narrative by highlighting the troubles of existence less documented. By creating art that visually showcases an immediate contrast between the conventional narrative associated with the Icon’s, the artists were able to capture the essence of the subjects creating and showcasing “ a less than desirable image to the world” (Freeland, 2007)
The next artist I have chosen to discuss is the painter Gerhard Richter. I have chosen Richter due to his visual marriage between photography and painting; when creating portraiture art. Richter, unlike Bacon, incorporates the use of photography throughout the whole creative processes and as a result, informs us on how specific elements of a photo when coupled with paint creates a new and immersive visual narrative. “Once these limitations on medium specificity have been lifted and we are free to discuss each medium within the context of Art, we can begin to look at Gerhard Richter’s ‘Overpainted Photographs’ not as paintings or photographs but objects that address much larger ideas than that of themselves.” (Thomas, 2012)
The specific piece I have chosen to discuss is titled ‘Untitled (9 Nov 1999) 10.1 cm x 15 cm, Oil on photograph’
The figure of a woman is presented holding a child in her arms. The photo has then been partially covered using (predominantly) red paint. The photographic background’s interaction with the paint creates a visual dialogue with its layered effect. The photo is received as the main event of the art due to its more factual nature in contrast to the paint which is received as the artist's expression and opinion on the event taking place in the photograph. The photo is taken in as more factual in nature and presents itself as an accurate embodiment of reality. The painting, however, is immediately received as more gestural, suggestive, and representative. This distinction between the way paint is visually digested in contrast to photograph is a concept touched on by Susan Sontag in her book ‘On Photography’ stating, “Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it. In one version of its utility, the camera records and incriminates.” (Sontag, 1977) This implementation of photography in the background of this piece creates an environment that can no longer be altered by anything as the moment in time has been captured, however, Richter combats this reality by incorporating paint which, as previously suggested, has the power to change and manipulate; context. The photographic image is received and handled as you would a memory.
Richter speaks of this possibility to alter the reality of a photograph by incorporating the medium of an oil painting. Conceptually oil-paint is used in this instance as to suggest a new and different context than what is immediately showcased within the picture. The paint makes a bold statement that the photographic background should now be viewed in regard to its intentional application.
When doing so the emotional relationship between the figures is called into question, due to the red painting seeming to divide the two figures and in doing so completely mask the identity of the baby. We as the viewer are unable to factually state whether the two subjects are related, however, the calming, earnest depiction of the adult female, reassures us the viewer that there is an absence regarding violence. This intern allows us to digest the red paint as none threatening and not be present to stimulate concepts such as blood and violence.
This stylistic approach showcases how both medium when used together still maintain their individual integrity. Richter’s work showcases how the medium of oil-paint, when used in unison with photography seems to naturally hold strong conceptual meaning. Sontag sheds light on this occurrence stating that “While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as narrowly selective transparency.” Richter seems to approach decision making in regard to the composition of this piece in a manner that enforces Sontag’s ideologies. He does so by firstly, choosing to present photography in the background as its own environment suggesting it to be of greater importance as all other information is viewed in regard to its tone and mood.
Then Secondly his contemporary approach taken when applying the red paint. The painting when imagined without the photographic background of the piece present, losses all context and manning, However, the Photograph when imagined without the introduction of paint maintains its meaning and visual impact.
Through constructing this portrait in a way that seems to treat paint in regard as something purely interpretational whilst treating photography as something objective, Richter adopts the views of Sontag when she states “photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.” (Sontag, 1977)
I will be discussing the work of Jingna Zhang and the individual approach she takes when dealing with themes such as darkness, grief, and sadness as previously explored by Bacon and Leibovitz. The piece titled ‘Dark Eros Komi-Shedding Wednesday’ showcases Zhang’s ability to create artwork that embodies the intimate relationship between humankind and darkness. In this piece, the figure is presented as a seated; bleeding from a wound on her left chest while holding a skull. Both her face and hands are covered with blood. The background is pitch black that gives the illusion that figure is floating within an infinite dark space. The figure seems to be emotionally indifferent to the skull and blood which provided the piece with a much more dangerous, ominous feel, leaving the viewer to feel as though the figure is comfortable within the environment.
The visual execution of this concept and its revolving around darkness is much more dramatic and deliberate than previous photographic outcomes we have explored. The dark gaze of the female figure coupled with the skull and blood creates a narrative that incriminates the subject and suggests the sitter be intimate with concepts relating to death and murder. This can be inferred, from the way the subject is cradling the human skull in her hand in contrast to her view being directly focused on the viewer. The lack of interest the subject seems to have regarding the skull coupled with her wounds implies that themes such as death, struggle, and pain are welcomed within the darkness she exists in.
Zhang’s use a strong visual dialogue using background, figure, and props; creates a narrative showcasing subjects that wouldn’t feel out of place existing also in the dark environments created by Bacon in his piece ‘Study after Velázquez’s’ portrait of Pope Innocent X’ and uses design techniques in regards to the relationship of the figure with the environment the photo is captured in to tell us more about the main figure as showcases in Leibovitz ‘Mick Jagger, Chicago, 1975’, however, the level of transparency she seems to achieve is much more in regards to the mind and characteristics of the main figure than the previously mentioned works. The way Zhang uses photography is extremely skillful as she is able to create what can be compared to fiction through the dramatization of the lighting with the pitch-black background surrounding the figure suggests a clear artistic influence. The addition of less factual and more artist expressionistic elements in this piece suggest the figure is staged to suggest a specific theme. Freeland explains that the “Discussions of photography’s alleged realism and transparency tend to confuse the first; Photography is said to have greater realism than painting and to be more direct, operating mechanically through light, chemistry, and machinery so that depiction occurs without (or in spite of) the intervention of artistic intentions.” (Freeland, 2007)
Due to photography having the power to incriminate and be held historical closer to reality it is through this possibility that it is easy to see how Zhang’s work benefits from the believability of media she uses. When compiling the dark nature and elements of her work we as the viewer are aware that photos often contain the same information showcasing actual crime and have the ability to tell a factual narrative of murder and death. This is a concept and reality that paintings do not deal with as paintings of murders cannot and have not been used as key evidence against murderers. The camera has a different link with the concept of transparency and panting’s do that Zhang seems to be very aware and when explored and suggests that her artistic expression will always speak to the fundamental nature of photography and the weight it holds.
I have examined and discussed painter Francis Bacon and his implementation of architectural chambers in order to represent the presence of conceptual darkness within his subjects. I have explained the similarity between Annie Leibovitz's human portrayal of Mick Jagger and the conceptual relations her work has with Bacon regarding the tearing away of the positive narrative associated with power and wealth and instead of speaking of dark, humanness associated with the reality. I have linked Jingna Zhang’s with Bacons and Leibovitz due to me showcasing how the nature and of the environment and the comfort of the sitter within this environment is used to create an extremely telling narrative. I have discussed the conceptual conflict created between artist representation and remaining true to the viewer as presented by Cynthia Freeland.
I have identified compositional techniques used by Gerhard Richter in his photographic paintings in order to showcase how a seasoned artist approach’s the challenges that arise when dealing with contrasting mediums allowing him to maintain their sense of individual integrity.
I have explained how both photographers have used techniques displayed first in paintings to visually relate the viewer to the figure as well as how painters have been inspired to create paintings from photography. I have explained how the visual relationship between viewer and artist is tested and adapted when dealing with each media in order to answer, “How has oil-based portrait painting influenced portrait photography?
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