Portraits Retain Power to Dazzle the Eye

Maybe they appeal to the narcissist in all of us, but the human fascination with portraits seems inexhaustible. Even when we know little about the person in the picture, if the likeness is strong enough the fascination doesn’t fade.

Hans Memling was a major Flemish painter back in the 1400s. But stand in front of one of his portraits, as many people have been doing in a current exhibition at New York’s Frick Collection, and you’d likely feel that time is irrelevant. The person in the picture seems somehow there with you in the museum.
No doubt this was part of Memling’s appeal, a quality that made him one of the leading painters in Bruges – now a tourist draw for its medieval look and a leading international financial center of the Netherlands. In an age long before photography, it’s easy to see why his portraits were particularly popular with visiting bankers and merchants from Italy. They were like lavish souvenirs of one’s travels.
Surely the friends and associates of those Memling painted would have marveled at his skill, just like the visitors at the Frick. His powers of definition are astounding. You can see every hair on someone’s head, the subtlest play of light across a face in the 20 selections that make up “Memling’s Portraits” (through Dec. 31).

A recent restoration of “Portrait of a Man With an Arrow” (circa 1475-1480) revealed a detail hidden for centuries: a fly near the sitter’s thumb. An image like this was a badge of honor for the hyper-realist. Since ancient times, painters who mastered illusion used such motifs to show how skilled they were.
But Memling, like his more famous mentor Rogier van der Weyden, didn’t see illusion as gimmickry. He viewed it an imitation of nature intended to dazzle the eye, as a way of closing the gap between art and life.

There can be no doubt that Memling loved the idea that he could narrow this gap. He would often paint a frame into a picture, only to have the person in front of it or place the subject just inside the fake frame with a hand leaning on its edge. And the examples are about as plentiful as a viewer could hope for: only 30 portraits by Memling survive and two-thirds of them are on view. (These and more can be found in the full-length companion book for the show, available from Thames & Hudson for $45.)
The artist’s techniques all contribute to a sense of someone being there with you, defying history. Of course logic tells you it’s just a painting, but the irrational portion of the mind sides with the magical dimension of the image.

British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a similar feeling about portraits.

“It is not merely the likeness which is precious,” she wrote in 1843, “but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing, the face of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever!”
But it’s not only the painted portrait that can collapse time. Jump to the present and you will find Lincoln Schatz, an artist from Chicago, doing much the same in some unusual video works on view at Quint Contemporary Art in La Jolla (through Dec. 31).

He compresses time quite literally in works like “Me Me You Me” and “Path.” Stand before his flat screens and you’re in the picture, generally more than once. He divides the screen into overlapping rectangles and overlapping images that appear closer and farther away from you – some containing faces and some not.

Along with your image, pictures of others who are not in the gallery space appear and disappear on the screen. It’s clear they were there minutes, hours or days ago, but any distinct sense of past and present dissolves.

All at the time, Schatz is documenting the present, showing snippets from the past and continuously turning both into video compositions. It’s art in constant flux.

Schatz is clear, in a brief written statement for his exhibition, that he has big ambitions for the time frame of a given piece: “Events from minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years past form interwoven layers played out at varying opacity and speeds on a plasma screen.”

It’s both entertaining and disorienting to spend some time in front a piece by Schatz. The instant portrait of you exists in a virtual universe in which time has become elastic.

He calls his exhibition “Collision.” But that doesn’t seem quite the term for it: The recorded moments and people don’t collide so much as overlap and co-exist.

It’s tempting to think that Memling, because he was so committed to the way a portrait could capture reality, would have understood the impulse in Schatz’s art, and would have found it fascinating. And yet his frozen images, in oil on panel, are visually much richer than those of people flickering momentarily on a screen.

Advances in technology offer new possibilities, but they don’t supersede old means of making pictures. The specialness of a face fixed forever in a painting will remain special. No matter what fascinating advances in image-making we make, it’s likely that people will still marvel at Memling’s portraits centuries from now.