I’ve been thinking a lot about imagery lately.
I have an exhibition that I keep meaning to return to so that I can write about it, as wherever possible I far prefer sourcing my own images. Otherwise it kind of feels like stealing. Especially when I have the chance to photograph work in the way that I, as opposed to others, see it. Photographing and capturing something visually is as much a language as a piece of writing. This urge to document and provide my own source work has led me into thinking about the necessity of images and how we use them to frame both our written texts and our lives. Particularly in terms of how people constantly feel the need to document not only the world around them, but themselves. The way in which we can convey, warp and shape the reception of our persona through our careful selection and sensoring of our own imagery. How, through specific choice we can create the perfect presentation of ourselves. A facade that once the spell is broken and the true self becomes revealed, can never return to the idealised perfection. Once the mask has been removed, there is no return.
I find this very interesting, as in the sea of images out there, people attempt to make their own mark; to create an identity for themselves and a projection for the world. I think this way of thinking and my interest in this peeked following my visit to the exhibition at the Portrait Gallery. ‘Facing the World: From Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei’ is an exhibition that I have now visited…four times. I would highly recommend going more than once. Or even, like myself, splitting your visits into two so that you view only half the exhibition at first and then return another day to view the rest of it. I have never done this before, however I found it incredibly fulfilling, as it enabled me to better absorb the artwork as my mind was not too saturated with it all at once. It gave me more time to reflect and made me realise the works that I was truly interested in. It’s difficult, as there is so much to gain from every work in the exhibition, however the self-portraits that really struck a chord with me were Andy Warhol’s and Robert Mappleforth’s. You could argue I am cliched in my Warhol orientated interest, he is after all, renowned for his self-portraits. However these were works that I have never studied up close and they had quite the impact on me.
Warhol in drag. Yes, I’ve come across it before, but there was something about it in the context of the exhibition. The scale I should have realised were small poleroids, whereas when I’d seen the work in books, I’d mistakenly imagined it more A4 or even large scale. The size of course, changes the meaning of the self-portrait entirely. In my imagination, the large scale of the portrait was garish and intruding to the viewer, cocky even. However, when I viewed it during my ‘Facing the World…’ visit, I was struck by the intimacy that the poleroid scale allowed. I had to stand up close to study it. There were four of these small self-portrait’s of Andy’s on the wall and from afar all you could see was the stylish black frame, you could not make out the facial features. Yet upon close inspection there was so much to see and draw out, a rawness and an insight which felt personal and floor shattering. Almost as if I was an intruder catching Warhol in a moment which belonged only to him.
Suddenly, my assumptions of Warhol with his elaborate pop art flamboyancy melted away and I was left with this striking affinity I felt for the pieces. I have read Warhol’s autobiography ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again’ and I must say that it changed the way in which I viewed him. I think changed is actually an understatement. It revolutionised the way I view him. I feel I have a far greater insight and understanding to both his methods and intensions of working because of this book. A lot of people like Warhol and his work. A lot of people don’t. It’s always the people who don’t like him to whom I recommend read this book. I can never decide as to how I feel about him exactly; I am fascinated by his life in the Factory and his relationship with celebrity icons like Eddie Sedgwick, his intentionally monotonous yet revolutionary films like ‘Empire‘, yet I am also reserved in my interest. His fascination and fear of death is perhaps what speaks to me most. Following the assassination attempt on his life and his near-death experience, Warhol began to explore this theme in his work. He created silk-screens of gruesomely smashed up cars wrapped round trees, he did portraits of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, both of whom supposedly died of a drug overdose. In among his colourful depictions and his Campbell’s soup cans, lies tragedy in the work of Warhol. There is a personal undercurrent that hums quietly underneath the elaborate facade and his artistic persona, which once exposed, is truly magnificent. It is this undercurrent and its subtleties which I am drawn to with Warhol. I found therefore found these portraits very touching and almost kind of melancholy.
I viewed the self-portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe with much the same air. It feels as if there is an inherent sadness to his work, one which you can’t escape from in the process of viewing. Perhaps it is his striking eyes, which pour so deeply into your soul that you can’t help feeling as exposed as he is in his portrait. Or perhaps it is the monochrome, the lack of colour an allusion to a lack of life. Yet his portraits are filled with life, with intimacy and with themes that are dictated by the erotic. Perhaps it his aura, the knowing tilt of the head and the carefully applied mascara. The sensual addition of the fur. Or perhaps it is merely the contrast provided by his opposing self portrait that was in the exhibition, which is infused with a reasserting masculinity. Mapplethorpe employs the same dark backdrop, yet creates an entirely contrasting presentation of himself. The hardened expression, the tough leather jacket. The casual cigarette protruding from his full-bodied lips. What is it about Mapplethrope that is so sensually infused? Is it the chiseled cheek bones? Or is it his defiance? His ability to present himself in an entirely modest, yet simultaneously proud way?
I think Mapplethorpe’s work has a solid beauty to it.You can’t ignore the sensual air, or the sculpted bodies. For me, the use of monochrome is a very striking elemt. It removes unnecessary details from the work, the fact that colour is absent forces you to focus more on the features. The depth and tone created through the clothing texture (or lack of it) and pure human flesh is striking. Given the iconic features of his work and the raw portrayal of himself and his subjects, I think it is safe to say Mapplethorpe is one of my favourite photographers.
‘Facing the World: From Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei’ is an exhibition unlike any I have seen before. Mainly due to the fact I have never before encountered a portrait-based exhibition. The range of work created quite the pictorial journey with incredibly interesting content, particularly given the evolution of the portrait itself. How these days, the full human body is as much a portrait as more traditional depictions which include only the upper torso. Yet for me, it was the works of Warhol and Mapplethorpe that stood out. I felt that they were the most successful in capturing the essence of themselves and conveying who they were or what they could be. I was spell-bound by their works to the point I felt as if there was a direct correlation between myself and their portraits. As if I, stood staring up at their work as I occupied the gallery space, ceased to exist for a moment. I disappeared into them; I became irrelevant. This ability to strike up such a close and inclusive dialogue with the viewer can be a rarity within an artwork, but in this instance I left with a lasting affinity towards the works and their subjects.
Images sourced from: