Scholars' Association News
Issue 28
November 2013

02/04


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The "Portrait" in the 21st century
Occasioned by Robert Wilson’s video portraits
By Eleni Lakkioti

The history, both recent and past, of the traditionally known visual arts (painting, sculpture, printmaking), revolves around two poles. The creation of an image with an instantly recognizable theme (narrative) lies on one pole. In this case the image is easily understood, easily "readable" by the viewer. The other pole is occupied by the removal of the need for a recognizable theme, in other words the withdrawal of narrative. In this case, the meaning of "removal" prevails, in other words the rejection of all unnecessary "information". The viewer is invited from the outset to enjoy the synthesis of the primary elements creating each image, namely the synthesis of points, lines, shapes (two- or three-dimensional), colours, tones, textures.

As for the subject matter, painting and printmaking in the period before the 20th century fell into three distinct categories: portraiture, still life and landscape. Combinations were of course possible, as in the same frame (of the work), that was as a rule rectangular, the three categories often co-existed.

The initial choice of the thematic category also determined the shape of the frame. For example:

  • landscape: sideways (horizontal) elongated rectangle.
  • portrait: upright (vertical) rectangle, not elongated.

In the 20th century, particularly during the first half, following the elimination of the "academic" need for a recognized theme, an equally "academic" situation was imposed, which almost prohibited vivid description. During the years that followed though, perhaps as part of the perpetual cycle of "action - reaction", vividness (recognizable theme) returned.

This contemporary need for images with a recognizable theme includes and renders understandable the creation of video portraits by Robert Wilson, who renegotiates the meaning of the portrait as a visual genre by no longer using traditional materials (paints, brushes, canvas, paper, wood) but instead a digital image on a screen (video).

All the video portraits (60 in number) directed by Robert Wilson between 2004 and 2009 were presented at the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens from 5 April to 7 July 2013, in an exhibition curated by Marilena Karra. These particular works put forward interesting, visually innovative solutions, as well as twists to ‘stereotyped’ ideas. The images are portrayed in oblong frames, sometimes horizontally and sometimes vertically. The coupling and cooperation of art forms is also achieved as each image, in which movement is imperceptible, coexists with a musical composition (works by Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Nino Rota, Lou Reed and others, are used). At the same time the effort being made towards dialogue between literature, music, photography and the cinema is acknowledged.

Robert Wilson’s video portraits are the result of a lengthy process in which the element of form, space and sound direction prevails. Of course we come across this element in the past, in another version, in painting. Indicatively: a) Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), in the Birth of Venus (1482–1485), places the figures (Venus and deities) before a non-naturalistic (‘staged’) but nevertheless, convincing landscape; b) Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), in his famous work of the same name, visually links Mona Lisa to a purely fanciful landscape behind her. Similar findings can be also made in da Vinci’s two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks (late 15th – early 16th century).

Returning to Robert Wilson’s video portraits, some of them are obvious in their criticism, in a visual manner, of famous paintings of the past. Consequently, Robert Downey Jr. plays the role of the "corpse" in a video portrait that alludes to the well-known work by Rembrandt (1606–1669) The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632): the "corpse’s" breathing is the only absurd and at the same time taunting inconsistency that ‘disturbs’ the otherwise static image! The portrait of the dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov recalls the theme of the "martyrdom of St. Sebastian", which is often found in Western European painting from the 15th to the 17th century.

The portrait of Marianne Faithful acts as a multilevel comment on famous 20th-century images, as it brings to mind: a) works of abstract expressionism (flat surfaces of black and red); b) the painting of the German neo-expressionist Georg Baselitz (1938 - ), famous for his upside-down human figures; c) the film by Robert Wiene (1873–1938) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), in which human figures act against a two-dimensional, expressionistically painted background, with intensely angular, jagged shapes.

Robert Wilson places the figure of Juliette Binoche in an upright (vertical) oblong frame, flat black in colour; only her face and hands can be seen. he upper left-hand corner of the initial large black oblong is superimposed by a much smaller, also vertical and oblong, white rectangle. Inside this small white rectangle, a story starring two human figures (man and woman) unfolds, alongside the presence of Binoche. The human figures are shown as flat, black shapes on a flat, white space, thus creating a singular "shadow theatre". The diagonal composition of the work directs the viewer’s gaze from the upper left-hand corner, in steps to the "shadow theatre", then to Binoche’s face and finally to her hands. The music accompanying the portrait, composed by Nino Rota, does not simply converse with the image, but at the same time accentuates its drama.

Portraits of creatures from the animal kingdom (owl, panther, frog, ferrets) are also presented by Robert Wilson. In the different versions of the video portraits of owls, it is interesting to see the attempt to convey the meaning of time – timing (in other words, morning, afternoon, evening, night) through the colour of flat, repeated circles, which appear in the space, also flat, behind the owl.

The video portrait entitled Samson, a composition of black and white patches with a fur-like texture, can be "read" from a distance as a work of abstract expressionism. But as the viewer is attracted by the sight and approaches the picture, he gradually discovers that the slightly moving black and white patches belong to a group portrait of ferrets!

The video portraits of Sean Penn and Juliette Binoche and also of the frog (Horned Frog) are the result of funding and support from the Onassis Foundation. They are completely new versions of older works that made their global debut at the OCC.

The Greek public had the opportunity to visit this particularly fascinating exhibition and had the chance to reflect, to become acquainted with the subtle irony, the taunting spirit, but mainly with the innovative visual solutions to the "modern portrait" issue, put forward and realised by Robert Wilson in his video portraits.

(Eleni Lakkioti is a visual artist; MA in Fine Art, Professional Doctorate in Fine Art, University of East London).


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