I don’t know when portraiture began to slip off the art school curriculum but I suspect it had vaporized as being of even marginal interest to either staff or students, by the end of the 1960s. How we reconcile this with the successes of Andy Warhol and Chuck Close is unclear, but somehow we do.
During the three years I spent as a Diploma in Art and Design student at St Martins School of Art, at the very beginning of the 1970s, not one of my tutors suggested I take a walk down the Charing Cross Road and take a look through the front door of the National Portrait Gallery. Instead, I was sent to the Tate, Cork Street and Studio International magazine – never, I suspect, with portraiture in mind. It wasn’t until 1975, when I spent the spring term living and painting at the Royal College of Art’s studio in Paris that I began to see any connection between portraiture and my ambitions as a ‘modern’ artist.
First it was through reading an interview with (to my mind) an important American artist; and also the encounter with a painting by Hyacinth Rigaud, in Versailles. In the interview Jim Dine talked about his very flat bathrobe self portraits that he was showing at the American Cultural Centre, on Rue du Dragon. When Dine was asked: “Why empty bath robes?” he said he wanted to make a series of self-portraits, but felt a lot of pressure to be a modern artist. He had decided therefore, to use the bathrobe as a surrogate or body double. This caught my imagination: he thus provided me with a way of circumnavigating the problem of appearing to travel backwards.
The painting in Versailles, like Dine’s self-portraits focused on the wrapping of flesh and not the stuff we are made of. It was a high camp, decorative portrait of Louis XV in coronation robes. A storm of golden fleur de lys, silk tassels and baroque drapery that framed the figure, to the point of drowning, a 15 year old king’s tiny pink face. Rigaud gave me the subject matter and Dine both the mission and permission I needed.
The painting I made in 1974, as a result of the time I spent in Paris, started my career as a painter. It is an off beat, post modern portrait that owes as much to Dine and Pollock as it does to any deeper historical influence. The painting now sits in the Walker Galleries collection in Liverpool, what makes it strange, is that I did not go on to paint many more portraits. In 1974 it seemed a risky picture to paint. Today I can see that it was only risky in so far, as it looked beyond what was then fashionable, and what I was ever formally taught to paint at art school.
Today I suspect that whether it is painted, drawn, photographed, filmed or modelled, the portrait is such an important part of our visual culture, that we, the people who are responsible for creating the curricula in art schools, need to first reconstruct our understanding of the subject, then get it back on the curriculum.