Portrait sculpture – conscious, subconscious, unconscious?

Worthing Museum has an interesting sculpture exhibition on until January 2012, featuring the Latvian-born Dora Gordin (1895-1991) – she later changed this to Gordine – who settled in London after studying music and art in Paris. It is co-curated with Dorich House, where the artist lived and where the Gordine archive continues to reside in the care of Kingston University’s Brenda Martin. I’ve got a soft spot for Worthing’s permanent collection and visiting after a year’s gap since exhibiting there, it was lovely to see the work of one artist in the top gallery space.¬†Gordine’s portrait heads sometimes seem to have plinths with more mass than they might require, but are formally strong; particularly the ones with solid, flat patination.
This clip¬†of a new feature-length documentary on Gordine is rather interesting – uploaded in September 2011 by Director Annaleena Piel Linna, it give some idea of the sculptor’s vocal strength, which draws to mind the powerful, arresting handwriting in some of the letters on display at Worthing.
Her last husband, The Hon. Richard Hare, was instrumental in propelling her into the London society that allowed portrait commissions to arise with the great and good; similar to Jacob Epstein who was born 15 years earlier and entertained many formal sittings from the fashionable, bohemian and artistic crowd he lived amongst, as well as keeping his hand in with many heads of his wife and children, models and lovers.
Interviewed by the BBC in 1972, Gordine commented “when you do a portrait bust of somebody you only do their noses and mouth and all that – and it is nothing! You have to imagine what they are like inside and to bring out their inward life, inward feelings,and then put it in a form. And whether its true or not, what do I care!” When asked whether she felt that she was capturing the soul, she agreed, suggesting: “the feeling, the nostalgia, the dream – all that you have to put it in your sculpture.”

Jacob Epstein’s ethos for portraiture is also documented in the 1932 publication The Sculptor Speaks¬†in which the sculptor was in¬†conversation with Arnold L Haskell (here pages 61-66):
“I give a complete portrait – and a sculptural work¬†as well by bringing out what is interesting and significant in a¬†face”.¬† Haskell then suggested¬†it is for us [the viewer] to¬†tell the artist what is in a work, to which Epstein replied “… superstition. People see the artist as a medium, possessed by a certain force that he cannot control or reason about. I am fully conscious of what I am doing and can judge the result and character¬†of my sitters.”¬†¬†Epstein went on the discuss Rodin who, he purported, ¬†had acted the role of¬†the somnambulist artist, probably to flatter some journalists he was talking to, suggesting:¬†“I don’t know exactly what I meant to do here. You tell me.”

Two pages later, Epstein¬†added “the artist doesn’t cheat nature but he must translate it and render it as he sees fit… it is always necessary to accentuate some particular trait that gives the character to the face and distinguish it from other faces. A man is an artist¬†because he has the necessary judgement and skill to know what accentuation is necessary.”

Talking about his bust of Joseph Conrad,¬†“I went entirely by what I saw… in portraiture the artist must depict what he sees of his sitter and not be influenced by what he knows of him or think he knows about him. I always set out conscientiously to give as good a likeness as I can. Without that a portrait has no value as such”.
So, slightly contradictory stuff, it seems. How can he have been fully conscious of his accentuation whilst giving as good a likeness as he can? I personally feel the accentuated traits in some of his lesser heads appear to sit dangerously on the cusp of caricature.  Strong forms Рbut with the impression of over-conscious actions.

I follow the working method of Alan Thornhill (b.1921), whose¬†portraiture¬†relies on the building of a formal equivalent to the head of the sitter¬†through overcoming our ‘notions of normality’. This relies on perception, avoiding pre-conceived thought and concentrating on¬†observational rigour rather than knowledge. Our own perception – our personal way of seeing – thus provides something of the sculptor entering the work – but it is with¬†the carefully cultivated¬†involvement¬†of the subconscious mind, perhaps, rather than¬†an unconscious approach as per the Rodin story. Anything can creep into the work if one is prepared to let it.

As the use of measuring calipers grows at the expense of pure unadulterated observation, the translation¬†of the relationships between plastic forms becomes more efficient and mechanised. The building of a formal equivalent is lost in¬†favour of copying. Portrait work¬†is taken out of the realm of art-object¬†as the sculptor’s input of pure creative energy is lost. At their most efficient, these processes can be seen in Madame Tussauds waxworks, but the use of calipers is common with the “professional” portrait sculptor who makes a living from the physical likenesses which are behind much of the public statuary and sculpted busts today.¬†They are technically sculpture but not art. Paradoxically as they become visually as realistic as they can be, ¬†this only seems to reduce their vitality and inner intensity.

My own clay heads are fired as terracottas, rather than immediately used to take a cast from and then discarded. The shrinkage involved in the kiln process I find an advantage as it seems to increase the intensity of the forms, but portrait sculptors might see negatively as further deviation from a requirement to be life-size.

There are seven heads to be exhibited as part of 40 works at JON EDGAR РTHE HUMAN CLAY,  UNIVERSITY OF SURREY (LEWIS ELTON GALLERY) 15 November-22 December 2011, weekdays 10-5.

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