by Joanne Marion, Curator, Esplanade Museum and Art Gallery
Jessica Ford and Lucrezia Panciatichi (after Agnolo Bronzino)
In After, Laara Cassells transforms historical portraiture with the integration of contemporary subjects to create a series of dramatic and compelling double portraits based on paintings from the last 600 years by a range of artists from Rogier van der Weyden (1460) to Jean Louis Voille (1792), de Goya (1803) and as recent as Alexander Osmerkin (1921). Working with downloaded images of the historical portraits from the Internet, Cassells stages and paints each in the manner of the original source, inserting into the picture a contemporary young person uncannily resembling and interacting with the historical subject. In place of the books, flowers and other symbolic props of the historical portraits, Cassells poses her contemporary subjects with electronic devices such as media players, tablets, and cellphones. Cassell’s conjuring of past portraiture, both masterworks and lesser known, intersects intricately with the digital instantaneity of her present day subjects. The works give us pause to reflect upon our enduring fascination with images of ourselves, how meaning is embedded within the specific time and place of those images, and the larger philosophical questions around how we conceive of our selves.
Laara Cassells describes herself as a portraitist, and indeed belongs to the Portrait Society of Canada and the Portrait Society of America. Within the world of contemporary art however, the artistic viability of the genre of representational portraiture is highly contested: is a portrait the work of a ‘professional brush for hire’, or is it the work of an artist who paints for art’s sake? In discussing British artist David Hockney, who frequently paints named individuals, Matthew Gurewitsch in Smithsonian Magazine identifies the difference: “The history of Western art has produced two basic types of portraitist. On the one hand, the professional brush for hire, who specializes in the rich and mighty: Hans Holbein the Younger, say, or Frans Hals, Sir Anthony Van Dyck or John Singer Sargent. Then there are the inveterate students of human nature: Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo, Rembrandt van Rijn, Vincent van Gogh. Hockney places himself squarely in the latter camp: a portraitist for art’s sake.”1 Many of the original historical works which are the departure point of Laara Cassells’ works, for example the fashionably romantic 18th century Portrait of Ann Barbara Russell by British painter George Romney, or American expatriate society painter Julius LeBlanc Stewart’s elegant Portrait of a Lady (1892) would no doubt have fallen into the former category.
This debate about portraiture hinges on ‘what’ as opposed to ‘who’ – what is the intention of the artist rather than who is the subject of the portrait. Charlotte Mullins in Painting People distinguishes between portraits whose only subject is the representation of the sitter, and figure paintings in which wider themes obtain. Mullins cites Gerhard Richter’s Uncle Rudi (1965 and 2000) in which he blurs a family photograph so that the painting’s subject is not only his Nazi relative, but the nature of painting relative to photography, abstraction and historical meaning.2 Richard Brilliant, in Portraiture, likewise points to artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Manet and Duchamp, who have engaged with the very concept of portraiture as the subject of their art. Duchamp for instance presents photographs of himself within Wanted, $2000 Reward, a poster full of puns, double entendres, hoaxes, and his infamous alias ‘RROSE SELAVY’. In doing so, says Brilliant, “Duchamp has commented on the imprecision of the self’s boundaries, on the potential, if not actual, interchangeability of human beings by category, and on the ultimate submergence of the self under the weight of labels.”3
By re-presenting the original portraitist’s agenda within the works in After and doubling it with the portrayal of her contemporary subject, Cassells shifts each of her works into the field of ‘painting for art’s sake’. Her subjects are the nature and individuality and era of each doubled sitter and also the significance of acts of representation, and re-presentation.
Donna Gustafson and Susan Sidlauskis, in Striking Resemblance: the changing art of portraiture, identify the uncanny effect of doubling as provoking anxiety in an era which distrusts the copy and values notions of the irreplaceable individual. They list the many possible meanings of double portraits, which can project “a special connection between two individuals, a disruption of identity when two look like one, or an interior schism in the essential makeup of an individual, what Freud called ‘the shadow self’.”4
Whilst the similarities between Cassells’ contemporary subjects and their historical paired antecedents are indeed uncanny, and solicit a frisson of that anxiety which underlies our sense of our unique and integrated self, in many cases in After , the doubling seems more of a family resemblance than any ominous doppelgänger or dark shadow self. Take for instance Thomas and a Portrait of a Youth (after Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson).
Thomas and a Portrait of a Youth (after Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson).
The original 1795 painting is a Romantic portrait stylistically years ahead of its time, depicting a wild child of the French Revolution. Sebastien Smee describes the painting in a Boston Globe post: “Unlike the cool, level gazes of the subjects in the neo-classical portraits of Girodet’s teacher, Jacques-Louis David, this young boy’s liquid eyes are directed up and to the side. They register fear, but also a brooding resolve.”5 In her re-working and integration of that portrait, Cassells aims the unknown boy’s appraising look towards Thomas, whose hair, like the boy’s, signals chic nonconformity but whose shirt is pressed and clean; Thomas is not running wildly through the streets as the younger boy seems poised to do, instead he calmly adjusts his headphones. Cassells’ scene may still be shot through with a sense of the earlier passion and turbulence of the Revolution; it can also be read as a depiction of brothers about to have an altercation, mild or stormy, but in any case the result of fraternal closeness; a special connection.
In Lindsay and a Portrait of a Young Lady (after Albert Edelfelt), Cassells incorporates Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt’s gently pleasing 1885 portrait of an anonymous young woman. While Edelfelt met with considerable professional success in Paris he is nonetheless purported to have lamented, “The worst thing is that I am so fed up with these so-called Parisian subjects, these little women (petites femmes), that I can no longer bear to see without thinking of the wretched painting, superficial and cute, that one has to do with them.” 6
In Lindsay and a Portrait of a Young Lady (after Albert Edelfelt)
If indeed Edelfelt felt this professional despair of the portrait that is re-presented in Cassells’s work, any such sentiments on the part of the viewer are rendered moot in contemplating the subtle nuances of the interplay of Cassells’ contemporary subject Lindsay with Edelfelt’s unnamed ‘young lady’. Cassells redirects the glance of Edelfelt’s sitter from its original, level gaze out of the picture frame’s right side, and towards the contemporary figure of Lindsay, who glances back. In their slight smiles and interlocking gazes Cassells’ has created an intimate, momentary interaction between two women that exists in a spatial and temporal hiatus. Edelfelt’s original depiction is of a lovely woman for the viewer’s leisurely scrutiny, but Lindsay is on her cellphone, actively communicating within the painting’s diegesis. Perhaps ‘the future is friendly’7, or at least friendlier towards many young women, their aspirations and agency than in Edelfelt’s time. Here, as in several of the works in which the two subject engage each other, Cassells reshapes the intention underlying the historical painting into a contemporary narrative about the past that makes tangible a fleeting instant of an impossible connection.
Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter… I say among my friends that Narcissus who was changed into a flower, according to the poets, was the inventor of painting. Since painting is already the flower of every art, the story of Narcissus is most to the point. What else can you call painting but a similar embracing with art of what is presented on the surface of the water in the fountain? Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting (1435-36)8
Kyre and Blowing Bubbles (after Charles Chaplin)
What is it in the human face that mesmerizes and transfixes us? No matter what type, style, setting or duration of the imaging, our eyes are perennially entranced by our own visages, more than depictions of anything else. We pause, are stilled, focussed momentarily outside ourselves. We look and look, and look again – what is it we desire to find? Leon Batiste Alberti muses on this question in his 1435 theoretical treatise on art, a pioneering work of the modern age that was written a mere 15 years after the invention of oil painting. In it, Alberti presages 20th century theorists from Freud to Derrida and Lacan. Like Freud, Alberti invokes Narcissus in his assessment of painting’s unique mirroring and reflection of a self. And like philosopher Lacan and psychoanalyst Derrida, both preeminent thinkers on how we become, act as and understand ourselves to be individuals, Alberti considers the elements of artifice and differentiation essential to the construction of the self, which is attended in infancy by awestruck and entranced emotion.
Richard Brilliant also echoes psychoanalysts in suggesting that our captivation by artistic likeness is a crucial vestige of the infantile process of recognizing the mother while establishing an individual identity, “an important instrument of survival, separating friend from foe, that persists into adult life.”9
In Sheridan and Portrait of Paul Wayland Bartlett (after Charles Sprague Pearce), Cassells depicts a ‘friend or foe’ moment, two men ostensibly challenging each other face to face, one armed with a cigarette and the other brandishing a smartphone, both clad in the ‘business casual’ of their era.
Sheridan and Portrait of Paul Wayland Bartlett (after Charles Sprague Pearce),
According to art historian Sarah Burns, the original circa 1890 portrait by Pearce presents the American sculptor Bartlett as established, disciplined, secure and even superior by way of his suit, demeanour and grooming; a modern, corporate appearance that was popular amongst American artists of the day. While remaining ’eminently respectable’ however, Bartlett’s cigarette subtly hints at artistic bohemianism and play at some sort of deviance.10 It’s a delicate balance achieved by Pearce that points to the rigour of the portraitist’s task: to address the subject’s desire to endure using an array of signs and symbols whose nuances need to be widely understood in their time. The catch of course is that the understanding of these codes becomes immediately subject to the vagaries of time, place and the perceiver.
Pearce and Bartlett’s time and place is close enough to our own that we can quite accurately interpret Bartlett’s self-confident haughtiness and the meaning of his portrait prop, as did the contemporary subject Sheridan, asked by Cassells to dress in a manner similar to Bartlett, and pose himself in relation to the 19th century painting. Here Cassells has enlisted her contemporary subject to act as a translator, a conduit across time, space and the boundaries of the body, a go-between for the viewer and the historical figure in mimicking or reflecting back their pose, dress and expression. However, in other works in After, these visual translations of the largely conceptual and symbolic determinants of individuality from the historic portrait prove more fugitive.
Take for example Cassells’ Claire and Doña Isabel de Porcel (after Francisco de Goya).
Claire and Doña Isabel de Porcel (after Francisco de Goya)
Painted before 1805 by the celebrated and troubled de Goya possibly as a gift for de Porcel’s husband, the original portrait shows her with the dress and demeanour of a ‘maja’, the female version of a late 18th – early 19th century lower class Spanish city dweller. The contemporary sitter Claire matches this outfit with a simple cloth coat and knitted cap. But Cassells’ painting intensifies an odd inversion within de Goya’s work, in that de Porcel was an aristocrat posing in an upper class fashion of the day which imitated the Madrid demimonde, stylishly dressing down as it were, though her intent is deliberately betrayed by the rich satin and lace of her costume. De Porcel’s dress and pose, like that of Bartlett, is imitative of an authentic social deviance of her era. Farther away in time and distance though, these subtleties of interpretation would probably elude the average contemporary viewer: the encoding fails and we are left, as the observer of Cassells’ work, with only a visual similarity between the two subjects, with a sense that the contemporary subject is only ‘standing in for’ a more rich and detailed understanding that could bring to life the charming Isabel. Claire’s expression, and Cassells’ painting overall become expressive of loss, exacerbated by de Porcel’s confident flair.
Oddly, there is yet another loss in this story, this one within de Goya’s original painting: fully described underneath the image of Doña Isabel de Porcel lies a male figure, facing right where she (uncharacteristically for de Goya) faces left, his eyes looking out from the area of her neck. A mysterious figure dressed in a blue striped jacket with a ribbon of decoration, he is not the subject of any of de Goya’s known works and can only be seen through X-ray technology. Further, de Goya did not re-prime the canvas of this unknown man, of some substance in his own lifetime, before painting de Porcel. As described in Martin Wyld’s National Gallery Technical Bulletin of 1981, “Doña Isabel must have been an extraordinary sight as the top of the male sitter’s head disappeared under her left eye and cheek, and his right eye under her chin.”11
In the 1435 On Painting quotation above, Battista Leon Alberti optimistically sees the summoning of the absent through their presence in images as providing the pleasure of recognition and joyful admiration for the painter. Alive during the advent of the Renaissance, Alberti is certainly considering his glass half-full, whilst modernist thinkers of the first half of the 20th century who ponder the question, following two catastrophic wars which enveloped the world and tore Europe apart, notably dwell on the half-empty, on absence and loss. In his influential writing on reproduction technologies, philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin described photographic portraiture as a cult of remembrance, a last fleeting refuge of the aura of the portrayed infused with a ‘melancholy, incomparable beauty.’12 Whilst Benjamin was speaking of the difference between photographs and paintings in terms of their aura of authenticity, one wonders what Benjamin might have made of the nested personifications within Cassells’ work, being as they are singular painting puzzles made possible through numerous iterations of photographic reproduction.
“A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” is how British Prime Minister Churchill described Russia in an October 1939 radio broadcast at the outset of World War II, and in Cassells’ Jordan and A Woman Removing her Glove (after Ekaterina Rozhdestvenskaya after Alexander Osmerkin,) the idea of nested personifications, poses and identities achieves matryoshka-like dimensions.
The original circa 1921 portrait by Alexander Alexandrovich Osmerkin is that of a woman who though flamboyantly dressed in a heavy, wide collared, fur-trimmed winter coat and jaunty blue hat, is rather sadly removing a glove. A Russian modernist painter who struggled and eventually failed to circumscribe his artistic practice within the rigorous and artistically catastrophic constraints of Soviet Realism in the first half of the 20th century, Osmerkin’s portrait became the subject of 21st century Russian photographer Ekaterina Rozhdestvenskaya before it became Cassells’.
Jordan and A Woman Removing her Glove (after Ekaterina Rozhdestvenskaya after Alexander Osmerkin,)
Rozhdestvenskaya’s ongoing Private Collection series presents famous contemporary Russians – politicians, athletes, musicians, TV personalities, journalists and actors – in portraits based on paintings by artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Renoir, Monet and others. Intending to “draw attention to masterpieces of world painting and represent modern stars in a new light,”13 Rozhdestvenskaya staged a Russian figure skater of world renown as the woman removing her glove in Osmerkin’s painting. Winner of multiple Olympic, World, European and Russian national championships, Evgeni Viktorovich Plushenko is actually a man. Something subtly amiss in the proportions of the woman’s ungloved hand, her neck and jaw triggers a slight discordance within Cassells’ painting, whose contemporary subject Jordan bears an androgynous name and man’s leather jacket, with breasts sharply defined by the reflection on her tightly buttoned satin shirt.
Cassells’ Jordan unsmilingly proffers a smartphone and ear buds to the bereft, half-gloved woman-man in this duplicitous quadruple portrait. For Russians and those who follow world figure skating, Rozhdestvenskaya’s Evgeni Plushenko might trigger a gasp of recognition. For anyone else, the cult of celebrity invoked by Rozhdestvenskaya does not pertain, and in Cassell’s work, the ungloved woman may be left with the option of a smartphone photo posted on Facebook or Instagram, at which prospect she/he might look justifiably askance. As would Cassells herself: “For me… the practice of painting offers a slower rhythm and time to contemplate a more intimate connection with the subject… I would hope that such a painted portrait would have more subtlety and nuance than an iPhone ‘selfie.'”14 Cassells’ project of course combines these two streams of imaging. Characteristics from the photographic aspect convey meaning in themselves: the naturalism of a sense of movement caught and an un-posed spontaneity in Kate and Ann Barbara Russell (after George Romney), or the approachability of contemporary subjects’ slightly open mouths talking, smiling and breathing depicted in that work and in Jen and Maria Lopukhina (after Vladimir Lukich Borovikovsy) and Stephanie and a Portrait of a lady Wearing a Flowered Shawl (after Salomon Guilluame Counis).
Richard Brilliant recalls Alberti’s positive mission for portraiture in his assertion that the genre “challenges the transiency or irrelevance of human existence”15 and Cassells, in her reference to the time required by the act of painting, intimates that such a temporally demanding work can carry a heavier freight of knowledge and insight than the instantaneous photographic reproduction. Indeed, portraitists and art historians alike view the well-crafted, painted portrait as embodying understanding and complexity created through experience, which includes that of the subject, the artist and the viewer.
In our age of instantaneity and transience we value time and are in awe of those who commit a substantial portion of their finite share to a practice such as painting; and we are concerned that our lives are gradually being leached of experience beyond the virtual. A representational painted portrait particularly necessitates the dedication of time for its painter to acquire knowledge and understanding of its subject, and to determine how best to convey that understanding to the viewer and then to work through the act of building up that concept on a two dimensional surface. It requires time on the part of both artist and subject: before photography, the studio sitting was essential, and usually multiple sittings, sometimes hundreds, were required.
Though lengthy portrait sittings often resulted in a sense of formal posing, this is not unique to painting: it was also extant in early photography which required long exposures. Formality may also be a social requirement of a particular portrayal. This would appear to be the case in the unsmiling, regal and ornate formality of Lucrezia Panciatichi’s image as compared to Jessica’s in Cassells’ Jessica Ford and Lucrezia Panciatichi (after Agnolo Bronzino).
Jessica Ford and Lucrezia Panciatichi (after Agnolo Bronzino).
Though very similar in appearance, dress and pose, small nuances make a world of difference, throwing the individual identities of Lucrezia and Jessica into a double portrait of contrasts: Jessica’s mouth and eyes are upturned, Lucrezia’s down, Jessica’s puffed sleeves are reminiscent of Lucrezia’s but are casually pretty as opposed to tightly gathered masses which would impede Lucrezia’s movement, as would her padded and tightly stretched bodice compared to Jessica’s comfortable and relaxed trousers. With one hand on a devotional book of daily offices that proclaims her piety yet festooned with pearls and lengths of luscious and intricately hand sewn fabric, hair elaborately coiled, everything about Lucrezia says: I belong to and am near the pinnacle of a rigorous hierarchical system, therefore I am. Whereas the imaging of Jessica with her Mac laptop glowing and poised mid-email says, I share, therefore I am.16
In many of the works, the style and technique of the original portrait reproduced by Cassells is so sensuous, as in for instance Betsy and Princess Anna Gagarina (after Jean-Louis Voille), or painterly, as in Kate and Ann Barbara Russell (after George Romney),
that it simply can’t be mistaken for a photograph. The poses and accoutrements likewise locate the historical figures in the role of portrait ‘sitters’: subjects whose image is the result of a negotiation with the artist, and their mutual, intersecting intentions, desires, and vulnerabilities. In some of the paintings the two figures, whose original images are separated by up to 600 years, appear as if they could be in the same room, so accurately has Laara staged the contemporary subject; others appear as if the contemporary subject is standing in front of the historical painting and it could uncannily come to life; and the eyes of both of the figures could track our movements. Cassells’ work couldn’t have the same effect in any other medium: the paint unifies Cassells’ various sources across the centuries, with its physical texture, and its specific, sensual connection to the viewer which arises from the physical and temporal work and touch of the artist.
The very fact that such lengthy, detailed descriptions of the paintings’ minutia are even feasible is another salient characteristic of Cassells’ double portraits: the time that is required on the part of the viewer in the act of viewing. Viewers are solicited to explore the richness of the details and the physicality of the artist’s handiwork and are embraced by the veritable network of glances and gazes within the double portraits. Viewers are drawn, say Gustafson and Sidlauskis in Striking Resemblance, into a circle of intimacy, a circle which is closed by their physical proximity and desiring gaze.
The deceptively simple concept which underlies the works in Laara Cassells’ After – an historical portrait paired in paint with a contemporary portrait – proves rich in its execution, entrancing in its effect, and infinitely complex in its modus operandi within the world of the viewer. Cassells’ works entice the viewer to musings about the possible wellsprings of our universal obsession with imaging ourselves, and with the origins and meanings of these images. Highly specific in time, the paintings are provocatively alive in our 21st century, while gesturing backwards hundreds of years and forwards, to encounters with unknown, future viewers.
1 “David Hockney and Friends” by Matthew Gurewitsch, Smithsonian Magazine online, August 2006.
2 Charlotte Mullins, Painting People figure painting today (D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, New York, 2006), 148.
3 Richard Brilliant, Portraiture (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991), 174.
4 Donna Gustafson and Susan Sidlauskis, Striking Resemblance: the changing art of portraiture (Delmonico Books/Prestel and Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Jersey, 2014), 85
5 Sebastien Smee, “Frame by Frame: Girodet’s “Portrait of a Youth” at Smith College Museum of Art,” November 22, 2010 06:30 PM, Boston Globe Arts & Entertainment staff, https://www.boston.com/ae/specials/culturedesk/2010/11/frame_by_frame_girodets_portra.html.
7 “The future is friendly” is a current Telus Communications promotional slogan.
8 Alberti, Leon Battista, On Painting [First appeared 1435-36] Translated with Introduction and Notes by John R. Spencer, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, first printed 1956), 17-18.
https://paduan.dk/Kunsthistorie%202008/Tekster/Alberti%20-%20On%20Painting.pdf accessed Oct. 28, 2014
9 Brilliant, Portraiture, 9
10 Sarah Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America (Yale University Press, 1996), 36 -37
11 Martin Wyld, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, Vol. 5, 1981, 38–43.
12 Walter Benjamin, quoted in Gerhard Richter’s “A Portrait of Non-Identity”, Monatshefte, Vol. 94, No. 1, Rereading Adorno (Spring, 2002, University of Wisconsin Press), 1. Also: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm
14 Laara Cassells artist statement, November, 2014
15 Brilliant, Portraiture, 14
16 Sherry Turkle, TED Talk, quoted in Striking Resemblance, 39