Portraits and Symbolism
“My originality consists in bringing to life, in a human way, improbably beings and making them live according to the laws of probability, by putting – as far as possible – the logic of the visible world at the service of the invisible.”
Symbolism gives artists the ability to give life to their ideas and thoughts, to give a soul, an identity to their pieces of work, an intimate connection between artist and artwork. For you as a viewer, the tricky part is understanding what the artist is trying to portray because in order for a symbol to have significance, the viewer should know the meaning. Once you unlock the meaning, you’re ready to feel the expression behind the artwork. It’s the artists’ vision that constitutes the starting point of symbolism, allowing the artist to take the intangible – like dreams and visions – and give them form through sensuous representation; to make the invisible visible.
We touched on symbolism as an art movement in a previous post titled “Art Movements for Non-Artists: A Series” where we explored its history and underlying nature; that symbolism is, at its heart, the difference between looking and seeing, between what’s on the exterior and the deeper sense. It was German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, convinced that art gave way for human fears and desires to surface and be seen, who paved the way for the idea of the unconscious in an 1800 publication. Freud complemented this notion with his own ideas about the inner workings of the mind, paving the way for Symbolist artists and writers. Prominent artists who joined the worlds of symbolism and portraiture include Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973, based in France) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988, based in the U.S.).
Picasso, often accused of remaking the world in his own image, used symbolism in portraiture. He created three portraits of three different women painted a few months apart from each other in 1938 where each woman’s individual characteristics were apparent through his technique. For example, his longtime lover Marie-There Walter is portrayed with soft, loving intimacy through her body’s graceful contours. On the other hand, Nusch Éluard, wife of his friend Paul Éluard and professional acrobat, is conveyed in tight angles, thin planes and her hair in hard squiggles with none of the softness that is apparent in Walter’s portrait. The third of the portraits was of his lover (safe to say he kept busy!) Dora Maar whose “Kafkaesque” (having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality) personality was delineated through the swirls of calligraphic doodles doubling crazily back on themselves.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work in portraiture is easily recognizable through his repeated use of the same autobiographical symbols in his art such a skull, a car, works and his most famous three-pint crown; constantly referencing both the violent history of African Americans and his fascination with the human body and death. One of his biggest goals was to constantly remind viewers of his work of the fleeting nature of all life and the body’s ultimate and unforgiving degeneration.
Jingyi Wang, a Chinese painter currently working in New York City, uses cacti in the place of people in her portrait art in an effort to address the relationship between humans and nature; a connection present at the forefront of the artist’s mind. All of her portraits are traditional in terms of portrait compositions, but the use of cacti having human characteristics invites the viewer to go deeper and question what lies beneath the visible surface of prickly cacti spines. Do they cacti act as a concealing shell, or are they the subjects’ true identity? This series of paintings asks you to question what lies beneath visible surface.
Jingyi Wang just launched a show titled ‘Natural Social Distancing’ at Four You Gallery in April 2021!
Stay tuned for her surreal work that challenges your naturalistic depictions of familiar forms.