A portrait can be more than a recognizable depiction of somebody. For one thing, it can tell us as much about the artist as about the subject. For another, a portrait can tell us how an entire society chooses to represent itself. These are the sort of ruminations touched off by a cleverly unconventional portraiture exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"Mirror, Mirror: The Art of Portraiture From the Museum's Collection" was curated by Brenda Richardson, BMA deputy director for art and curator of painting and sculpture since 1900. She has picked diverse portraits in equally diverse mediums and arranged them in ways to make us think about the connections between them.
The basic issue of how an artist goes about conveying the spirit of a subject, for instance, comes across boldly in German artist Lovis Corinth's painting "The Black Hussar" (1917), in which the height and youthfulness of cavalry captain Hutz are conveyed through the expressive brushwork and the loftiness of the canvas itself. What really puts across the military self-assurance of the subject, though, is the prominence placed on his black boots. These boots are made for proud military walking.
But an image may register differently for the original audience than for later viewers. The best example here is Edgar Degas' beloved bronze statue "Little Dancer, Fourteen Years Old" (1879-1881/1921). This statue of ballerina Marie Van Goethem is a favorite today because of what we take to be her delicate charm, and yet Degas' realistic depiction of what is hardly a classical beauty prompted critics of his own day to heap scorn on the poor little girl as an ugly duckling.
If the stylistic tactics of an artist and their reception over time are a major concern of this exhibit, a related concern is more strictly art historical. Marie Laurencin's painting "Group of Artists" (1908), for instance, shows Pablo Picasso, Laurencin, Guillaume Apollinaire and Fernande Olivier back when modern art was self-confidently announcing its birth. The BMA exhibit also has a group of photographs, drawings and paintings of Gertrude Stein that gives a sense of how various artists chose to represent her; incidentally, if this segment of the exhibit is of interest, then by all means you should check out an exhibit titled "Group Portrait: The First American Avant-Garde" at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
The BMA portrait exhibit is in high gear when it sets up provocative juxtapositions. Consider: a carved wooden pair of African female twin figures from the early 20th century installed next to Henri Matisse's small bronze "Two Negresses" (1908). Matisse based his sculpture on an ethnographic illustration, which further reinforces the tantalizing ways in which European artists discovered their own modernity in "primitive" African art. Or consider: Paul Gauguin's painting of his mistress in Tahiti, "Vahine no te vi" (1892), installed near three ornamented Oceanic skulls in which real human skulls and hair treat the whole matter of portraiture with rather ghoulish literalness. Still, there is no denying the inventiveness and beauty of these skulls, as in the use of cowrie shells to represent the eyes.
The culture-jumping juxtapositions are at their most involved in a row of three images of mothers with their children: the Flemish Master of the Legend of St. Lucy's oil on wood "Madonna and Child" (15th century) is hanging between Picasso's painting "Mother and Child" (1922) and Mary Cassatt's pastel "In the Garden" (1893). Distinctions between sacred and secular subjects tend to break down here, for these are artworks about the idea of motherhood. My own vote for the most tender and inspirational image of the three goes to the Picasso.
Occasionally the juxtapositions don't come off, as if a good thing has been pushed too far. A pair of Lakota beaded moccasins from the late 19th century is an interesting exercise in geometric patterning, but they can only be considered as societal portraiture in a definition so broad as to become all-encompassing. Placing these Native American moccasins next to Vincent van Gogh's oil painting "A Pair of Boots" (1887) is a startling installation ploy that will bring your own feet to a standstill, but as an educational experience it seems closer to podiatry than to portraiture.
"Mirror, Mirror: the Art of Portraiture From the Museum's Collection" runs at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Aug. 11. Running in an adjacent gallery is a complementary exhibit, "As Artists See Us: Drawings From the Museum Collection." For more information, call 396-6310.