Portrait and Portrayal
There are two traditions in portraiture that we should mention here. The first, and oldest, is objective representation, in which the artist clearly describes the visual appearance of someone. This tradition assumes that (other than providing flattering emphasis, or the making of diplomatic omissions) the representation corresponds with the subject depicted. The second tradition (which has been with us for just under a hundred years or so-long enough to be called a tradition) is one in which the artist works more subjectively, making a much less obvious reference to the appearance of the subject. In this way, artists allow new visual elements to enter into their picture-making, which not only increase the pleasure or excitement of the work, but may also contribute psychological truth of some kind.
Picasso is the original and principal example of this (1)The huge momentum of his example has continued in the work of many other artists and is epitomised in the paintings of Francis Bacon. In this way, a semantic distinction has been opened up, at least for painters, between the terms ‘portrait’ and ‘portrayal’, with ‘portrayal’ being the more subjective. Bacon, talking to David Sylvester (2) about the difference between two portraits he painted (of Michel Leiris), one of which he distorted more than the other, said that, ‘The one I did which is less literally like him is in fact more poignantly like him’. Bacon added later that, ‘The sitter is someone of flesh and blood . . . . (but) what has to be caught is their emanation’. (He later revised ‘emanation’ to ‘energy’).
Rupert Bathurst moves uncontainably between these two traditions and their meanings. His work is informed by the hard labours of observational life drawing, from which he departs whenever he wishes to be more highly spirited than traditional portraiture usually allows. That he does so is because he is a proper artist, who wishes to adventure, and is prepared to forgo the usual certainties. For a professional portraitist, like Bathurst, this way of working is a risky strategy, as it risks alienating a goodly percentage of an artist’s eligible client base. To work in such a way requires informed, sophisticated clients, who are prepared to entertain greater risk in the hope of greater reward. By doing so they might come to be in possession of something that is a work of art as well as a depiction, whose existence on their walls can be appreciated on more levels than just the cosy recognition of the depicted subject.
In works like Iona: Dreamtime 2005, Sir David and Lady Wilson 2002or (of the artist’sfather) Viscount Bledisloe 2000 Bathurst shows a traditional portraiture sensibility, in which he has crafted the tangible solidity of his subjects. In drawings such as Buckle 2006and Downdave 2006 he retains a grip on the representational basics, but allows an enlivening colour drama (and sometimes a vigorous impasto) to participate.
Where his studies are monochrome, as in the drawings Dudley Sutton 2005and Portrait of Francis Bacon 1987 (3), a busy line can announce itself. At the furthest end of the depictive spectrum, works like Pregnant : Timebomb 2003 and Pregnant: Umbilical 2003are almost purely imaginative, with ambiguous tragicomedies of form and colour taking place. Although these works do not depart completely from portraiture, they are experimental forays into the unknown, in which the artist allows himself acomplete liberation from his usual painterly responsibilities.
It is easy to see that intensities of psychological mood are more pronounced in some of Bathurst’s works than in others and may even vary within the same work. Such multiple approaches and their stylistic variety are consistent with contemporary culture and (at least for those not engaged in futile artistic sectarianism) the artistic pluralism it celebrates. Here, variousness (and even contradictory variousness) is valued, rather than a smoothed evenness of artistic purpose. Given space, it might be possible to argue that this is analogous to England’s success (during its periods of exclusion from European and American artistic dominance) in creating an environment conducive to highly differentiated individualism amongst those artists who have worked here. A list of artists (whether English or not) working in England over those years whose work represents ‘portraiture’ or ‘portrayal’ could include Oskar Kokoschka, Jack Yeats, Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews and Frank Auerbach. It is tempting to view Bathurst’s painting in the context of the work of these artists. Not in the (unwise) sense of seeking specific correspondences between Bathurst (a developing artist) and established masters, but more to situate him within something splendid; an ongoing grouping whose only collective bias may be described as being towards individualism.
Neal Brown 2006
(1) Picasso is the principal example in the west. His starting point was, of course, African face masks.
(2) Interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, Thames and Hudson, 1975.
(3) Bathurst’sstudy of Bacon was catalogued by Christie’s as being of the ‘London School’ in its February 2006 auction of the collection of the late Valerie Beston.