Modern American Portrait Drawings. (Museum Today)

Article excerpt

PORTRAITURE, after thriving for generations at the forefront of the visual arts, rode a roller coaster of reputation in the 20th century. First reempowered as experimental, then discredited in an age of abstraction, and finally rediscovered toward the century's end, portraiture was buffeted by new ways of thinking about art and the individual.

Despite its brief, underground status, artists never completely abandoned the figure. Occasionally working outside the critical limelight, they continued to experiment. Modern themes as well as modern styles gave a new look to the portrait. In various ways, portraitists rethought the place of the individual in society and used new artistic tools to embody personality and search for identity.

In the late 19th century, evolving ideas in psychology, science, sociology, and philosophy transformed conceptions about the individual. For many artists, the self no longer seemed a stable, definable entity, easily captured by an expression or characteristic gesture. Modernists searched instead for an interior presence that was elusive and sometimes changeable. Probing beyond physical representation, they searched for a synthesis of body and spirit, using a range of new stylistic devices to add emotional or psychological overtones. Rhythmic lines, geometric shapes, expressive distortion, or color juxtapositions, for example, could suggest nuances of character. The dynamic energy, vulnerability, or wit of a sitter seemed as important to convey as physical likeness.

Some artists used symbols or words to allude to personality. Others, like Marius de Zayas, turned toward complete abstraction, not unlike the unconventional "portraits" in prose, poetry, and music by Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, and Virgil Thomson. Portraiture was seen as a highly flexible genre, open to experimentation.

Less focused on a static identity, artists had the opportunity to reimagine the figure according to external models. The mass media-based celebrity culture, for instance, created larger-than-life public figures against whom one measured one's identity. Everyone wanted that intangible quality of stardom known as "personality"--what actress Mae West once called "the glitter that sends your little gleam across the footlights." Portraitists often sought that "glitter," rather than the dignity and decorum of previous generations. The brio and dash of the conte crayon in Harrison Fisher's portrayals of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, for instance, conjure up their soap-opera marriage, successes, and tragic flaws, all acted out in the glare of publicity.

Some themes that figure largely in late-20th-century portraiture--such as explorations of gender, race, or sexuality--appear in nascent form early in the modern era. In William Zorach's 1923 drawing, Edna St. Vincent Millay strikes a bold, assured pose that reflects the sexual and intellectual independence of her emancipated generation. Racial consciousness permeates the dignified 1920s Harlem Renaissance portraits by Winold Reiss, counteracting racist notions of inferiority. Even awareness of sexuality and the body finds precedence in an earlier, more-guarded age. While Gaston Lachaise's drawing of Hart Crane dancing nude is not specifically homoerotic, it does reference the poet's homosexuality in its exuberant celebration of the male body.

For portrait drawings, these changes were heightened by new attitudes toward works on paper. Early in the century, the spontaneously drawn image became indispensable to the fast-growing publishing industry, illustrating periodicals, newspapers, and books. No longer confined to the artist's studio and the connoisseur's portfolio, high-quality drawings entered the public sphere. …

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