A Portrait As a Memento
In different cultures, portraits acquired different functions, whether symbolic, ritual, magic, legal or informative; but an image of a person, be it an imagined portrayal of an ancestor or a quick sketch from nature born out of a momentous fascination, always had to bear a resemblance to its prototype (and sometimes even to represent it). In all European languages, the word ‘portrait’, which derives from the Latin, signifies a ‘drawing’ or a ‘reproduction’. Thus, the term itself suggests that the basis of the portrait is a conventional imitation; in other words, the painters and the viewers of portraits always adhere to the principles of representation and referentiality.
The Female Image
The female image has been used in art since ancient times to convey abstract ideas, concepts and moral qualities. A depiction in which a human figure expresses a universally recognisable idea, concept or moral quality (such as Europe, compassion, freedom, poetry, the republic, or the dawn) is called an allegory. Most allegories, and by extension female images with particular iconographical elements, have become firmly entrenched in the Western cultural tradition, and appear almost unchanged in works of art from different epochs. They acquire different features as a result of political and intellectual trends, and the taste and imagination of the client and the artist.
Cornelia Urbanilla (1976) by Ludomir SleńdzińskiLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
Personal visions born in the artist’s imagination do not have the same status as an allegory; and yet, like allegories, they can also take the form of various anthropomorphic shapes, among which the image of a female is prominent.
Deciphering the meaning of this kind of individual imagery requires knowledge of the epoch, the distinctive features of its art, and the artist’s work and social environment.
The Day (Before 1943) by Kazys VarnelisLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
In a Garden (1966) by Jonas RimšaLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
Quiet Sunday (1979) by Vincas KisarauskasLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
The Charms of Childhood
Until the 18th century, children were often perceived and often also depicted as little adults. The Romantics viewed them as essentially different from adults, and the art of that time confirms this. Pictures of curly and fair-haired, rosy-cheeked, well-dressed,and pensive or cheerfully smiling boys and girls convey the period’s view of children as pure and innocent creatures.
Girls in Winter (After 1924) by Jonas MackevičiusLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
The second half of the 19th century, which was sensitive to social injustices, added subjects of a social nature to the iconography of children.Images of children from this time range from half-angels to pitiful ragamuffins from whom the unfair adult world has stolen the joys of childhood.
We can also find pictures with children cheerfully working, playing and studying. The sentimental and sensual view of children sometimes has a hint of eroticism. This is especially evident in images of adolescent girls, even if the artist was not aiming to convey it.
Most female images in world of art are probably connected with the theme of motherhood. In Western culture, which is based on Christianity, the influence of the Madonna is inevitable.The tradition of depicting the Virgin and Child is important not only for its form but also for its content. This tradition, along with real-life experience, prompted and continues to prompt artists to represent motherhood both as a joyful event in life and as an immense responsibility, which sometimes requires a huge sacrifice by the woman.
In the Room (1985/2000) by Arvydas ŠaltenisLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
Since the 18th century, the social and domestic aspects of motherhood have become more prominent in works of art. Works from the 19th century and later that radiate an anxiety for children who will have to face the cruelty and injustice of the world as soon as they leave the safe haven of their mother’s arms.
Because they were born into a family which is doomed to struggle for its daily bread, comprise a separate sub-theme of the theme of motherhood. Nevertheless, the prism of social critique did not overshadow artists’ veneration of woman, who is endowed with the power to give and foster new life.The image of the female almost always has some features of the Madonna or a goddess.
An Object of Desire
Ever since Nietzsche and Freud, nobody has doubted that man-made images are instruments of power and desire, while their creation and contemplation involves powerful drives, including erotic drives. The principal object of desire depicted in works of art is woman.
The Bather (1931) by Stasys UšinskasLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
The artist’s ability to transmit to the viewer the gaze with which he looked at his real or imaginary model has long been one of the criteria for evaluating the work’s artistry and suggestiveness. The emotions behind this gaze range from shy tenderness to explicit passion and physical desire.
The desire embodied in the work is not necessarily proportionate to the extent of the model’s nudity. Often images of fully clothed women or girls convey eroticism just as well as images of half naked Bathshebas, Dianas, Susannas, Venuses, bacchantes or mermaids.
Spring (A sketch for the plafond for Kaunas Aviator's House) (1937) by Stasys UšinskasLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
In the art of Antiquity, the capacity of a work to trigger real passion gave rise to one of the constantly repeated myths about the sculptor Pygmalion and a work from his hands that came to life, the sculpture of Galatea.
Circus Rehearsal (plafond) (Before 1940) by Stasys UšinskasLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
Nevertheless, art historians argue that the true artist usually finds inspiration for his picture in another work of art, rather than a living woman.
For instance, Picasso drew his inspiration from Ingres’ bathers,while the Lithuanian artist Juozas Mikėnas found it in images of women painted by Picasso.
Nude Woman with a Cigarette (1934) by Ada Peldavičiūtė–MontvydienėLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
Oriental Portrait (1846) by Józef Ignacy KraszewskiLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
As Seen by Ethnographers
The great voyages that began in the Renaissance period opened up to Europe not only the mysteries of China and the captivating worlds of the Near East and India, but also the no less exotic life of its own lower strata that was to be found at close proximity to the towns and villages. The Romantics particularly favoured images of a strange but alluring reality, and captured them with the intention of ‘domesticating’ and getting to know that reality.
The artists of the Positivist era continued their efforts, followed by the Modernists. Regardless of the differences in their style, manner and moods, all of these works radiate the curiosity of an ethnographer and the keen eye of an observer. They appealed to contemporaries who did not have the chance or were unwilling to experience first-hand the unusual, ‘different’ world, which included not only faraway exotic lands, but also the ‘other side’ of their own land: Jews and gypsies, peasants and marginalised city dwellers (drunks, prostitutes, beggars and travelling performers,and also small-scale artisans, laundresses and market vendors).
A Dark-skinned Girl (1925) by Pranas DomšaitisLithuanian Art Centre TARTLE
The portrayal of this ‘different’ world and its inhabitants gave rise to various misconceptions which later became clichés, and led artists to emphasise the purity of the peasants and their connection with nature, the sensuality, wealth and luxury of the East, and the savage and passionate spirit and the gift for clairvoyance of gypsies.
Today, as in the past, the viewer enjoys an unexpected and intriguing angle on reality, and exoticism within the shell of realism, whether the artists have depicted curious sights of distant lands through the eyes of an explorer or the surrounding reality of their own country.
Text author Giedrė Jankevičiūtė.