About Portraying, Gestures and Borrowed Dogs: An essay by Richard Avedon
From Richard Avedon Portraits book, 2002
When I was a boy, my family took great care with our snapshots. We really planned them. We made compositions. We dressed up. We posed in front of expensive cars, homes that weren’t ours. We borrowed dogs. Almost every family picture taken of us when I was young had a different borrowed dog in it. The photographs on these pages are of my mother, my sister and myself. It seemed a necessary fiction that the Avedons owned dogs. Looking through our snapshots recently, I found eleven different dogs in one year of our family album. There we were in front of canopies and Packards with borrowed dogs, and always, forever, smiling. All of the photographs in our family album were built on some kind of lie about who we were, and revealed a truth about who we wanted to be.
When I first looked at the portraits of Egon Schiele-I hadn’t really known his work until The Museum of Modern Art’s “Vienna 1900” show in 1986-I was excited. They seemed to me some of the highest examples of portraiture without borrowed dogs. So when Kirk Varnedoe, curator of the show, invited me to give a lecture at the museum, I began thinking of what I might say about Schiele. I thought I would contrast Schiele’s candor and complexity with the entire tradition of flattery and lies in portrait making.
I’ve always thought that Rembrandt was the master of empty ennoblement in portraiture and that he was the most dangerous “Master of the Borrowed Dog” simply because he is the most perfect and seductive of painters. I was prepared to say hard things about Rembrandt, and it just didn’t seem like a swift thing to do. I decided to decline Varnedoe’s offer.
Now, what I’m about to tell you is true in every detail.
The morning that I made up my mind not to attempt to speak in public about Schiele and Rembrandt, I walked from my study into my bedroom (I’d been having carpenters build bookshelves under my bed), and there by the window was Rembrandt himself, standing in my bedroom in Rembrandt light. There, holding a hammer, dressed as a carpenter, was the genius himself. I reached for Kenneth Clark’s book on Rembrandt and showed Rembrandt, the carpenter, the chapter on his self-portraits. The carpenter agreed that they were absolutely of him. He pointed to one and said, “This one, of course, when I was younger.” I set up my camera, asked him to imitate the drawings I’d shown him, and did a few snapshots. (All this happened in five minutes.) Rembrandt the carpenter acted Rembrandt the painter exactly. It seemed undeniable to me that Rembrandt must have been acting when he made his own self-portraits. It was so clear. Rembrandt was telling me that he was acting when he drew himself. Not just making faces, but always, throughout his life, working in the full tradition of performance. Elaborate costumes, a turban, a beret, a cloak, the rags of a beggar, the golden cloth of a sultan, and someone’s dog-he was really performing in a very self- conscious way. And then I realized, thanks to Rembrandt the carpenter, that it was precisely this quality of performance that links Rembrandt and Schiele, but which Schiele took to an inspiring and radical extreme. And that performance ought to be the real subject of my talk, just as it is the real subject of all portraits that interest me. So I changed my mind.
Portraiture is performance, and like any performance, in the balance of its effects it is good or bad, not natural or unnatural. I can understand being troubled by this idea-that all portraits are performances-because it seems to imply some kind of artifice that conceals the truth about the sitter. But that’s not it at all.
The point is that you can’t get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. The surface is all you’ve got. You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface. All that you can do is to manipulate that surface-gesture, costume, expression-radically and correctly. And I think Schiele understood this in a unique, profound, and original way. Rather than attempting to abandon the tradition of the performing portrait (which is probably impossible anyway), it seems to me that Schiele pushed it to extremes. He shattered the form by turning the volume up to a scream. And so what we see in Schiele is a kind of recurring push and pull: first toward pure “performance,” gesture and stylized behavior pursued for its own sake, studied for its own sake; then these extreme stylizations are preserved in form, but disoriented, taken out of their familiar place, and used to change the nature of what a portrait is.
I think this begins with hands and gesture in Schiele’s portraits. All portrait artists have to think about what to do with hands. It’s not at all that a portrait is a kind of arrested moment in a stream of gesture. Gesture just doesn’t proceed in lockstep with thought. On the contrary, gesture in life always follows thought and precedes words. You extend your hand, then say, “Hello”-if you reverse the order, something else is going on. In a fixed image, there’s no possibility of one act informing the other. Nor is gesture in a portrait just pantomime, where the artist invents a meaningful gesture. Where the hands go is intimately tied up with the expressive quality of an image, its graphic rhythm as a whole, as well as its psychological and emotional content.
The first thing I saw in Schiele was a kind of marionette imagery. The Self-Portrait with Raised Left Hand is a good example. This laboratory of splayed fingers seems oblique and purposefully unrevealing-an experiment an artist might do if he was trying to find some random or chance or unpredictable element to break a stereotyped form.
On second look, it became clear to me that Schiele’s new language of hands really affects things in a fundamental way. First of all, what starts out as pantomime becomes part of a larger graphic scheme-a jagged, spindled rhythm that you see as clearly in Schiele’s flowers as in his figures. And then I realized that Schiele used such apparently aberrant gestures to create a new language of expression that is much more convincing than the artist’s traditional inventory of postures and poses. To begin in pure marionette theater and end with an image and gesture to do with intellect- Schiele’s pulling down of the eye-is much truer and more beautiful than, say-to scrape the bottom of the barrel-Rodin’s Thinker.
The ultimate expression of this kind of performance-extreme stylized behavior-is, of course, fashion. In fashion, everything-the entire body, hair, makeup, fabric-is all used to create a performance. So many portraits in the history of art are fashion portraits, fashion images, as in so many beautiful Klimts. Schiele certainly understood fashion and seems to have been fascinated by it. But while Schiele never abandoned the theatrical conventions of fashion, he intensified them in a way that transformed their meaning.
I think the masterpiece of this particular-and particularly daring-aspect of Schiele’s work occurs in the self-portrait in a jail cell, which he called Hindering the Artist Is a Crime, it Is Murdering Life in the Bud! Here, in the extreme of humiliation and pain, while imprisoned for the power of his work, he draws himself in an explosion of form, equal to the most extravagant ideal of fashion. No man’s garment flows so lyrically in the best of times, let alone the worst.
Another element of performance is, of course, the prop. It’s significant that Schiele in his portraits deprived himself of props and scenery. He used empty backgrounds. They’re so spare.
As one who is addicted to white backgrounds, it seems odd to me that a gray or tonal background is never described as being empty. But in a sense that’s correct. A dark background fills. A white background empties. A gray background does seem to refer to something-a sky, a wall, some atmosphere of comfort and reassurance-that a white background doesn’t admit. With the tonal background, the artist is allowed the romance of a face coming out of the dark. You won’t find any portraits with white backgrounds before Schiele. Maybe in drawings. Never in paintings, with the possible exception of the white icons of Novgorod. It’s so hard with a white background not to let the graphic element take over. It’s so hard to give emotional content to something so completely and potentially caricatural, dominated by that hard, unyielding edge. And that, of course, is the challenge and importance of it. If you can make it work successfully, a white background permits people to become symbolic of themselves.
There’s an element of sexuality in all portraiture; the moment you stop to look, you’ve been picked up. And you may look at a portrait with a concentration you’re not allowed in life. Is there any situation in life where you can stare at the Duchess of Alba for half an hour without ending up dead at the hands of the Duke? A confrontational, erotic quality, I think, should underline all portraiture. But in the history of art before Schiele, this confrontational quality of portraiture was almost never explored, so far as I know, in explicitly erotic images. Even eroticized portraits tended to be voyeuristic rather than confrontational.
Rather than seeking to make “sexy” images, it seems to me that Schiele began with the knowledge of the complexity implicit in the sexuality of all portraiture, and then again turned up the volume. He seems to have been at once excited and revolted by the erotic nature of portraiture. For all the high degree of sexuality in his work, there’s an interesting lack of sensuality. It’s as though he is saying, “You want to see? I’ll give you something to look at. And my painting will look at you looking at me.” Is there an image in art before Schiele’s Self-Portrait in Black Cloak, Masturbating of a man, rather than a woman, masturbating? Schiele engaged in the performance of masturbation; he presents it as a performance.
All of Schiele’s knowledge about being a portrait painter-about performing the act, about watching himself performing the act, and painting himself performing the act, and then about looking at the painting he made-seems, to me, wrapped up in this image. It also seems, to me, a bad performance, though a radical one. This picture fails as a metaphor from the neck up because of Schiele’s youthful addiction to sentimentality in the treatment of his own face. It’s in the face that we see The Loneliness of the Masturbator-this head expresses a much more banal conception than does the subtlety of this body. It seems to me to limit the picture’s power by making masturbation acceptable in art only as a pleasureless act, instead of a frenzied, complicated, pleasurable, destructive wacking-off. Imagine, say, the head from Schiele’s Grimacing Man on this Schiele body.
Forgive me. I know I’ve gone too far. Presuming to say what Schiele should have done or might have done is out of the question.
Let me end with a story that may say something about how these ideas relate to my own work.
In 1975 I had arrived at the point in my career where I was no longer interested in doing portraits of persons of power and accomplishment. However, there were three men whose work I admired enormously and whose portraits I wanted to make: Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, and Francis Bacon. Their portraits turned out to involve three different kinds of performances: Borges gave an unphotographable performance, Beckett refused to perform, and Bacon offered a perfect performance.
I photograph what I’m most afraid of, and Borges was blind.
On the plane to Buenos Aires, I discovered that Borges’s mother, with whom I knew he had lived all of his life, had died that evening. I assumed, of course, that the sitting would be canceled. But he received me, as we had planned, the next afternoon at four o’clock. I arrived at his apartment and found myself in the dark. He was sitting in gray light, on a small settee, and signaled with his hand for me to sit beside him. Almost immediately, he told me that he admired Kipling and asked me to read to him. “Go to the bookcase and find the seventh book from the right on the second shelf,” he said. I did. He told me what poem of Kipling’s he wanted to hear-“The Harp Song of the Dane Women”-and I read it to him. He joined in occasionally. Did I know Anglo-Saxon? he asked next. Which would I prefer, legend or elegy? Elegy, I chanced. He explained to me, as he prepared to recite, that his dead mother lay in the adjoining room. Her hands had clenched in pain just before her death, he explained, and then he described how he and their servant had straightened out each of his mother’s fingers, one by one, until her hands lay in peace on her breast. Then he recited the Anglo-Saxon elegy, his voice rising and falling in the dark room.
The first time I saw him in light, it was my light. I was overwhelmed with feeling and I started to photograph. But the photographs turned out to be emptier than I had hoped. I thought I had somehow been so overwhelmed that I had brought nothing of myself to the portrait.
Four years later, I read an account by Paul Theroux of his visit to Borges. It was my visit: the dim light, the trip to the bookcase, Kipling, the Anglo-Saxon recital. In some way, it seemed Borges had no visitors. People who came from the outside could exist for him only if they were made part of his familiar inner world, the world of poets and ancients who were already his true companions. The people in that world knew more, argued better, had more to tell him. The performance permitted no interchange. He had taken his own portrait long before, and I could only photograph that.
In 1979 I went to Paris to photograph Samuel Beckett. As we were about to walk around the corner to the camera and white paper, Beckett spoke. “This is very painful for me,” he said. I chose to believe him-though the remark might have been meant in another way-and, after taking a few exposures, stopped the sitting almost before it began. I’m still not certain that I did the correct thing.
My sitting with Francis Bacon was planned for a Sunday morning also in Paris that same year. I had set up my outdoor studio on the shady side of the Musèe d’Art Moderne at the Trocadero. Bacon came in a striped shirt, leather pants, and a checked jacket, dressed to kill, dressed to be photographed. And we had a charming conversation about the differences between living in Paris and London. It was a sunny day, and a really lovely, civilized exchange. Then I began the portrait. I explained the nature of the diptych I wanted to achieve. I’d made a little sketch of what I hoped to do. I asked him to exchange his jacket for my plain, dark sweater. And then I asked him to bring his hand up into the portrait. If I’d asked the same of a politician or banker, or for that matter, any one of us, the tendency would be for the subject to want to look distinguished, sage, to rest a chin on a hand, or bring a hand to a forehead. Bacon immediately acted the role of the private Bacon with the greatest purity and economy of gesture, and yet it was filled with authentic feeling. Without my saying a word, he understood what my portrait was about, what it called for from him, and he still remained true to himself. No one could act Bacon but Bacon. On this perfect, clear Sunday, facing the Eiffel Tower, he achieved an honorable and perfect performance.
Photography is a sad art. It’s gone but it remains. When I was young, death was one of my subjects. I photographed Jean Renoir, Stravinsky, John Ford, artists at the end of their lives, and my dying father. (I’m no longer interested in approaching this subject through my work. It’s too close for art. Death is a young poet’s romance, and an old man’s business.)
My father, Jacob Israel Avedon, was a teacher before he was a businessman. It was my father who taught me the physics of photography. When I was a boy he explained to me the power of light in the making of a photograph. He held a magnifying glass between the sun and a leaf and set the leaf on fire. The next day, as an experiment, I taped a negative of my sister onto my skin and spent the day at Atlantic Beach.
That night, when I peeled the negative off, there was my sister, sunburned onto my shoulder. I knew from the beginning that being a photographer and playing with light means playing with fire. Neither the photographer nor the subject gets out of it unsinged.
In 1970, I showed my father for the first time one of the portraits that I had made of him in the years just before. He was wounded. My sense of what is beautiful was very different from his. I wrote to him to try and explain.
I’m putting this in a letter because phone calls have a way of disappearing in the whatever it is. I’m trying to put into words what I feel most deeply, not just about you, but about my work and the years of undefinable father and son between us. I’ve never understood why I’ve saved the best that’s in me for strangers like Stravinsky and not for my own father.
There was a picture of you on the piano that I saw every day when I was growing up. It was by the Bachrach studio and heavily retouched and we all used to call it “Smilin’ Jack Avedon”-it was a family joke, because it was a photograph of a man we never saw, and of a man I never knew. Years later, Bachrach did an advertisement with me-Richard Avedon, Photographer-as a subject. Their photograph of me was the same as the photograph of you. We were up on the same piano, where neither of us had ever lived.
I am trying to do something else. When you pose for a photograph, it’s behind a smile that isn’t yours. You are angry and hungry and alive. What I value in you is that intensity. I want to make portraits as intense as people. I want your intensity to pass into me, go through the camera and become a recognition to a stranger. I love your ambition and your capacity for disappointment, and that’s still as alive in you as it has ever been.
Do you remember you tried to show me how to ride a bicycle, when I was nine years old? You had come up to New Hampshire for the weekend, I think, in the summer when we were there on vacation, and you were wearing your business suit. You were showing me how to ride a bike, and you fell and I saw your face then. I remember the expression on your face when you fell. I had my box Brownie with me, and I took the picture.
I’m not making myself clear. Do you understand? Love, Dick
When he died, in 1973, I found this letter saved in the inside pocket of the jacket of his best suit, the one he never wore.