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Interfaces Sacha Newley’s Portraits by Donald Kuspit Painting portraits is not the straightforward descriptive matter it seems to be, even when the portraitist possesses great observational and technical skills, as Newley does. The great art historian Max J. Friedländer notes that “the heightening of self-consciousness, so favourable to the development of the portrait when found in the object, became a stumbling block to it in the subject, i.e. the creative artist.” The problem is that “the job of painting a portrait entails something akin to obsequiousness, against which creative power puts up a fight. Apart from the fact that the object, the appearance as given, demands to be observed accurately and objectively, thus limiting the artist’s freedom, his imagination, his spirit, the portraitist is quite specifically in a subservient position.”(1) The issue is clearly interpersonal, namely, the emotional asymmetry between the person portrayed--in the dominant position by reason of being the exclusive object of the artist’s attention--and the artist doing the portraying, in a position that seems to demand complete self-effacement if the job is to be done well, at least from an empirical point of view. But this creates another problem, as Friedländer ironically suggests: by putting his creativity at the service of another human being the artist inhibits it as well as compromises his own humanness and identity. Portraying another person seems to be an ingenious form of self-defeat, not to say emotional and creative suicide, for the artist. What is the solution to this apparently insolvable problem? Friedländer finds it in Dostoyevsky, whom he quotes: “The painter seeks the moment when the model looks most like himself. The portraitist’s gift lies in the ability to spot this moment and hang on to it.” Friedländer agrees: the portraitist paints this moment of likeness, however fleeting--the imaginative moment when the painter finds himself in the model, so that in representing the model he represents himself, however unconsciously. It is the dialectical moment when the artist’s creative power puts up a fight against the irresistible object while succumbing to it. Paradoxically, only when the portraitist comes into his creative own can he make a convincing portrait, that is, a so-called speaking likeness in which every external feature of the portrayed person seems to signify--even expressively represent--some dynamic aspect of his psyche. The artist shows his mastery of the person portrayed when he persuades us of the inseparability of the person’s external appearance and internal reality. Such a creative triumph is possible only when the artist projectively identifies with the person, allowing him to become the person in spirit--even though it is his own spirit that is “realized” through the person. This illusion of symbiotic intimacy--allowing for the fantasy that can one can experience what it is like to be another person from the inside--translates into the portrait’s demonstration of the union of the portrayed’s outer and inner lives, that is, his integrity. But it is of course the artist’s integrity when he is holding his creative own against the person portrayed. Now what makes Newley’s portraits special is that the people he portrays are usually artists, like himself. This makes identification with them easier than it would otherwise be: he portrays people inherently like himself--creative people into which he can project his own creativity. In probing the mystery of their creativity, he is implicitly probing the mystery of his own creativity. A salient example is Newley’s portrait of the artist Basil Alkazzi: the portrait “translates” the sensitivity of Alkazzi’s art into his appearance while conveying Newley’s own sensitivity--a major source of creativity. In short, identifying with them is self-identification--as well as self-legitimation as an artist--suggesting that for him portrait painting is a profoundly narcissistic process. More subtly, Newley’s portraiture is an ingenious way of externalizing his own creativity by investing it in the often theatrical appearance of the people he portrays, many of whom are in fact actors. Newley portrays Sir Nigel Hawthorne as Mad King George III, 1993 and Anthony Newley as Ebenezer Scrooge, 1998. Gore Vidal, 1994 and Dominick Dunne, 1995 are both writers who have been actors, in principle and sometimes in fact. Vidal has appeared in movies as well as in television interviews and Dunne hosts a television program. They are performers all. Even Christopher Reeves, 2004 incapacitated in a wheel chair, seems to be performing--which is not to be unsympathetic, but to notice the dramatic intensity of his face and his consciousness of the spectator. Actors seem to be able to dramatize their true selves by being false to themselves, that is, playing a role. More particularly, they seem to dramatize their creativity by playing less creative--more ordinary--people than themselves, although Newley dramatizes his creativity by catching them in the creative act, so to speak. His paintings re-perform their performances, as though to expose the secret of its success, that is, their ability to convince us that they are who they are pretending to be. They are socially sanctioned imposters, as it were, in the psychoanalyst Phyllis Greenacre’s sense of that term: a person with “the ability...to put on convincing acts of impersonation...so far surpassing in interest and apparent ability his ordinary ‘other self’ that one is tempted to say he is his own work of art.”(2) As the literary critic Lionel Trilling writes, “the characteristic disease of the actor [is] the attenuation of selfhood that results from impersonation,” noting that Rousseau thought “the theatrical art falsifies the self.”(3) But there is another view of the actor, suggesting that he is in fact the consummate creative artist and ideal self. As the psychoanalyst Otto Rank notes, the modern “‘Bohemian’ artist...had a definite costume...which [was] to mark him out as a ‘genius.’...the actor nowadays represents this pristine type of artist, where object and subject coincide, and the body forms the material in which and through which the artist creates.”(4) Newley’s figures act with their bodies as well as faces--the most expressive part of the body. They dramatize their emotions, theatricalizing their creativity in the process, with their whole being. Their creative achievement is to show that body and self are not only inseparable but in some way the same. That is, they convey the psychosoma that is the fundament of human being. It is also Newley’s creative achievement.


Like his mentors--which is what the actors he portrays implicitly are (they are all portraitists, for they portray other people, perhaps even when they try to be themselves)--Newley resolves what has been called the “aesthetic conflict” between the outside and inside of an object. The inside is enigmatic, and “must be construed by creative imagination,” while the outside is “available to the senses,” giving it direct “aesthetic impact.”(5) The actor’s creative achievement--it is why he is the model for all other artists--is to sensuously imagine the enigmatic inside, conveying it through the primordial expressivity of the body and face. Particularly the face: as is well known, “the face [is] the primary site of affect display and affective interaction.”(6) To make a portrait is to be face to face with the portrayed person, mirroring him while being mirrored by him, that is, emotionally interacting and even merging with him, ironically in the act of separating from him by representing him. Newley is a master of “facial affect display,” like all good portraitists, which suggests that he is a good impersonator--a first rate actor. That is, he represents himself by representing his attachment to others even though to do so requires a certain detachment-let’s call it aesthetic disinterest--from them. The Winnicottian issue of the relationship of True Self and False Self comes to the fore in Newley’s portraits of actors, which demonstrate their complex integration, but in other portraits the selves represented seem unequivocally true--never false--to themselves. Ivan, 1992 and Newley himself, in his various self-portraits, seem “naturally” true, as the animal and plant in Ivan suggest. The visceral handling of the 2002 Self-Portrait conveys the “spontaneous gesture and personalized idea” (of the self, one might add) that for Winnicott are the hallmarks of True Self realism, as it might be called. This work, as well as others, suggests the influence of Lucian Freud, who once said that the task of the portrait painter was to lift the sitter’s “censorship”-probably an allusion to his grandfather’s dream theory, and something he thought photography couldn’t do--of his affects. The actor lifts the censorship on intense affect expression, and so do Newley’s best portraits, especially his portrait of Reeves’ head. What links Newley’s portraits to such allegorical works as The Card Players or Seven Cardinal Sins, 2003, is that all the sins are personified affects. The Head of Anger makes the point explicitly. It is a masterful portrait of the intensely fixated expression of a person completely possessed by a single, all-consuming affect. Newley may seem to be a moralist, but the Seven Deadly Sins has more to do with affect than morality. They are portraits of certain innate affects, presented without judgment, however much they seem to pass judgment on themselves by reason of their grotesqueness. Strange as it may seem to say so, Newley’s grotesque portraits of the sins--the sins are inherently grotesque and reveal the grotesque side of the self--are as beautiful as his peculiarly grotesque actors. Rank has argued that the task of art is to reconcile truth and beauty--the painful emotional truth and the beauty that transcends it by incorporating it, suggesting that it can be brought under the control of the ego, and as such, strange as it may to say so, become a source of pleasure. Indeed, the point of sin is that it promises pleasure but delivers pain. Tragedy and Comedy, 1998 makes the dialectic of pleasure and pain-their peculiar closeness yet difference--ironically clear. One can easily shift from one to the other by changing one’s facial expression. Like Darwin, the influential psychologist Sylvan Tomkins thinks that “the innate affects were manifested on the face with such rapidity, and were capable of such quick shifts, that they could not be explained as secondary phenomena.” But where Darwin thought that the face was a passive screen on which the affects were displayed, Tomkins brilliantly theorizes that “what we see (and feel) as facial display is the actual source of what we call emotion, an ‘inward feed’ of information from the face to conscious awareness.”(7) One can understand Newley’s Seven Cardinal Sins and Tragedy and Comedy as demonstrations of how rapidly affects can shift as well as of their innateness, and, above all, their embodiment in the face. Newley moves from one facially dramatized affect to another--in Tragedy and Comedy from painful to pleasurable affect, in Seven Cardinal Sins ambivalently painful and pleasurable affects--with remarkable expressive deftness, suggesting a heightened awareness of his own affects, and of their inevitability. But enacting them in art gives him aesthetic control of them, suggesting that for him portraying the affects--almost invariably sinful (Ebenezer Scrooge and Mad King George III were both sinners, and Dunne and Vidal are preoccupied with sin, which is a crime against the self as well as society)--is Newley’s way of saving himself from their sinfulness. Notes: (1)Max J. Friedländer, Landscape, Portrait, Still-Life: Their Origin and Development (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), p. 232 (2)Phyllis Greenacre, “The Relationship of the Imposter to the Artist,” Emotional Growth: Psychoanalytic Studies of the Gifted and a Great Variety of Other Individuals (New York: International Universities Press, 1971), vol 2, p. 533 (3)Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 64, 65 (4)Otto Rank, Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development (New York and London: Norton, 1989 [1932]) p. 31 (5)Quoted in Kenneth Sanders, Post-Kleinean Psychoanalysis: The Biella Seminars (London and New York: Karnac Books), p. 101. For Meltzer the object in question is the mother, but the aesthetic conflict, which is essentially an epistemological issue, holds true for every object that we seriously attend to, indicating that it is a primary conflict. (6)Donald L. Nathanson, ed., The Many Faces of Shame (New York and London: Guilford, 1987), p. 30 (7)Ibid., pp. 134-35

"INTERFACES"  

critical essay by Donald Kuspit 2004

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