Posts Tagged ‘Who We Are: Contemporary Portraits art exhibition’

The Importance of Figurative Art in the Western Tradition

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

During a recent trip to Italy I was able to study many works of art which revolve around the figure and the human face. The way artists use both body and visage to convey personality and emotion is pertinent to works in our last exhibition, New Classicism, and to the next two exhibitions, Senior Art Major Exhibition (March 19 – 30, 2010) and Who We Are: Contemporary Portraits (June 10 – August 15, 2010).

Hellenistic Sculptor, The Seated Boxer, 3rd century BCE, Bronze

At the Museo Nazionale Romano at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome (, I came upon the life-size portrait of a boxer, post-fight, seated and grimacing. The intensity of pain and exhaustion on the gouged and bleeding face and trembling body of this late Hellenistic Greek sculpture (3rd -2nd century BCE), was palpable. It is one of the most famous bronze statues from ancient times, and rightly so. Although I had never seen it before, I was overwhelmed by the transformation of pain into bronze, a parallel of recent photos of our contemporary Olympic athletes after their strenuous competitions ( Ancient Romans loved ancient Greek statues and amassed large private collections of them.

Detail of Hellenistic Sculptor, The Seated Boxer, 3rd century BCE, Bronze

Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were a fundamental influence on Italian Renaissance artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and their contemporaries. The revival and rebirth of classical philosophy, art and ideals propelled Raphael, for example, as he developed his monumental fresco, The School of Athens (1509 – 1511), commissioned by Pope Julius II, for the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican apartments. While I did not visit the fresco this trip, I did study the unbelievable drawing/cartoon (cartone) that, against all odds, was saved and now hangs in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

Raphael, The School of Athens, c. 1509, Drawing

A working drawing used to transfer the lines of Raphael’s image onto the wet plaster for painting, the drawing still conveys the hand of the master and his unique conception of each figure assembled for philosophical debate. ( indistinctly visible above, in this reduction of the gigantic drawing (approximately 10 x 25 feet), dozens of smaller drawings have been glued to create the whole project for the fresco. Raphael was indebted to the realism of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture for the various physical and emotional attitudes of the philosophers and students who make up this homage to ancient Greek thinkers, most prominently Plato and Aristotle who are centered at the top of the steps.

Reid, Battle over the Body of Patroclus, Oil on canvas

In turn, a drawing/fresco like this is a reference point for thousands of artists including James Patrick Reid whose works, including Battle over the Body of Patroclus, were recently included in our New Classicism exhibition. Psychological states are manifested not only through facial expression but also through the body language of each figure.

Baroque innovator, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, turned the conventions of ancient as well as Renaissance art upside down even as he had mastered them. Last week at the Caravaggio exhibition at the Scuderie al Quirinale in Rome (, I saw for the first time, The Taking of Christ (1602). Now on loan to the National Gallery of Dublin ( from Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in Dublin, Ireland, it had been rediscovered in 1990 and was the subject of a 2005 book by Jonathan Harr, The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece.

As Jesus accepts his fate and the embrace and betrayal by his disciple Judas, their faces, hands, and body positions convey what words never can. To the left, another disciple screams in horror. But the most innovative passages of the oil painting feature the long black shiny armored arm of the arresting Roman soldier, the central focus of work. We see only his nose under the helmet, the barest fraction of the eye of the bearded soldier behind him, and the slit of an eye in the next soldier. But the full profile of the soldier on the far right of the composition, identified as Caravaggio himself, here holds up a lamp, both the internal light source for the chiaroscuro passages and the metaphor of the stark reality of betrayal and certain death. The faceless anonymity of military force (perhaps on Caravaggio’s mind since he had been sentenced to death by Roman law for the murder of a man) is the equal subject matter of this intense moment in the life of Christ.

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, c. 1602, Oil on Canvas

Two works by New Jersey teacher and painter Neal Korn will be part of our summer exhibition, Who We Are: Contemporary Portraits. In these new portraits, Korn adopts radical viewpoints to revamp the notion of what a portrait is, similar to the way that Caravaggio created visual synecdoches, using a tiny part of the face to suggest the whole. Sometimes the isolated part of a face or a body is able to convey anonymity (as in the soldiers) or suggest the many sides of human personality as in the Korn images.

Korn, Ily, 2009, Photograph and pencil drawing

What is your favorite portrait and figure where personality is conveyed by a small part of the whole?
–Virginia Fabbri Butera, PhD, Director of the Therese A. Maloney Art Gallery