|Oil onboard 230 X 300mm|
NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY 2.7.11
This portrait does two things: it shows us what riches can be achieved by taking us this close to another person, while paradoxically reminding us that human beings are ‘other’, and are gloriously unknowable.
At first sight it appears to be a simple record of a moment of unrehearsed, unscripted real life. In the family home. So, why not whip out a camera and take a photo instead? After all that’s what cameras are good at – intimacy, the immediacy of an impromptu decision and the poignant documentation of a moment forever lost.
Instead Georgeson uses a classic medium and style to make what he describes as ‘the most honest, intimate statement possible about my father’. What moves me about this painting is that Georgeson has set himself this challenge: it is as much a painting about a relationship as about a person. It’s about an intimacy which is both rooted in the past and welcoming the future.
Georgeson makes it even more difficult for himself by painting a sleeping figure. If a face is ‘a window on the soul’, perhaps a face at rest is a window with the blinds down? A face ‘at play’, as it were, can capture expressions and nuances which tease the viewer into making assumptions about the character of the sitter. But here we have a blank. And what about eyes? They’re often used to draw the viewer into the picture. There are no eyes here and the viewer will still play tricks: one sees a wrinkle as a sign of wisdom, another interprets it as pure dissipation.
I like the warmth of the reds and earthy colours; the trust of the sitter who allows us to see him in less than heroic pose; the unpretentious yellow Retro lampshade which sheds warm light on the subject’s face, on his limp hands and on the solid polished wood of the sideboard. Although the viewer is standing close enough to reach out and touch one of those hands to wake him, it is not claustrophobic. There’s a pale door with glass panels onto the outside world behind the chair.
The artist has been making drawings and paintings of his father ever since deciding to become an artist fifteen years ago. He paints his uncle too, the British actor, Tomas Georgeson. This intimacy and warmth between sitter and artist is not sentimentalised. It’s almost raw The painter has used his access to a living breathing human being to pay attention to the sitter’s otherness. Quakers have a verbal equivalent: their practice known as ‘active listening’ means paying attention to another person. To do that we have to switch off the chatter in our own heads where we rehearse what to say next and resist the temptation to wait impatiently for the moment when we can interrupt.
The artist Giacometti, who spent long hours working on portraits of his wife and brother, would understand:
. the great adventure is to see something unknown appear each day in the same face’
This work is not like a lot of portraits which carry the hint of a story: the ruler high above our heads on his mighty steed, the artist with her brush and palette, the couple posed against a wedge of English countryside which they happen to own. In this BP Portrait Award 2011 exhibition Wendy Elia’s portrait, for example, (blog number 84) has a scatter of clues – the young man coming into the room with his hand over his eyes, the black tape on the armchair. But there’s little to divert us in this work
Reading Faces, Sebastian Smee PROSPECT May 2004