Every Portrait Tells a Lie

Debra Brehmer

Christmas Tree, Mother, and Children's Photos, 1950s

Jeff and Helen at Christmas

Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1905-06. Estate of Pablo Picasso.

Frans Hals, Portrait of a Man, 1665. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Every portrait tells a story and that story usually involves some kind of lie.

Here’s one: I am lined up in a tiny faded snapshot from the 1960s in front of a Christmas tree with my brother. Side by side in our pajamas, he is smiling and I am squinting into the lens. The tree looms large and promising behind us.

I remember those picture moments so well — the feeling of being posed and staged, of being complicit in the making of a mostly false vignette. My brother was mean to me, and I didn’t like standing by him and smiling. Seconds before the shutter clicked, he probably said or did something nasty. The father who stood framing the picture was a stern, remote presence in our lives. This interaction between kids, dad and camera was as close as anything came to family intimacy and I knew, even at a young age, that we were participating in a history that was manufactured.

With portraiture, we can never mistake the picture for the thing itself. But we forget.

Now if the staging and shaping of reality, or the “lie” as I call it, were the only subtext of portraiture, it wouldn’t be that interesting of an art form. But it’s deeper than that. Within that moment of control, when the photographer or artist imposes their reality on the picture, there is a more tender concern.  The fact that my father even desired to frame a happy familyin front of the Christmas tree was evidence of a hopeful vision. This was the reality he must have desired and wanted to believe in even if daily life didn’t support it. The attempt to create an idealized image contains the imprint of not who we are but who we hope to be. Perhaps every time we try to capture the likeness of a person we are essentially attempting to make contact. Portraiture is the only art form that exists out of a dependency on human exchange and models the struggles and pleasures of human relationships as a subtext to its surface desire to represent.

“Portraiture is a sad art,” the great photographer Richard Avedon once said. “It’s gone but it remains.” He really got it, didn’t he?

I might add that portraiture is also a tender art. It tries to hold onto what can’t be contained, which is life itself and a clear view of it.  What we learn from portraiture is that our view of any person including ourselves is often subjective and contingent. The portrait, in the choices the artist makes, alludes to the fact that who we are involves selection, interpretation and chance.

One of the most interesting portrait stories in history is the tale of Picasso’s attempt to paint a commissioned likeness of the writer and art patron Gertrude Stein.  Picasso wasn’t the kind of artist who routinely doubted himself or labored over the creative process. But this portrait got the best of him. He couldn’t get it right. The year was 1905 and he made Stein pose for him 90 times, month after month, for over a year. What was he after? Picasso said that the more he looked at Gertrude Stein, the more he lost sight of her. He finally gave up, smeared out the face and retreated to his native Spain for an extended holiday. When he returned to Paris, he confronted the canvas again and abruptly painted her face from memory and declared the picture complete. The resulting face is asymmetrical, distorted and mask like, less Gertrude Stein than the Iberian, African and Roman artifacts to which he had recently been exposed.  Picasso’s dilemma with the painting may have stemmed from the weightiness of the task he had shouldered: He knew he had to take the age-old art form, steeped in the conventions of a dusty work ethic, and revitalize it for a changing culture.  Picasso’s portraitof Gertrude Stein both embraces tradition and steps out of it. Only by distorting her face could he express a greater truth about Gertrude Stein: the slippery truth of the subjective which he grounds within the larger truth of the universal.

Every portrait that isn’t a hackneyed commercial product illustrates this tug of war between the objective and subjective or between likeness and interpretation.

The greatest portraits ever made were in the Baroque period in the Netherlands where Frans Hals and Rembrandt plied their trade. It has been said that Hals painted when he was drunk. His expressive brush was so loosely held and forcefully applied that his paintings look like the wind blew the pigments into place. Hals didn’t want his portraits to look frozen or dead like so many others of the period. He found a way to keep life on the canvas. Rembrandt was another story. His genius was to allude to the layering of experience and the acretion of identity by building his images up into thick, tactile skins.  His portraits make us remember that the years have assembled somewhere inside us and still live there.

Without portraiture, we wouldn’t really know what we thought of ourselves at different stages in history. Portraits are maps of what we privilege and long for in both the material and spiritual worlds. Within their seeming simplicity and directness of purpose are innumerable signifiers of culture’s sneaky hand shaping image and identity without us even realizing it.

Avedon is right: A portrait is always a deceased moment. It’s gone, but remains.  A portrait is evidence of our decimation at the same time that it is proof of our need to stop and value as many moments as possible. Picasso did get it right with Gertrude Stein. His painting is not a picture of her likeness it is a picture of her weight, form and mass as an artist.  Her large, dark form leans slightly out of the picture plane, toward us, but not enough to interact or interrupt our in-time space. Picasso places her just on the other side of human time. Her space is reflective, contained, and forever. Her image alludes to her material, weighty presence on earth without the burden and superficiality of fleeting likeness.

When looking at portraits, think of this: Every portrait exposes a truth that rides on the inherent lies. Our existence is transitional and subjective and this is the condition that portraiture tries to absolve. Every portrait then is a fight or you could say a prayer that calls out from the most troubled condition of our humanity, our temporality. Portraiture wants what cannot be had: Life to stop without being dead. It’s an art with a built in condition of failure. And that’s why it is so interesting.