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May 06, 2010

Christie Davies asks, what can we learn from portraits? Irving Penn Portraits and The Indian Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Irving Penn Portraits
National Portrait Gallery, London
18 February - 6 June 2010

The Indian Portrait 1560 - 1860
National Portrait Gallery, London
11 March - 29 June 2010

Daily 10am - 6pm (Thursdays & Fridays to 9pm)

Irving Penn who died last year at 92 was one of the world's great portrait photographers. His skill in lighting and posing his subjects and in arranging plain, stark, carefully shaped settings not only brought out the character of the sitter but produced works of art in black and white. It is a pity that this extraordinary talented man whose work is on show in the National Portrait Gallery should have had to waste so much of his life doing fashion rubbish for Vogue and Harpies Bazaar. You can see how bad these were from the old copies of Vogue exhibited in a display case. Yet he obviously liked the work enough to marry one of his models.

Penn had three simple effective ways of placing the celebrities he photographed. One was to contain them in a corner, trapped in the acute angle between two high vertical sheets of hardboard. He chose how they should stand or sit and adjusted his lens to come close in or stay at a distance.

The painter Georgia O'Keefe, tiny inside the thin end of the wedge seems apprehensive but the Duchess of Windsor, dressed as a brazen Chinese whore, looks boldly at the viewer, ass against the wall touting for business. Igor Stravinsky, 1948, has a hand to his ear, listening for something, as if deafened by his own music; by a trick of perspective this makes his hands look enormous. George Grosz has rough manual worker's hands, as he would have wished, and in his neat but ill-fitting suit resembles a high ranking party official in East Germany, even though he had long since abandoned communism and indeed had come to detest Lenin's Soviet order.

The camera can not lie but it does for Yehudi Menuin who with his square head, piercing look and a suit of such dark high gravity it seems like a black hole, looks like a Brooklyn shtarker (tough). If he had been carrying a violin case instead of the violin he is holding, you would have assumed there was a machine-gun inside. Somehow I canít see Menuhin on the running board of a car in a turf war in Brooklyn. Even more surprising is Marcel Duchamp the man who turned the urinal into art, who, sucking on his pipe is made to look ultra-English, down to his casual woollen scarf. Who ever heard of a Frenchman facing out of a corner, particularly the man who stole urinals? Would not a back-view have been more appropriate?

Penn's second manoeuvre is to reduce his subject to an expressive white face sitting atop a large jet-black triangle, sometimes contrived out of a chair, sometimes from their clothing, rather like a Tangram picture of a cat. Penn really understood geometry, shape, line, angle and how to sharpen the contrast of black and white to make the white speak. You cannot help but wonder whether he would have made Field Marshal Idi Amin, the rightful successor to Macbeth as King of Alba, wear a white suit when taking his photograph.

Penn's masterpiece in this mode is Marlene Dietrich, who sits looking seductively over her shoulder at us over the great black triangle of her cloak. Alfred Hitchcock is made to sit sideways and his very bulk provides the triangle atop which the familiar face sits. The face is all. Simple but very effective.

At times Penn could be quite ruthless in drawing out character. He has cropped off the top of Graham Greene's head, so that he looks like the devil, or at least like a man who regularly enjoyed another man's wife behind the altars of Roman Catholic churches. The act, if not the setting, was reprehensible and somewhat at odds with his supposed religious views. A chair provides the mandatory black triangle. Likewise Penn has captured the raffishness of Tennessee Williams (1951). Williams combines a vulgar tie with expensive clothes; smoking through a cigarette holder, he looks out with the eyes of a gambler working a river boat. He should have been called Mississippi Williams.

Today we assume that someone who smokes when posing for a studio photograph must be a degenerate, one who has cast health, life and social convention aside in an insane gesture of defiance but for many years after World War II most men smoked. The cigarette was a prop that could indicate anything from sophistication to bitterness, from insolence to a bad case of nerves, depending on how it was held and how inhaled. Lesbians naturally preferred a manly pipe, financiers a fat cigar, Indian princes a hookah and American Senators chew and spit and a cuspidor.

Penn was very skilful at lighting a cigarette, by which I mean putting a harsh photographers' light on it to emphasise the bright whiteness of the paper with which it was made. Constable would have understood how important this use of a tiny contrast is. Even cigarettes have their uses, provided you don't smoke them.

Penn's third technique is to reduce his subject to a single eye, either by placing much of the face in shadow or hiding it with a hat or a hood. Issey Miyake, 1988, is cowled and shaded so that he becomes a nose, a single eye and a hint of moustache. The one eye you can see looks straight at you with its unmistakeable epicanthic fold. Today, of course, Plica Palpebronasal can be cured by surgery but well over a billion people know that they look very handsome indeed with this hereditary condition and have no wish to change. Picasso, 1957, in a grey hat almost as big as a sombrero also becomes a one-eyed monster, which rather serves him right.

Robert Rauschenberg, 2008, and Jasper Johns, 2006, are made to look crazy. They stare out at you wildly like the black and white illustrations from an old-fashioned text-book of psychiatry and the photo of Johns could have been painted by Edward Munch on one of those days when the twelve month long Norwegian winter was getting through to him. There is no truth in these inferences whatsoever; their Neo-Dadaism was a perfectly sane way of depicting American reality.

What is slightly odd is the way Penn pins ethnic caricatures on some of his sitters. Ivy Compton-Burnett is aloofly English; Richard Burton is that distinctive Welsh blend of the soulful and the doleful. Henry Moore is a bluff no-nonsense Yorkshire man with one of those kindly knobbly potato faces that grow round Castleford and Italo Calvino is most Italian, Willem de Kooning wears a nautical cap to look like der fliegende Hollander or a modern sea-schnorrer and Blaise and Raymonde Cendrars have the gnarled, weathered faces and suspicious eyes of French Auvergnat peasants. The husband even wears a beret and you wonder where he has hidden his baguette.

Saul Bellow, Daniel Sontag Rieff (with his mother Susan Rosenblatt), Arthur Miller, S. J. Perelman and Isaac Bashevis Singer are made to look almost as ultra-Jewish as the Welsh do, rather like the screen and stage face of Zero Mostel. In fairness, Barnett Newman, all moustache and monocle, a sort of cross between Sir Osbert Lancaster and Evelyn Waugh, is made to look as if he is propping up the bar in the Waspiest of up-state New York country clubs. Maybe Irving Penn is laughing at me or perhaps I've been reading too much Jackie Mason.

Partly due to Penn's day-job as a fashion photographer and partly because they (notably T. S. Eliot) were like that, many of his male sitters wear immaculate and very well tailored suits, something that must have been quite fashionable in the twentieth century. On none of them is there a hint of crumple or crease, of cigarette ash or snot on the weskit, the stain of ancient spilled coffee on a sleeve or a lapel shiny with the puke of a baby burped minutes before the wearer left for the studio. Another world.

This is a most enjoyable exhibition for not only is Irving Penn a true artist behind the camera but there are here so many of the great figures of the twentieth century, what Dylan Thomas once called the "dicky-bird watching pictures of the dead". Time shall not yellow them.

As a bonus the National Portrait Gallery offers free entry to another striking exhibition, The Indian Portrait 1560-1860 with its fine range of Mogul, Rajput and Deccan portraits in which can be seen the western "realist" influence of the Jesuits blended with local tradition, rather as was to happen in China. The nautch dancers are more comely than anything ever imagined by Eamonn de Valera. There are also "Company" portraits from the days of the East India Company, including those of individual Indian soldiers who fought in that famous light-cavalry regiment, Skinner's Horse.

Tagged onto The Indian Portrait but in a quite separate display in the basement are paintings by the "Singh twins" of Liverpool, the contemporary artists Amrit and Rabindra K.D. Kaur Singh. Their creations are an odd combination of depictions of benign British Sikhs as a collection of happy families alongside sometimes disturbing portrayal of the autochthonous British as mere snippets from the media, who have no real being or existence of their own.

This is also the case, though with more justification, with their depiction of Amritsar Massacre II, Nineteen Eighty-Four The Storming of the Golden Temple, 1998, an outrage by the Indian army against the Sikhs which may be described in Churchillian English as "an episode without precedent or parallel in the history" of independent India, "an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation". In the Singh twins' painting Mrs Indira Gandhi, the Butcheress of Amritsar, a reincarnation of the Irish but Indian born Brigadier-General Dyer, sits serene on top of an Indian army tank in the foreground, while her troops attack the Golden Temple held by militant Sikhs.

As was reasonably foreseeable, there was mass slaughter of civilians as well as militants, particularly from the Indian army's unsparing use of artillery. The Temple's pure blue lake seen from high above is stained by bright red blood. Curiously Mrs Gandhi was to meet the same fate as Dyer's boss Mickey O'Dwyer, first taken in and then taken out by individual Sikhs, just when they thought they were safe.

The Indian soldiers firing on the crowds in the Singh sisters' picture have no faces - except for one, a Sikh soldier marked out by his turban, whose features are clear. His bullets are as deadly as those of his Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Parsee fellow soldiers but he alone has a proper face, he alone is a full human being. It reminds me of Ethiopian paintings of their glorious victory over the Italian army at Adowa in 1896. The Italians' Somali soldiers are given proper faces but the Italians themselves are not.

In another Singh Twins' picture joyful Sikhs enjoy a party somewhere in England close to the sea but in the foreground is a trash can containing a box with a very bright and obvious union jack painted on one side. It is our national flag, the flag of British Christians, Jews and Sikhs alike, put in the dust-bin and probably put there so that we can not avoid seeing it. This is not a Sikh gesture but a Liverpudlian one. Wretched Liverpool, from which the twins come, is after all the city of the police strike and of Militant Tendency.

What's the difference between a cow and a tragedy?

A scouser wouldn't know how to milk a cow.

My view is confirmed by the Singh twins' disgraceful painting of 2004 of our very own Tony Blair and dear George Bush entitled Partners in Crime: Deception and Lies in which the two political leaders smile and shake hands. Bush is standing on a hyena and Blair on a poodle. Oh vile and libellous picture! It has the stench of the foetid Mersey and of vomited up Lobscouse about it. Why do Sikh women from respectable families, like these twins or the frightful Miss Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti from Watford, whose play Bezhti at Birmingham Rep caused such trauma, get taken in by such leftist nonsense? Why could they not all have had arranged marriages at age 18 and settled down as nice Sikh girls should? Why did not all three of them place advertisements twenty years ago in the matrimonial columns of the Desh Sewak saying "Artistic, wheat-coloured Sikh ladies with British citizenship seek husbands"?

Christie Davies, the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, has given lectures at Panjab and Bar-Ilan Universities.

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vomited up lobscouse ...

Have a look at this link, from the Wikipedia article on Hamburg, to see what the author is hinting at:

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 10, 2010 09:52 PM
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