City Paper is not for tourists
Cynthia Freeland’s 2002 book was called But Is It Art?; her latest might bear the alternate title Fair Enough, But Is It a Portrait? The volume in question, under the more modest title Portraits and Persons, does two things: 1) advance the philosophy of art and its relation to shifting conceptions of the inner life of humans; and 2) settle once and for all where, exactly, that painting of your dog hangs in the hierarchy of representational art. “Portraits,” Freeland writes, “might reasonably be thought to embody accumulated cultural wisdom about what it is to be human.” With this hypothesis in mind, it is alarming to note that Freeland frontloads the book with a lengthy section on whether (and which) animal paintings qualify as portraiture. Moving hence to steadier ground, the author posits useful criteria for determining whether a given work “counts” as portraiture: recognizable physical attributes; evidence of an “inner life”; and a consciousness, on the part of the subject, of being involved in the creation of art. In her survey, Freeland touches on religious iconography; the representation of kings and queens (from George Gower’s stiff-necked Elizabeth I to Lucian Freud’s sour-looking Elizabeth II); self-portraits from Dürer to Kahlo; Edward S. Curtis’ photographic portraits of Native Americans; and more recent experimental work by such artists as Fiona Tan. In moments, Freeland elides important counterweights to her arguments. We might agree with the author that religious icons are less than “depictive,” but perhaps that’s because their subjects (Jesus, Mary, and the like) were long dead by the time the medievals got around to painting them—just as we might buy the notion that the increased realism of Renaissance portraiture coincided with new definitions of individuality, while noting that all Renaissance painting increasingly favored realism. Freeland leavens an occasionally overdense approach with appeals to the likes of Andy Warhol and William Wegman’s “Man Ray” photographs (in which, she notes, Wegman used makeup on his favorite dog). Throughout, the argument is transparent, even to a layreader, and moments of disciplined art criticism sometimes turns up a gem of a phrase: Her description of John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” as “pale but edible” is a delight. Portraits and Persons might serve as an intriguing companion to Phillip Prodger’s Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution (released last year, also by Oxford); indeed, Freeland cites Prodger more than once and gives due attention both to the modes by which the clinical study of expression complected scientific theory, and to 19th-century developments in biological theory that influenced the practice of portraiture. Freeland’s book may not boast the universal appeal suggested by its dustjacket (which looks like a poster for a new HBO series), but it should prove provocative to armchair art historians—and to seniors with a perhaps unhealthy tendency to anthropomorphize their cats.