Facing History: The V&A

I’m on my way to visit the V&A in South Kensington, when I fall into a strange teenage memory just as the tube pauses at Sloane Square. I recall the first time my friends and I were allowed up to London alone without adults. It felt insanely indulgent to think the city was ours that day, and we could go anywhere. Where did we choose to go – the British Museum, the Tower of London, the South Bank perhaps? Not a bit of it. Our heart’s desire was to visit a small shop on the Kings Road.

We stood outside on the pavement, breathlessly feeling like we’d stepped off the page of our humdrum school reality into a parallel realm where all our escapist fantasies lived on like ghosts. The shop was The Worlds End, the Vivienne Westwood boutique in whose back room John Lydon had auditioned for the Sex Pistols. A worldwide cultural movement was born in that shop, and something had happened there long ago which obsessed us. Our visit inside was short-lived (we were immediately asked to leave by a Westwood flunky), yet it was enough to have stood on that hallowed ground.

The moments of our lives endure in many ways. For me, Sloane Square tube will probably always be haunted by the wide-eyed intensity of that indelible teenage memory, while John Lydon’s desparate performance of an Alice Cooper song that day in mid 1975, witnessed by almost nobody, will echo through the walls of 430 Kings Road beyond his lifetime.

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Art has always tried to tap into and express these strange, ghostly ideas of presence and absence, time and memory. Good portraits let us make eye contact with those long dead, and stand with them in wordless, impossible silence. Contemporary art often plays with these ideas by spinning and reimagining them. In 1985, Andy Warhol created a self portrait, the ‘Invisible Sculpture’, by standing on a gallery plinth. He stayed for just a few moments, then wandered off. Only the plinth remained. It was a piece which relied, of course, on his celebrity status, by that time firmly established. In just the same way that my teenage self had sought out the Kings Road address where my idols once played, Warhol knew future gallery-goers would stand in front of that pedestal and think ‘Andy once stood here.’ A virtual image of his famous face would be projected into the imaginations of the viewers who gazed at that emptiness. When Warhol died just two years later in 1987, the face of that invisible sculpture only grew more intense.

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A small, two room exhibit at the V&A explores some other contemporary spins on the ancient genre of portraiture. The centrepiece of this display is Bettina von Zwehl’s ‘Made up Love Song’, a series of 34 tiny circular photos. Each image portrays the same lady, in the same location, in the same pose. They are beautiful, detailed photos that almost look like paintings. Each one is slightly different.

Photography, though it may take months and years of planning, is a chemical process often executed in an instant. Von Zwehl’s series is more akin to a painting, however, in the sense that it returns again and again to the same face for repeated sittings in the same pose. These 34 images are edited down from over a hundred mornings where artist and sitter shared silent intimacy.

The artwork has a close relationship, too, with the V&A spaces. It was produced during von Zwehl’s residency there, and the sitter is a visitor services assistant whom the artist befriended. The photos were taken in front of a specific window in the gallery, which the photographer noted for its strange, diffuse morning light. And, most significantly, this series is now displayed just next door to the gallery’s own impressive historical collection of portrait miniatures, which Von Zwehl’s piece clearly references both in scale and painterly chiaroscuro effects.

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Other objects in this room also engage in a unique and rather charming dialogue with the past. Julian Opie’s portraits ‘Luc and Ludivine get Married’ resonate particularly strongly with the neighbouring display. They are large pieces but, framed in their distinctive dark wooden ovals, they evoke the language of miniature portraits as small pocket keepsakes, romantic objects of loved ones to be viewed at close quarters and treasured. They also evoke the 18th century trend for small silhouette portraits, many of which can also be viewed next door. Traditionally these were cut by hand, with awesome dexterity, from black paper. Opie’s portraits are also made from black paper – laser cut to simpler, yet no less precise outlines.

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Jarbas Lopes, meanwhile, looks back to the folk weaving traditions of his native Brazil to make a statement on the modern politics of South America. His piece ‘O Debates’ is effectively a double portrait – two election posters of opposing candidates, woven together to obliterate all text and merge the two characters into one single, eerie face. The choice between two slickly packaged, media trained candidates often feels like no choice at all, yet this politician-mask carries an air of menace which speaks, first and foremost, of slippery duplicity. He is literally two-faced.

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Masks of a different kind are implied in ‘Portrait of Something that I’ll Never Really See’, a large-scale self portrait photo by Gavin Turk. The title of this piece states the necessarily obvious fact that, outside of photos, none of us will ever really see ourselves in reverie, with eyes closed. This strikes a slightly disquieting note – as the whole rich history of self-portraiture in art, from Durer to Schiele, springs from an altogether different kind of self analysis in which artists have studied their own faces in mirrors with eyes wide, gazing questioningly in search of the essence of self. Turk’s portrait doesn’t meet our gaze, and suggests that people are unknowable.

The portrait also evokes another old tradition – death masks, those plaster faces so popularly used to preserve the essence of famous or infamous faces. They sit outside the tradition of fine art. These hairless, disembodied white visages with eyes shut are totems, not portraits, and their subjects are cadavers, not sitters. Theirs is an air of blankness, and calm anonymity – no-one is home – and Turk’s portrait suggests a similar state.

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Gemma Anderson also examines the mutable nature of the self in her intricate etchings of ‘Psychiatrists and Patients’, my personal highlight from this small exhibition. These tender hand-coloured pieces were made from direct observation at Bethlem Hospital in London, as part of a Wellcome Trust Award. They are titled only with the Christian names of the subjects, so it’s up to us to guess from each image who is a patient and who a doctor. Other objects float round the sitters, suggesting aspects of their lives – inspired, in many cases, by one to one interviews. Anderson writes on her blog about visiting the forensic ward, ‘I had never met anybody who had committed murder and I wasn’t sure how I would feel in the actual scenario’.

The results evoke the pioneering 19th century series of portraits by Theodore Gericault, who painted several patients at Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, where ‘moral’ treatment of severe mental illness was pioneered. Gericault’s representations communicated the changing attitudes to mental illness which were ushered in by the Enlightenment – a cultural movement away from supersition and blind faith, towards empirical knowledge and reason. His portraits expressed compassion towards his sitters, and his honest unsensational representations emphasised their humanity.

Anderson’s portraits go one further by involving the sitters in the process, learning their stories and incorporating them visually. The end results don’t feel strange, voyeuristic or disturbing, though. There is a quiet beauty and repose to the compositions, which make the floating objects feel very natural, at odds with the unsettling nature of the illnesses. The patients have all experienced paranoid delusions and voices in their heads – a terrifying inner world that we couldn’t guess at by merely looking at photos of their faces. Anderson allows her subjects to bear witness to aspects of this unknowable mental landscape, but she also asks us to question what the ‘self’ really is for any of us. Is it a face – eyes, nose and mouth – like Gavin Turk’s blank death mask, or is it animated by who we are under the surface, in our deepest thoughts, fascinations and fears?

‘Facing History: Contemporary Portraiture’ is in Gallery 88a, Victoria and Albert Museum London, til April 24th 2016. Admission Free.

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