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FACE OFF
Did the invention of photography kill the painted portrait? Of course not.

By Morgan Meis

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.

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 of “mid-twentieth century artists who were reinventing portraiture at a moment when almost everyone agreed that figuration was dead as a progressive art form.” Thus, de Kooning’s offering. He was trying to salvage some aspect of the human figure at a time when realistic looking paintings were not at all in fashion and portrait painting had been relegated to Sears.

It hadn’t always been this way. For hundreds of years, a painted portrait was supposed to look like the person it portrayed. Even especially talented and artful portrait painters — like Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543) — had to think of portraits primarily in terms of a good likeness. Holbein’s portrait of Christina of Denmark (1537) is, for instance, an especially beautiful painting. Her hands are the best part. That’s because of the way she grasps a glove between her two hands, the index and middle finger of the left hand intersecting gently with the fingers of the right. Christina’s face is impassive, hard to read. Her hands, though, reveal a tremendous vulnerability. When you look at those hands, you are forced to like Christina of Denmark.


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