Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Duchess Kate Middleton Gets Her Portrait Painted

Portrait of Kate Middleton by Paul Emsley; detailed description can be found in caption.
South African artist Paul Emsley's portrait of Kate Middleton. [Image: Squarish painting of the head and shoulders of Kate Middleton perfectly centered and directly facing the viewer, her hair perfectly coiffed and falling over the shoulders of her conservative blouse. She smirks or barely smiles a tight smile. The background is midnight navy; she wears a slightly lighter navy blouse or dress with an ascot and matching stud earrings. The style is photo-realistic and incredibly detailed, yet also has a meticulously hazy "airbrush" "soft lens" or "memorial montage" appearance. The colors are heavily on the cool blue side, creating an almost deathly pallor, though judging by the snapshot from the painting hanging in its environment it may actually be warmer and livelier than it appears in this particular photograph.]

Snapshot of Kate Middleton portrait and crowd.
A snapshot from the portrait's unveiling, showing the large size as compared with people in the crowd, and a brighter, warmer and crisper color palette.
So, in case you don't recognize this woman or her name, congratulations! You probably live a fulfilling life that excludes garbage tabloids. She's the woman who recently married Prince William, Britain's heir to the throne (did I use the correct title there?) and whose clothing, behavior and body have been scrutinized (such that we need to invent a new word with a much stronger meaning than "scrutiny") by the international press and legions of People With Opinions. I sometimes enjoy a bit of tabloid gossip and often enjoy picking apart some person's sartorial choices so long as I'm not that person, but I'll be quite honest: the attention paid to Middleton gives me the heebie-jeebies. When I see photos of her dressed in absurdly stuffy, age-inappropriate clothes and primly yet fearfully clasping a matchy-matchy handbag in front of her groin I want to take a deep breath because it feels suffocating.

Anyway she commissioned this portrait and has gone on record saying she thinks it's "amazing." (Quipped Jeanne Becker, a Canadian TV commentator, “Interesting to hear that Kate thinks her new portrait is ‘amazing’. Shows she’s not vain.”) Middleton studied art history in college and, together with the director of the National Portrait Gallery, chose Emsley as the artist. Judging from his past work one can see why:

Painting of Nelson Mandela by Paul Emsley. Detailed description can be found in caption.
Nelson Mandela, by Paul Emsley. [Image: highly detailed photo-realistic black & white portrait of Mandela's head and shoulders. He's lit softly from the side, and the thin application of paint and the web of wrinkles illuminated on Mandela's face create a delicate lacy effect. Mandela gazes directly at the viewer with a thoughtful, resolved expression.]

Michael Simpson, by Paul Emsley. [Image: color portrait of the artist, and elderly white man, softly lit from above. The application of the paint and the facial expression create a similar effect to the Mandela portrait but the overhead lighting creates a medical or scientific effect, as if the subject is under examination yet fully aware of what he is and what the viewer will find.]
Emsley explained to People, “If you are working with someone [...] whose face is just a lovely face, it’s harder to find something in the portrait that gives it some sort of gravitas. In this case I’ve tried to do that with the smile and the dimples and the shadows around the face.” Art critics and the masses have found rare common ground in generally hating it. I've gotta say, I'm not totally on board with this portrait either. As pretty much everyone else has pointed out, the real Middleton is much prettier and younger, "fresher" looking than in this painting. Were one not a professional artist and blogger with a reputation and Google history to consider, one would perhaps point out that she appears constipated, to boot. She could have her pick of virtually any portrait artist in the world, and this is what turned up?

But as my comment policy proclaims angelically from the sidebar, "[...] any artist who has taken the time and considerable expense to plan, make, fix, remake, market, network, defend, and show their art-- no matter how shocking, expensive, or crude it is in appearance-- is deserving of consideration." So the following is my critique.

The portrait is a large square-shaped realistic painting of a young white woman (Middleton) from shoulders up on a navy background. The style is extremely detailed yet meticulously soft-edged. It brings to mind contemporary traditional Korean and Chinese official paintings which feature perfect tonal gradations and perfectly defined shapes:

Couple poses in front of a mural of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
An unknown couple stands in front of a huge official painting (mural?) of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Man touches up gigantic Mao portrait
One of legion official Mao portraits.
 The Kims share a soft muted tone with Middleton's portrait, implying dignity and stateliness, perhaps suggesting statuary or an ethereal rather than carnal body. I chose this portrait of Mao because of its size and head-and-shoulders composition. Even the frame is similar to Middleton's portrait. These kinds of political icons-- and at this point they cease to be portraits, exactly-- are the theoretically rich subject-matter for thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard, who argued that the simulacrum of the 20th century was its own truth, i.e. "hyper-real," an idea which Warhol thankfully expressed in a much breezier format:

Mao, by Andy Warhol. [Image: three black-and-white screenprints of Mao's official portrait, each colored with different silly Easter-egg color combinations.]

Returning to Middleton's portrait the (probably accidental) references to both iconic dictatorship and the hyer-reality of the simulacrum (and theoretical issues of mass reproduction) are quite witty. Middleton, though a monarch (I think?), is probably not that powerful, as rulers go: she wasn't uber-royal before marrying William, she is a woman in an antiquated monarchical system based on male heirs, she is objectified as (to put it crudely) a royal breeder, and most of all she is stripped of nearly all privacy and autonomy as the most public of public figures, ever on the verge of the public turning against her. Middleton smirking through these classic signifiers of authority could be read as a postmodern ironic twist on 20th century iconography of power, a "cult of personality" representation in a time when "cult of personality" has mostly vanished. Yet one could call the media frenzy over Middleton (and, by extension, Diana) a modern day cult of personality; in this modern version, rather than push his or her image onto the public, the public extracts images from the (seemingly reluctant) leader.

If one makes the associative leap from dictator-icon to Warhol's famous commentary on reproduction and media, Middleton would be an interesting parallel to Warhol's famous "Marilyn Monroe": she's a female symbol, a persona whose face is reproduced daily in media all over the world.

The painting's style could also refer to studio photography. Yet another postmodern irony: we've entered an age of photography, yet this painter was hired to do the same thing as a camera simply because of tradition and unadulterated posh-ness. We know from media reporting that the painting was composed of thin glazes of oil paint, and though Middleton sat for the artist twice he also used a series of photographs shot for the portrait. I'll leave it to those who are interested in the theoretical implications of photorealism to finish this thought because frankly I'm too lazy to do anything more that spit out the name, "Gerhard Richter."

Blue. There's quite a lot of blue in this portrait, particularly navy. Navy is the color of power, a hue typically recommended for business women who are trying to be taken seriously by their co-workers. It's also, obviously, the color associated with The Navy. Older associations between blue and power include blue and purple as colors reserved for royalty.

Blue is also the color associated with the Virgin Mary in Western iconography. Ties between British and English royal women, virginity, and the cult of Mary are many, the most obvious being Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria (of the respective eponymous eras).

Blue is also the color of abstract thought. I don't know if it is listed as such in any guidebooks to symbolism, but one cannot help but notice that blue is very strongly associated with technology and science, featured in many logos. It's often representative of spirituality (as opposed to Earthly existence), perhaps because the sky is blue. This portrait not only features blue clothing and background, it also seems to have a cool blue tinge to the entire composition. I've also noticed this practice in portraits from the late 1700s and very early 1800s together with a haziness and softness which seems to express the ideals of the humanist Enlightenment and Neoclassical era: that Man is a rational creature with a soul, that humankind is both capable of and destined to rise above our Earthly, carnal bodies, that our real self is our ideal, best self. People still use these conventions to represent loved ones who have died; the haziness and sky or clouds traditionally represent the immortal soul, with blue signifying heaven or angels. With this association in mind Emsley's representation of Middleton could imply an intellectual portrait of the abstract Kate, a personal, insightful endeavor which stands in direct opposition to the constant flow of tabloid commentary on Middleton's body, appearance, clothes and adherence to royal manners. To further bolster this interpretation of the artist's intent, there is the exclusion of anything below Middleton's shoulders and also the dark background which hints at Emsley's Middleton existing in some abstract intellectual void, a darkness which also implies a hushed calm.

However, I believe that if this is the artist's intent he as failed. The emphasis is still too much on Middleton's face. For example the straightforward evenly-lit mugshot position echoes typical magazine shots of models which allow for the visual dissection of facial features, each fully rendered to be consumed and judged by the viewer. This representative convention in fact serves as an invitation to judge, as in an advertisement for mascara or a list of top 10 most beautiful women. As an example of this sort of representation of women, this portrait fails to offer up Middleton's features in their best light.

That would not be a problem if Emsley had somehow prevented the portrait from being read this way, but he didn't. He should have known the enormous emphasis on Middleton's prettiness, but it appears he did not anticipate either that this portrait would fall short of the public's expectations of prettiness, or that it would be read as an exposition of prettiness. Were there movement, it would have counteracted this "map of the ideal female face" aspect, but movement is conspicuously absent from both subject and composition. Even the movement provided by the dynamic directional lighting in the Mandela and Simpson portraits has been discarded in favor of diffuse straight-on studio lighting, a move that confuses me given Emsley's dilemma of Middleton lacking wrinkles and imperfections. I think the real issue might be that because she is the Duchess Emsley was afraid to paint her wrinkles and imperfections; I think he should have gone farther in that direction, incorporating side lighting and highlighting her irregularities but he instead stopped short and stifled his expression thinking the soft-lens approach would be more flattering.

Given the statue-like stillness, the artist could have exploited the authority, stoniness, strength or unassailable nature of the statue, yet the straight-on or very-slightly-above position of the viewer makes Middleton the undeniable subject of the downward or level gaze. Though she smirks and holds her lips closed tightly as though sealing her thoughts inside herself, she is ultimately submitting to scrutiny-- a reality that is already evident in any paparazzi photo of Middleton and which this portrait fails to transcend.

Follow-up: Ha! Of course:
Middlton's portrait on left, Middleton as the Jesus Beast on right
[Image: Middleton's portrait on left, the same portrait on the right but with the face of the famous recent botched or "restored" Jesus fresco, also commonly known as "Beast Jesus"]


Anonymous said...

Yes, that straight-on pose does invite scrutiny. It's the same one that school photographers like to shoot for parents: Here she is in fifth grade; now compare her to last year. They select only a few non-offensive shots to show the parents --no silly grins or pouts--so every kid has the same expression, the same as Kate's.

Every woman's reaction is to scrutinize for imperfections just as she does in her own bathroom mirror. It's the mirror view. We're not looking for character, just questioning whether the eyebrows are a fraction of a millimeter too close together or the nose ever so slightly too broad.

Ciana Pullen said...

Ha! Great comment... "and here's Kate her very first year of monarchy!"

The "mirror view," yes that is exactly what I was searching for with the "map of the ideal female face." I usually find myself doing this and very much wish I didn't; it's a pretty entrenched habit.

Anonymous said...

... and by "find myself doing this" I meant scrutinizing the facial proportions. That wasn't quite clear, sorry.