A Record of Spin

Blitz Magazine, July 1999

“Never mind my soul, just make sure you get my tie right.”

James Joyce to painter Patrick Tuohy

William-Adolphe Bouguereau

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

               The image shown here is a self-portrait by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. He painted it for his beloved as a pledge of marriage (unbeknownst to his iron-fisted mother. She was the suspected cause of Bouguereau’s first wife’s untimely death; he didn’t marry his second until his mother died–of, we assume, natural causes).

               When this portrait was painted, in 1879, Bouguereau was France’s top portrait painter. While Monet and Renoir fiddled with Impressionism, Bouguereau’s services were in high demand, perhaps because he happily gave customers what they wanted–a little spin. This is illustrated by his own portrait, which depicts a gentlemanly, aristocratic-looking Member of the Establishment, rather than a paint-stained artist/mama’s boy.

               Portrait artists have always been torn between presenting truth and idealizing their subjects. In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, when portraits were often used as a legal means of proving membership in a family through physical likeness, truth was important. It was less so when portraits were commissioned as remembrances or tokens of friendship.

               Then people realized that portraiture was a means of attaining immortality and promoting power and privilege. Subjects learned to exploit the medium; the artist became spin doctor.

               Lighting, pose, attitude, costume, background, accessories and colour were maneuvered according to the subject’s wishes; pose, costume and drapery reflected the subject’s social level. Size was everything. A king got a full-length portrait and a grandiose backdrop; his factotum made do with a smaller format and simple props. Less power, less presentational pomp.

               In 17th century Europe, portraits were heavily mannered and idealistic–everywhere except Holland; the ever-practical Dutchmen preferred less courtly, more realistic values.

               In the 18th century, British artists such as Reynolds and Gainsborough added nature, posing subjects in parks and glades. The French went heavy on wit and erudition as indicators of social superiority. Then, as the bourgeois encroached on the nobility, sensibility, virtue and sense of importance supplanted realism altogether.

portrait1 portrait2

               Photography could have meant the death of idealized portraiture. But, while photography is a more accurate and trustworthy medium, portrait painters remain busy. A painted portrait is still very much a status symbol and a most effective means of recording, enhancing and communicating power, in all its forms.


Three Cultures, Three Icons

Blitz Magazine, July 2002

They epitomized individualism. They didn’t belong to any ‘school’. Their styles were indefinable. Today, they are among their respective countries’ most famous and respected artists.

They are Emily Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, three extraordinary artists who, while appearing to have little in common, shared a singleness of spirit and a fascination with the themes of nature, culture and self. Their work reinvented traditional imagery relating to the natural landscape, and conveys the sense of the landscape as female, from Carr’s symbolic forests, to O’Keeffe’s anthropomorphic plant forms and Kahlo’s earth-mother self portraits. They also interpreted and expressed the characters of their regions, defining, for the period, a distinct Canadian, American and Mexican experience. Collectively, their work played a critical role in defining the art of the Americas by linking region and nationality.

Emily Carr (1871-1945) was born in Victoria, studied in Europe, then returned to British Columbia and spent four years on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), the Skeena River and the islands off northern Vancouver Island, sketching and painting carvings, and recording the lives and rituals, of aboriginal Canadians. She depicted the region’s vast natural beauty, going beyond the presiding misty landscapes by creating a unique visual idiom. She was viewed as a rugged individualist—and scandalously unladylike. This could have contributed to the bust that was her 1913 Vancouver exhibition, after which she quit painting and opened a rooming house. It wasn’t until she was ‘discovered’ in 1927, that she resumed painting. Today, she is one of the world’s most famous female artists.

Emily Carrec1

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) never sought recognition. In fact, when she sent samples of her work to a New York friend in 1915, she asked that they not be shown to anyone. But the friend showed them to painter/ photographer/exhibitor Alfred Stieglitz, who promptly included them in a group show and then gave O’Keeffe her own show. Her reputation was immediately made. She and Stieglitz married, and remained happily married until Stieglitz died in 1946, but Stieglitz was a New Yorker; O’Keeffe could only work in New Mexico. There she stayed, creating work characterized by sensually smooth forms and stunning colour. Her animal skulls and desert landscapes are famous icons of modernism and her plant forms distinguish her highly personalized style. (She too was known as an eccentric, wearing nothing but black and associating one with people whom she deemed to be talented and interesting.)


Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) taught herself to paint while recovering from a 1926 streetcar accident that left her permanently pain-ridden. This pain, and her endurance of 30 operations, led her to create 200 paintings, including many harsh self-portraits, marked by jarring colour and odd spatial relationships. They also chronicle her turbulent relationship with famed Mexican painter Diego Rivera, whom she married in 1929.


At this time, ‘Mexicanidad’, the embrace of pre-Hispanic Mexican history and culture, gave great currency to the notion of native roots. At the same time, being seen as a primitive provided an avenue for recognition for women artists. While they shared a devotion to communism and a passionate interest in Mexico’s indigenous cultures, the two moved in the most sophisticated circles, with Rivera extolling Kahlo’s work as authentic, unspoiled and primitive. He stressed her Indian heritage (she had Indian blood on her mother’s side, but was of Hungarian-Jewish descent on her father’s), and she encouraged the myth, in part by adopting traditional Mexican dress. Still, she didn’t achieve the recognition of her contemporaries—Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and wasn’t ‘discovered’ until 1980. Today, her stature as an artist and icon is at a level unprecedented for any Mexican figure, male or female.