Encountering Culture – Styles and influences

As my project is primarily about the effects it has on the youngsters involved I feel it is important to convey the emotional issues they face at this challenging time. In order to best represent my subject through portraiture I want to investigate it a lot more in this section.

Brief History of Portraiture
Paleolithic – Neolithic
cave paintings 2
(The Unicorn Panel nd)

Since early man first found ways to record their actions through drawing and painting we have been using portraiture to depict our life and history.

Some of the earliest known drawings appear on the cave walls of the Lascaux caves in Southern France. Primarily these images are of animals, some of them fiercesome beasts such as woolly mammoths and it is believed that these paintings were created as a form of bonding ritual, made by the caves inhabitants prior to embarking on a dangerous hunt, knowing that not everyone will survive.

This early societal gathering was a forerunner to our fascination around the transience of life which would ultimately lead to community religionism. (Prehistoric Era nd)

Ancient Egypt
(Portrait History nd)
(Portrait History nd)

It was in ancient Egypt that portraits became an artistic recording of history. Here they painted gods and deities with the only humans being those that were raised to the status of a heavenly entity such as the Pharaohs.

It was the Egyptians who employed a technique known as frontalism. This was a system that would portray the subject’s body facing forward but with the head in profile view. It was considered so important to portray those they revered in this manner that it superseded all requirements for realism or perspective.

Ancient Greece
(Venus De Milo 2006)
(Venus De Milo 2006)

The ancient Greeks also followed a similar path with regard to their subject matter and predominately depicted their gods and other ethereal members of heavenly divinity. However the Greeks chose to use sculpture for their art. The majority of all sculptures were images of their gods depicted as middle-aged men as this was the only forms considered acceptable, however as art has often been the tool of the rebellious, other forms were created. The most notable and famous being the Venus de Melos (Venus of Milo). A marble carving of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure and procreation. (Ancient Civilizations nd)

(Bust of Domitianus nd)
(Bust of Domitianus nd)

As the Roman Empire expanded it absorbed numerous facets of local portraiture styles but those most prominent were from Ancient Egypt and Greece. It was Julius Caesar himself that placed huge importance on the heroic profile style similar to that of the Pharaohs and it was the Romans who were amongst the first to use his image on all of their coinage. Another common site in Roman art was the numerous figure-head sculptures or busts with many prominent figures including gods having lifelike creations carved for them.

It was Rome’s continued expansion of its empire that allowed its styles to develop well beyond anything that had preceded it. This was due to the conquering traits employed by the empire, rather than obliterate its enemies they would force them into subservience and ensure they swore fealty to the empire; this would normally involve a substantial tax being paid on a regular basis. However it would also allow these servile nations to continue to develop naturally whilst Rome would absorb their culture into their own.

Medieval Europe
(Creation of Adam nd)
(Creation of Adam nd)

Rome bore witness to a new power that even its might could not stand before. The emergence of Christianity as a major world religion also saw a change in the artistic styles of portraiture. The unrelenting proliferation of this monotheistic leviathan saw the churches central power raised to such a level that even nations dare not oppose it. If you were an artist then your endeavours often required substantial finance and the church stood as one of the wealthiest benefactors of its time. As a result some of the most fantastic artistic creations were commissioned and many artists were funded with the proviso that their works would depict the ecclesiastical magnificence of the faith.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph were the preferred subjects but religious scenes painted as enormous frescos onto the walls of cathedrals, sculpted Angles and Demons adding a new dimension to external walls and stained glass windows offering a pictorial narration of scenes from the bible were all results of this period in history. (Medieval Civilizations nd)

The Renaissance
(Mona Lisa 2010)
(Mona Lisa 2010)

It was the Dutch who demonstrated a new substance that when used for painting would permit artists access to a wealth of colours and unheard of contrasts  that had never previously been seen. With the advent of oils painters could create images of subjects far beyond the devotional reverence proffered to the subjects of the medieval religious icons and hence gave birth to the renaissance.

This revolution saw a shift away from the caricatured and over exaggerated pictures which was the trait of religious painting and witnessed the return to more classical styles but now with a focus on humanism. This was one of the first times that the subjects did not require divinity or canonization but a rather more earthly appearance. Art was still the purview of the wealthy and the majority of works would still be commissioned by those in positions of status but with the world’s greatest artists holding celebrity status they were soon becoming free to choose their own subjects and of all the famous artists there are few quite as revered as Leonardo Da Vinci who created the most famous portrait ever, The Mona Lisa.

As the movement endured it saw its practitioners divide into an abundance of diversity, with artists taking their brushes and paints away from their studio and out into the world whilst others became bored with standalone portraits and looked to create images with a narrative attached, some of these, such as the famous Michelangelo returned to religious art creating breath-taking frescos the like which have never been repeated. Nevertheless it is the concepts from this period such as chiaroscuro which continues to hold great influence over portraits today. (The Renaissance nd)

(Grace Kelly 2012)
(Grace Kelly nd)

Throughout history and up until the 19th century portraiture had been the domain of the wealthy and powerful. But in America things were changing. In a nation still acclimatising to democracy they saw the portrait as a regression to monarchistic times and still something to be reviled and feared. However with progress came changing attitudes and the developments of technologies such as camera obscura saw the dawn of a new interest in portraiture, particularly amongst those of the middle classes. These modern images took the form of miniature profiles painted from shadows on the wall and finally pulled the medium away from its elitist roots.

Ultimately it was the invention of the ‘Box Brownie’ that brought portraiture to the masses when Eastman Kodak first introduced its invention in February 1900 (Brownie Camera Wikipedia 2013). Here was an affordable device that allowed the common man to take his own photographs. Initially the introduction of this device created a dichotomy with professional photographers continuing to take portraits of the rich and famous with the amateur inventing a new medium which became known as vernacular photography. (Modern Era nd)

(Family House 1969)
(Family House 1969)

Vernacular photography consisted of the everyday images, commonly of families taken by those that had invested in one of Kodak’s inventions. Suddenly we had a plethora of portraits offering us insights into the everyday lives of the people using them and although professionals turned their noses up at these poor quality images, preferring to focus on technical excellence the art world soon became enamoured with them. (Vernacular Photography 2013)

Photography went on to dominate the portraiture market with new business opening up all the time to offer professional quality images of the family but it still remained an area which many artists chose to practice in. One such person was Andy Warhol who shot to fame with his unusual versions of celebrities. Perhaps his most famous works is the Pop Art image of Marilyn Monroe. Now often copied his version has become iconic in the portrait world.

(Les Demoiselles d'Avignon 1907)
(Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907)

However, even with photography emerging as the leading medium for portraits many artists stayed loyal to painting. Of the modern artistes Pablo Picasso stands out as a person who created some of the most unusual images with his surreal cubist style his work is highly prized and fetches vast sums of money at auction. (Post Modernism nd)

Today portraiture is as important as ever. In the digital media age photographs are transported around the world in seconds and the content of those images can dramatically alter the world around us. It is very difficult to determine the very power that a simple image can hold, when used at the right time it can sway opinion, change perspectives, incite a riot or instigate a rebellion from oppression. Today, this visual imagery that is bombarding us from every corner of the globe and is redefining global perspectives.

In the 21st century portraiture is no longer about gods or divinity, nor is it royalty or nobility and even though the pictures of our families will still hang on our walls the digital image is now bringing the world to our doorstep and inspiring our actions of tomorrow.

So, What is a portrait?
Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh - Dec 1941.
(Karsh. Y. 1941)

This image above was taken by Yousuf Karsh who was a remarkable portrait photographer. and used light very well to his advantage. This image is what we normally think of as a portrait and it offers a good reflection on its subject who is portrayed in the way we like to think of him. It was a staged image and the subject was aware of the photographer so he could present himself as he wished.

Masks - 1996
(Caruci.E. Closer. Masks 1996)

This next image by Elinor Carucci is in the landscape format but still represents a portrait, Although at least one of the people in the image are aware of the photographer the image is still a good representation of a casual and un-posed photo. This sort of portrait is very effective and revealing a truth about a person or ‘capturing there essence’ and can make powerful and moving images.

(Morley L. 2013)

A portrait does not always have to show the face, in this example you can only see the feet but this can still reveal a lot about a person. There is a plaster and a bandage around one foot which shows a sign of recent injury and the feet look like they belong to an older woman. They also shows signs of hard wear and this person probably spends a lot of time on their feet, walking or keeping busy and they probably do not wear enclosed footwear.

(Marek. R. nd)

A portrait does not even have to have an image of a person, this portrait contains a hat and a uniform. This is telling us something about the person it belongs to, their job and passions and they would have likely had to work hard to have earned the right to wear such a uniform.

Fashion, Advertising, Media, Documentary, Journalistic, Historical recording, Family and Art, the portrait appears everywhere in our daily lives. It is a form of expression and communication that has been around almost as long as human have walked the earth. From early cave paintings to 3D lifelike holographic representations the portrait will continue to have a major bearing, not just on photography but in art and almost every part of out lives.


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