The original and ultimate status update, portraiture has a long history that poses rich insights into both the portrayer and the portrayed. Contemporary artists Gavin Turk and Peter Blake talk about their approach to the form.
Painting a portrait is a fascinating business – one fraught with potential problems and politics, and freighted with meaning. From Holbein’s imposing Henry VII to Velázquez’s wobbly Habsburgs via Warhol’s multiples of Mao and Marilyn, portraits are often commissioned to show the sitters (or just subjects) as potent symbols of status and sophistication often undercut by the artist’s own playful and satirical intentions. Portraits can be a viper’s nest – but ever interesting.
Gavin Turk and Peter Blake – two of the UK’s best-loved contemporary artists – have invoked various mediums to create their images and statements. Both have famously worked with portraiture of others and themselves; both have a different approach to portraits too. While Blake has used found imagery and starts with a photograph, Turk plays with our expectations of what a portrait should be, especially a self-portrait. Hero or villain? A bit of both, probably. Blake and Turk sat down at London’s Waddington Custot gallery to talk fact and fiction in the (vain)glorious realm of portraits.
Gavian Turk: There’s an obsession with portraiture in art and I’ve made pictures of myself as other people: Sid Vicious and Elvis as myself. How do you choose who to do?
Peter Blake: It’s kind of private portraiture where the subjects tend to be friends. It’s a very valid form of art but I’m not a professional portrait painter.
GT: You say that but do you get paid for doing them?
PB: Well, some of them! Then others are gifts.
GT: You say you paint your friends but do they stay your friends? You say you’ll do their portrait and then you end up spending a long time teasing them with their portrait and then by the time they finally get the picture they’re happy because it’s a version of themselves from many years earlier. Any truth in that?
PB: Well, I’ve been doing the Paul Smith one for 20 years at least. It started off as a swap: Paul was going to give me some clothes. But then I kept on almost finishing it and something would come up. Recently I went to hang it in a show; it was still wet in the back of a cab.
GT: The idea of finishing something, of knowing when something is done, is all about knowing the picture, of recognising that that is the picture you want to leave and to say, “That’s it”. You have to do the portrait a special service in a way.
PB: Well, getting a likeness is the most important thing. For some painters it’s to do with the physical rapport you have with someone who’s sitting for you but for me it’s the likeness. When you’re doing a picture the thing that occupies your mind is everything that isn’t in the painting; of everything that’s to come, what you’ve got ahead of you. But finishing a picture, a portrait or anything, is an interesting question. I feel I could keep adding; I could go forever.
GT: When I go to Madame Tussauds I’m always struck by the idea of what “likeness” is. It’s not taking a photograph, it’s something else. It’s a concept as well.
PB: I’m not trying to make something like a photograph but for me a photograph is a good start.
GT: Can it go wrong when you’re painting a portrait? Can you feel like you’ve locked onto your target but – oh no – it’s gone wrong?
PB: It can’t go very wrong, no; you’re aiming for something in the future so you hope you can correct it. Things don’t always go the way you want but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve gone wrong; it’s part of the process.
GT: Do you have to get into a certain mindset to work or are they different mindsets for different people that you’re portraying? Do you have to get into a feeling like you’re writing a story about somebody?
PB: It’s a very workmanlike process. I photograph the people or sometimes Mary McCartney has taken the photographs for me and then I transfer it through paper; you’ve got a guaranteed likeness by that point. You’re adjusting the line of the lip or the eyes and then it is a matter of letting it be a beautiful picture. It becomes about details: you’re painting linen or tweed, hair or skin; the normal problems of painting. I’ve bypassed that traditional process of sitting. It’s cheating really.
GT: Not really, it just creates a slightly different sort of image. Yours are about a different sort of texture and depth, I think. What about if people don’t like what you’ve done? There’s that wonderful chapter in Roland Barthes where he talks about the face you put on when you’re being photographed. In order that your image is consistent you make a funny sort of face. PB: Yes, it’s funny that you’re the only person that doesn’t know what you really look like.
GT: Do you think that your pictures of other people also capture a little bit of you?
PB: Sometimes a bit of a self-portrait appears, maybe people get a bit rounder over the years. In my latest series, I’ve used images that I just found interesting. I painted a clown using the face of Robert De Niro. He seems to make a good clown, I don’t know why. It’s all fictitious. How much of you there is in a portrait of someone else is interesting now I’m thinking of your self-portrait as Sid Vicious acting at being Elvis. It’s a fascinating concept. I don’t get that deep in but I’m playing the same game.
GT: Yeah, there’s that element of layering and collage. There are certain things – a tone, a pattern, someone’s hair – that have the same meaning as a Scrabble tile or a flag. You can use their value, their symbolism and add them to something else. But let’s talk about selling things. When a gallery sells something do you feel a sense of loss or do you feel relieved?
PB: These days I kind of accept it. If I don’t want to sell something I keep it back. I used to pretend that I didn’t want to sell anything but nobody bought it anyway so it was hypothetical.
GT: There is a truth there: some of the best things you make don’t get recognised and you get them back at the end of the show. Then other things you think are a bit embarrassing are the first to go.