Contemporary Portraiture, Mixing Painting and Photography

Patrick Stewart - Ian McKellen, in New York City. Annie Leibovitz.
Patrick Stewart & Ian McKellen, in New York City. ©Annie Leibovitz.

Portrait painting existed for centuries as an art form but with the advent of photography and new technologies, it was believed that this art would disappear forever. Then came the Internet and social networks and it seemed that portrait painting was a completely irrelevant art.

But this artistic current never disappeared and the artists who practiced it looked for a way to be relevant by changing their relationship with their art and their work. They became more abstract, experimental, and even bizarre. Since the first half of the 20th century, the old art of figurative portraying remained in the past as an anachronistic and vain current, to make way to a new variety of portrait painting.

The contemporary portraits of the everyday situations

Njideka Akunyili Crosby is a prominent contemporary portrait painter who paints home scenes of herself and her husband in their home. Njideka was born in 1983 in Nigeria. At the age of 16, she moved to the United States where she graduated from Swarthmore College in 2004. Her portraits depict black people in everyday situations such as walking a dog, a family in the living room, or a person sitting on the couch. Her works have great vital energy and an admirable expression.

Something Split and New, 2013. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London.

When today’s critics ask why the portrait has returned as an artistic expression, the answer can be found in the artists’ need to reach a wider and more diverse audience. Portraits allow artists to capture the various experiences of different human groups, races, and social positions. This is because it is one of the art forms that best represents the human experience.

In the past, from the Greek and Roman gods to the 18th-century aristocrats, portraiture was used to glorify and highlight only the powerful. Nowadays, we can witness a great change of paradigm, where the aim is to portray the common man in his daily tasks, to represent and transmit that special magic that only the usual and every day can generate.

Portrait as art went from being associated with power and wealth to transmitting emotions. With the advent of photography, it was possible to capture the exact images of the people portrayed. This produced a broad framework for working and experimenting with perspectives and colors. During the 20th century, portraiture was sought as a method to explore the techniques of painting and photography. These genres have continued to grow and evolve within contemporary art. Painters and photographers search for their muses in every place imaginable.

Mixing photography and painting

Chuck Close, self-portrait, 2000. Photo: PRNewsPhoto/Corcoran Gallery of Art/AP Images

Chuck Close for example has a photorealistic style where he combines the techniques of photography and painting. Close seeks to capture every details and imperfection, without a single line or wrinkle escaping his gaze. His technique is based on creating mini-portraits in square meshes, which then appear as a unique image from a distance.

Hemiplegia restricted him in his ability to paint since 1988 but he did not abandon his career as an artist and since then he has looked for a way to achieve a meticulous work with the use of alternative techniques. At present, he can paint with a brush tied to his hand because he has managed to recover some movements in his arms and legs.

Photographers have worked on the portrait technique since the invention of photography in 1839. In the beginning, it was all about small, cheap images that echoed the desire of the people of the time to be portrayed and to make an image of themselves for posterity. The privilege of being portrayed no longer belonged exclusively to the rich elites, but became part of everyday life for the middle class in the second half of the 19th century.

Photography and the new icons

One of the captures that were taken of John and Yoko by Leibovitz. Photo: Annie Leibovitz.

Firms such as Albert S. Southworth and Josiah J. Hawes, established in Boston in 1843, or the 1850 Parisian salon opened by Nadar offered the public the novelty of being photographed alongside animals like a kangaroo. Photography generated a phenomenon where participating in the same image with a celebrity, artist, or politician means a social status. Some celebrity photographs have become iconic over time, such as Albert Einstein, Gandhi, John Lennon, and 19th-century pioneers like the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire.

Annie Leibovitz’s passion for photography led her to capture with her lens some of the most celebrated moments in recent history. In her great archive of images are those of naked John Lennon hugging Yoko Ono just 5 hours before he died. In the ’70s Leibovitz studied painting while taking night classes in photography. At that time she introduced herself to offer her services to Robert Kingsburg, the artistic director of Rolling Stone. She had no experience then but it seemed that Kingsburg saw something special in her.

Her first photo in the magazine was a portrait of the poet Allen Ginsberg smoking marijuana with a young man wearing a turban during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration. After that, she would photograph many iconic figures of contemporary culture such as Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Dali, Roman Polanski, Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicholson, and Jane Fonda.

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