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Painting Word Portraits

Three authors look for the shapes of lives, including Picasso's, in biographical pictures

IN my ideal library, books and pictures do a sort of dance together - a traditional dance I now know, having read Richard Wendorf's eloquent and instructive book about the origins of English portraiture and biography in the 16th and 17th century. And this season there are two new word portraits that belong in the dance in my library - John Pope-Hennessey's self-portrait and the first volume of John Richardson's biography of Picasso. First, Wendorf. There are books that animate whole libraries, revive old acquaintances, strengthen the sinews of friendship, and give the present all the resonance of the past: Such is ``The Elements of Life.'' Throughout this illuminating discussion of the flowering of biography and portraiture in England, Wendorf teaches us to see the story in the portrait and the portrait in the story. He shares with many of his subjects a capacity for memorable snapshots of fugitive meaning.

Take his defense of Hester Piozzi. While her ``Anecdotes'' about her dear friend, the great conversationalist and critic Samuel Johnson, have been attacked as unreliable, Wendorf says, ``Like an extended conversation her narrative expands and contracts, digresses and repeats itself as it circles round her major figure, but it remains in perpetual motion, an ideal version of the conversazione, the intimate gathering referred to in England as an `at home.'''

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At its best, Wendorf's scholarly prose has a conversational quickness and penetration to it. In the great age of English portraiture, visual and verbal portraits shared similar assumptions about how the meanings of a life could be revealed in art. Was the ultimate shape of the life a rising line or a circle? Both could be satisfying.

Both biography and portrait focused on key moments in the life of the subject. The main subject may be best revealed by showing him or her in the context of family or friends - the so-called group portrait. Words and image could mix. Early on, portraits often included words; and artists found other ways to show the viewer how to the take the portrait. On the other hand, a biography in a book often included a portrait of the person on the frontispiece. Some painters experimented with biographical writing (Wendorf calls them ``double agents'').

In a fine chapter on the great caricaturist William Hogarth, Wendorf shows how both biographer and portrait painter faced ``Hogarth's dilemma.'' In his day Hogarth did the work of the feature photographer and cartoonist today. Wendorf says that his dual interest in human drama and his ``insistence on the variety of visual forms'' allowed him to conquer, sometimes, the twin vices of portraiture: a slavish attitude toward quotidian detail and the opposite temptation to idealize the subject. For Hogarth an d others, character and caricature could be hard to separate.

What happens when a student of portraiture writes his own portrait? In ``Learning to Look,'' John Pope-Hennessey, author of ``The Portrait in the Renaissance,'' gives us a memorable portrait of himself. Clued in by Wendorf, we look for the overall shape in the moving words. We look for the tension between character and caricature.

Referred to by colleagues as ``The Pope,'' Pope-Hennessey has used his intimate knowledge of Italian Renaissance painting to build a career that brought him influential positions at three major museums. Before coming to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he was director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, then the British Museum.

The upward curve of his story is not simply a matter of brute success. ``Learning to Look'' is indeed about looking, with eyes and words. Pope-Hennessey is a supremely confident and opinionated observer. Throughout his book he sprinkles deliciously witty thumb-nail sketches. He describes one collector as ``a huge, rather menacing man with a thin veneer of geniality.'' His definitions can come like an admonitory tap on the shoulder: ``Portraits are the outcomes of a bilateral relationship, of whose natur e there is commonly no record''; ``The function of art history is to determine why individual artifacts took the form they did''; ``... the prime duty of museums was not to educate the public but to assist them in a process of self-education.''

For him, the visual and the verbal can't be separated. ``It is not enough to say that muddled writing and clear thinking do not go hand in hand. A knowledge of discriminating writing, whether it be Proust or Broch, is conducive to discriminating visual processes.''

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Billed as a ``Who's Who'' of the 20th century, ``Learning to Look'' is more than a memoir. It's a celebration of discipline, enthusiasm, and intuition rooted in palpable mystery: a defense of the life of art. The upward curve of the narrative - this book, like many fictions, is a tale of success - never seems quite self-serving.

In the final pages, Pope-Hennessey takes us on a tour of his house in Florence. Flowering plants, works of art, favorite old things, a view of the river and the several buildings that have meant most to him: It's all in heavenly equipoise. Yet he says, ever relishing learning: ``Living in Florence, I am tormented by the things I do not know.''

Pope-Hennessey's success was built upon his capacity to make judgments by the eye. Like Bernard Berenson, he is a connoisseur: His evaluations and identifications have helped set the value of works of art. In this, he was the son of his age - more so than he says. His was the age of Picasso. While Picasso was breaking down the surface of the pictures into cubes and other relationships, Pope-Hennessey was learning to ``memorize'' (his word) paintings in terms of their structure, colors, and so on.

The first volume of John Richardson's ``A Life of Picasso'' paints a moving portrait of the young Picasso. Moving in that he successfully reveals the vulnerable youth behind the obsessed, egotistical clown character, and moving in that Richardson never allows his judgment of Picasso to jell.

How does one do a portrait - or a biography - of someone who specializes in doing his own portrait? Richardson reveals many ways in which Picasso created images of himself, both in art and life, using the canvas of society and his friends to try out identities. It's often a group portrait that we get. Richardson includes all varieties of Picassos in his portrait. He does not try to defend Picasso's misogyny, but he does point out how dependent Picasso was on the women around him. He attributes Picasso's machismo to his Andalusian origins.

This volume, which ends just before the artistic breakthrough represented by the painting ``Les Demoiselles D'Avignon,'' ends with the artist creating a synthesis of the sexes and conceiving of himself as the god Dionysus. Richardson's vivid portrait of Picasso gives one the feeling that Picasso belongs with those modern ``heroes'' who, because they felt an absence of God, tried to fill the vacuum with themselves.

Character and caricature - to use Wendorf's terms - are hard to separate in Richardson's Picasso. Richardson is alert to the ever-changing self-understanding of the young artist. The artist who would give his name to the age began obscurely enough, and the biography tends to confirm the rising rather than the circular type of biography.

Meanwhile the myths created by Picasso himself and others are corrected. Picasso was no child prodigy. When he left Spain for the first time, he did not want to go to London rather than Paris. Nor did Picasso have to burn a mass of drawings to stay warm in Paris.

Sometimes Richardson explains the legend, sometimes just strips it away like so much dirt on an old master. He met Picasso in his own youth; his book is drenched in lucid nostalgia. What is revealed is ``no hero,'' as Richardson remarks.

And yet the ultimate effect of the biography is one of revelation. Is it the credulous public that let Picasso get away with his bigger-than-life notion of himself? Or is it simply that without all the confusion, all the myth, the great artist could not have emerged from obscurity?

For Richardson, the biographical art is like Picasso's cubism. He strips away the skin of conventional perspective and myth and reveals a structure of emotions, motives, and personal allegiances, until the man stands free and three-dimensional.

Both autobiography and biography belong to the great tradition of English biography and portraiture that had its heyday, not necessarily in our day but perhaps in the time of Samuel Johnson. In any event, Johnson's words, quoted by Wendorf, explain why these meticulous works of fact have the consoling power of art: ``There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible. ''

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