MICHAEL H. PRICE: Cartooning Trumps Polite Portraiture
My home-base city of Fort Worth, Texas, has since the 1950s, complicated its countrified essence with a set of class-and-culture bearings that range from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition – America’s “So, there!” riposte to Khruschev and/or Tchaikowsky, dating from a peak-period of the Cold War – to four heavy-duty art museums of international appeal and influence. The local-boosterism flacks crow about “Cowboys ’n’ Culture!” at every opportunity, with or without provocation. But apart from the self-evident truths that Old Money (oil ’n’ cattle) fuels the high-cultural impulse and that the cow-honker sector finds chronic solace in the Amon Carter and Sid Richardson museums’ arrays of works by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, these communities seldom cross paths with one another.
The détente was tested beyond reasonable limits in 2001, when a yee-haw country-music promoter moved a mob-scene outdoor festival from the Fort Worth Stockyards to the fashionable downtown area – at precisely the moment the Cliburn Competition was settling into the nearby Bass Performance Hall, itself a grand assertion of an Old World civilizing stimulus for the New Linoleum. I mean, Millennium.
Yes, and the juxtaposition of clashing tribal imperatives scarcely could have been more emphatically pronounced. I should add, speaking of Horrors Beyond Forgetting, that it wasn’t the Cliburn audience that left that mound of shattered beer bottles in the City Center Parking Garage. Never the twang shall meet.
We can skip over a lot of the rest. (This all-purpose transition comes from Steve Gerber. Just so you know.)
Despite the persistence of “Cowboys ’n’ Culture!” as a rallying cry for the tourism racket, either element fares very well without the other’s interference. The North Side’s Stockyards area has Billy Bob’s Texas and the restless ghosts of the meat-packing industry. The West Side’s Cultural District has, well, its notions of Culture. And so who gets to call it “Art,” anyhow?
I’m homing in, here, upon a newly opened exhibition at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum. The title is The Mirror and the Mask: Portraiture in the Age of Picasso (through Sept. 16). This one is the most promisingly commercialized show the Kimbell has mounted in recent memory. (The lame-duck director, Dr. Timothy Potts, has long indulged a preference for antiquities grounded as much in anthropology as in artistry, and popular appeal be damned. More power to him.) The exhibit also recaptures a historic Fine Art Crisis that might as well belong to the shirtsleeves realm of cartooning.
Cartooning is, after all, as much a prehistoric wellspring of Fine Art as it is a self-sufficient modern-age phenomenon. (Ted Richards and Willy Murphy’s Two Fools comic, in the occasional cave-dweller episode, suggests persuasively the rowdier origins of formal portraiture.)
Origins notwithstanding, portraiture had long since set itself apart from cartooning by the waning 19th century. But cartooning had crept back in, repeatedly, as a function of propaganda. Take Richard III, f’rinstance.
Neither the Shakespearean version nor the historical personage of Richard III is anywhere to be found in this provocative Mirror and Mask show at the Kimbell. The objective here is modernism, after all – in the 20th-century sense, that is – and such antiquity as the thoroughly demonized Richard represents has no place in a proclaimed “Age of Picasso.”
One can only wonder, all the same, how the 15th-century English ruler might have fared as the subject of a sitting before such a painter as Pablo Picasso or David Hockney or Frida Kahlo. Official portraiture of Richard’s era depicts a pleasant-looking figure – although famous variants (a form of editorial cartooning, safely outside the subject’s mortal span) since the reign of Henry VIII suggest increasingly a hunched back and a withered arm, more in keeping with the vilifications associated with Sir Thomas More and Shakespeare: “An envious mountain ’pon my back,” indeed!
Of many painted Richards, one in particular (ca. 1550, some 65 years after his death-in-combat) captures such a thoroughly twisted figure as Shakespeare describes. And one other, a normal-looking figure of grace and dignity likely from the 1480s, seems drawn from life. And what royal portraitist ever had the guff to deliver an unflattering likeness of his ruler?
That question figures persistently in the Kimbell’s unique display.
Should portraiture affect an idealized view of humankind? Or seek some perceived truth at the sacrifice of prettification? The working cartoonist knows the answer, without prompting. Just ask Drew Friedman, who has worked both sides of that street to striking effect over the long haul – and who has lately resumed the warts-and-all approach to portraiture/caricature with an affectionately warty book called Old Jewish Comedians.
The arrival of Mirror and Mask coincides with Timothy Potts’ announced departure from the Kimbell, to join the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge. The deployment here of many popular-favorite artists (including Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso of course, and Hockney and Kahlo) bespeaks as keen a marketing-department influence as a curatorial relevance. (I could stand to see the context deepened with a Basil Wolverton panel or two – or a Boris Artzybasheff, or a selection from the ranks of the recognized Great Editorial Cartoonists, for whom a mastery of portraiture is a necessary function of caricature.)
This Mirror and Mask show is a benchmark, nonetheless. The absorbed viewer will respond naturally to the implicit influence of cartooning. The exhibit might find a telling summation in Oscar Wilde’s Faustian novel of 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray. “Every portrait that is painted with feeling,” wrote Wilde, “is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.”
Mirror and Mask captures seemingly the very moment upon which the more influential Artists-with-a-Capital-A of the 19th-into-20th centuries decided, as if by unconscious vote, to cease currying favor and patronage with flattering portraiture and start delivering exaggerations, even distortions, of the fellow human beings who sat before them as models. Where once the development of photography might have sidelined portrait-painting altogether, the portraitists retrenched as cartoonists – whether or not consciously so.
Once an independent idea has weasled its way into the communal dream-stream, its spread is assured. Oftentimes, such artists found it expedient to pose for themselves – hence an upwelling of self-portraiture, famously associated with Vincent Van Gogh – whether because they feared insulting some Ruling Class client with newfangled radical notions of anatomy, or because they were too impoverished to engage hired models.
The Kimbell’s masterstroke is to catch this vast society of artists (also among them: Paul Cezanne, Joan Miró, and Max Beckmann) in the act of turning away from conventional portrait-painting while looking to such alien influences as Third World tribal sculpture and their own skewed inner-cartoonist perceptions. And might a deliberate distortion mirror the soul more accurately than a literal, photo-realistic act of portraiture?
Portraiture had flourished historically as a matter of fidelity to nature, or to Conventional Wisdom: The popular notion of a Good Likeness is largely a matter of what a subject wishes to see staring back from the canvas. And yet the portrait-form found new momentum in the tempestuous experimentalism accumulated here. Abstraction of the human form became the newer norm.
In a shift amounting to a Sea Change in the practice of portraiture, the modern artists broke ranks with the custom of the made-to-order commissioned painting, which had been the meat-and-potatoes of the working artist. The sitters now became the artists themselves, or friends or relatives, rather than paying clients. As often as not, the paintings became gifts – not merchandise for the peddling. The notion of portraiture as a sharply defined genre helped to engage the expectations of the viewer, and then to defy such expectations with mask-like imagery rather than a recognizably lifelike vision.
Hence the Mask in the title of the exhibit. The Mirror part addresses, of course, a principal tool of self-portraiture. In a more figurative sense, such an artist might envision him- or herself in some other model entirely and paint the perception more so than the model. And hence Oscar Wilde’s assertion: “… the artist, not the sitter.”
On the Web: www.kimbellart.org
The Forgotten Horrors books of Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price are available from Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.