Portraits, Power and Gender
The representation of power has historically been one of the central functions of portraiture. Royal portraits are a particular type in which artists have deployed a variety of conventions in order to impress the majesty and power of monarchs over their subjects.
As the art historian Shearer West has argued, these conventions comprise a range of poses that were used consistently for royal portraits and which have also been applied to portraits of non-royal rulers. They include the frontal seated pose with its directness of gaze and intimations of divinity favoured in much early portraiture. As West writes, "in portraits of rulers the frontal pose was used from the third century AD and was associated with Byzantine mosaics of Christ". But it is also employed, for instance, in a painting that is the quintessential power portrait, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's portrait of Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne of 1806 (Musée de l'Armée, Paris), a portrait that consciously echoes images of Charlemagne. An alternative is the full length-standing pose seen in portraits from the Renaissance onwards and that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became part of a common pictorial rhetoric used to depict monarchs across the courts of Europe. Props, symbols and backgrounds also operate as signs of authority in a type of portraiture in which the requirement to represent the institution as opposed to the person predominates, often making the image more effigy than likeness.
As with all portraiture, however, the form it takes is inflected by the particular social and political circumstances of time and place. It is not always appropriate or desirable that monarchs should appear all powerful when the balance of rights between monarch and subjects is subject to political contention and there are instances when the royal image has been crafted to respond to this. In the later eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, for instance, there are examples of what has been called the "domestication" of the royal image in which royals are shown in informal circumstances, behaving in a manner not unlike their subjects. Portraits of George III and his family in Britain mark a development in this respect while, in France, portraits of Marie-Antoinette by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun have been said to convey a maternal image of her in order to counter her reputation for extravagance and haughtiness. In this way too portraits of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family - whether full scale oil paintings or popular engravings - responded to anxieties regarding the authority of the monarchy and Albert's political aspirations. The domestication of Victoria and Albert's image also helped resolve the issues of gender arising from there being a female monarch and a male consort, allowing Albert to take his place as head of the family while confining him to that role.
Although there are many formal portraits of the current Queen - made for embassies or regimental halls, her image has also been shaped in this way. Within the context of the domesticated image of the royal family, then, the photographs of her taken by Annie Leibovitz in 2007 stand out as unusual. Leibovitz recalls that, as an American, she felt she had an "advantage over every other photographer or painter who had made a portrait of her. It was OK for me to be reverent". Whereas the British are conflicted over the monarchy and fearful of seeming doting, she writes, "I could do something traditional". It is Leibovitz's eagerness to engage with, rather than reject, the conventions of portraying authority and power that makes the sequence of photographs so notable. In choosing a setting of elaborate grandeur and requesting that the Queen wear state attire, Leibovitz intensifies her aura of majesty. And of course she adopts the full-length pose traditionally used for portraits of authority. Commenting upon Lucian Freud's closely cropped oil portrait of the Queen of 2000-01 (The Royal Collection, London), she writes that "he seemed to dismiss her by making it a painting of just her head. I prefer to photograph the full body".
If, as this implies, Leibovitz was reacting against what she perceived as a tendency in contemporary portraiture not to engage directly with ideas of power - or at an extreme to subvert it - there is nonetheless an element of creating a fictionalized version of the Queen in the photographs. Imputations of manipulation on the photographer's part arose from a curious episode that attached itself to the shoot. A TV company were filming a documentary at the time to be screened by the BBC. Footage of the Queen walking briskly to the shoot was presented in the pre-publicity to the documentary as instead showing the Queen testily storming out of it. Completely untrue, the BBC retracted the claim and apologized to both the Queen and Leibovitz. But the controversy brought about a high level resignation and was a prominent news story at the time. It also gave even greater prominence to the photographs and the incorrect implication remained that, in her careful fashioning of the Queen, Leibovitz had somehow been disrespectful.
An element of fictionalized play-acting often informed the portrait work of Helmut Newton who was for some years Leibovitz's fellow photographer at the magazine Vanity Fair. Exceptional in Newton's work, his portrait of Margaret Thatcher instead exudes power through the convention of the frontal pose and by the sheer scale of the photographic print. It was the result of the photographer's apparent obsession with the former Prime Minister. As his wife and fellow photographer Alice Springs recalled, whenever Thatcher appeared on television she would cry out "Helmie. Quick, it's your girlfriend". "For years and simply years I wrote to her, begging her to sit for me", Newton recalled in 1991, and she finally agreed to do so that year. Newton's portrait of Thatcher also surprises in the context of another aspect of his work for which he is well known, the highly erotic, some might think exploitative, photographs of naked young women. Again the Thatcher portrait may seem at odds with this strand in Newton's photography. But there is perhaps an erotic element in the way Newton describes his obsessive pursuit of Thatcher and a fetishistic attention to her perfectly sculpted hair, pearls and wide-lapelled jacket. A potent sexual charge was often held at the time to be a key aspect of Thatcher's physical persona and it is a sub-theme in Alan Hollinghurst's recreation of the Thatcher era in his 2004 novel The Line of Beauty. Here, encountering her at a party, the novel's protagonist also dwells on her "amazingly embroidered" jacket, "cut low at the front to display a magnificent pearl necklace" and notes that "her hair was so perfect that he started to picture it wet and hanging over her face".
So far I have considered portraits that seek to celebrate the power of their subjects whether through showing the Queen among the trappings of the institution she represents or in Newton's assertion of Thatcher's powerful physical presence. But as a number of artists included in this exhibition demonstrate, there is a substantial body of work that critiques power and its manifestations. Leibovitz's and Newton's portraits also show powerful women, whereas it might be thought that power and portraiture was more often to be found in portraits of men, given their traditional dominance as leaders and the conventions to be found in such sub-genres as the business or boardroom portrait. Might we not then expect to find the most obvious and straightforward statements of power in male portraits? To some extent this is true but it should not lead us to assume that there is a fixed and stable type of masculinity that is manifested in portraits. A further historical example, germane to both exhibitions currently at the Palazzo Strozzi, is provided by the analysis of male portraiture in the Italian Renaissance carried on by Patricia Simons. Simons has drawn our attention to the way that such portraits, including the work of Bronzino with whose retrospective exhibition Portraits and Power coincides, represent highly complex masculinities. Produced within the homosocial circumstances of the Renaissance city in which sitter, viewer, artist and patron were predominantly men, she finds in Renaissance portraiture "masculinities that are neither coherent or universal and Renaissance erotics that are neither 'deviant' nor solely heterosexual". In Bronzino's Cosimo I de' Medici as Orpheus, for example, she identifies an ambiguous homoerotic element both in its mythological reference and the way Cosimo's naked body is rendered.
Returning to more recent practice, it might be expected that portraits of men intended for institutional purposes would present a more conformist type of public masculinity. But again it is worth considering for whom and for what purpose such portraits were made and how they and their subjects chose to be fashioned. Let us take the business or boardroom portrait which self-evidently has as its subject matter men of power. It is a category of portraiture that flourished in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that, arguably, has been on the decline since around the 1960s. One way to account for this decline would be to adopt the model of business historians who, within a roughly similar timescale, trace the demise of personal or family capitalism and the rise of large multi-divisional companies. The former, with its emphasis on long and loyal service and the passing of the company's values through the generations fostered a culture of commemorative portraiture whereas the latter, with its emphasis on career mobility, does not. If a company does still commission portraits of its executives these are more likely to be photographs than traditional oil portraits. It is also more probably the case that any budget for art will be spent on contemporary art in general. Contemporary art, it is felt, projects a better image of a corporation to both its employees and clients than do the serried likenesses of company elders. In this context the portraits of executives of Deutsche Bank by Michael Clegg and Martin Guttmann are of particular interest. They employ the devices which we've already identified as common to the power portrait: immaculately dressed, the men are shown in seated frontal poses, hands held firmly still or clasped together, giving an impression of stolid reliability. Yet these are not portraits in the conventional sense. Rather they are works of contemporary art commissioned by the bank to mark the tenth anniversary of Deutsche Guggenheim, constructions of traditional business portraits as signalled by their title: The Board. Their ambivalent status was further confirmed when the artists decided to reprint and to display the works in an exhibition, outside the private spaces in the bank where the originals hung. Initially this was met with opposition by the bank, reminding us that the traditional business portrait was commissioned for a very limited set of viewers. Placed in the boardroom, again a predominantly homosocial space, they were designed to be seen by their subjects' peers or successors or by those younger men who have themselves ambitions to be thus commemorated. Perhaps there was also a sense of vulnerability felt by the subjects at being thus exposed to public gaze? The sociologist Michael Roper has explored the way toughness combines with vulnerability to produce highly complex masculinities among organization men in his study of what he calls the "emotional economy" of the modern corporate world. Based on interviews with businessmen in the 1980s, Roper finds a cult of the "hard" man among business executives but also more subtle types of gender formation arising from, for example, the relationship of managers to each other, between older and younger managers, or between managers and their wives and secretaries. This should be borne in mind when considering issues of self-styling among such men and how this might also be manifested in their portraits. As noted, Clegg & Guttmann's bankers are very formally dressed: suits, shirts, ties, cuff-linked cuffs and in one case a pocket handkerchief. This is perhaps part of their very specific professional identity as bankers. But it also alerts us to the way that an alternative sartorial rhetoric has been favoured in other sectors of business or politics in the past decade or so - the more informal, shirt sleeved, unbuttoned look - that signifies a somewhat different set of male codes.
This type of self-presentation was much favoured by Tony Blair and his administration and brings me to my concluding example of representations of power and masculinity. This is the remarkable series of documentary photographs by Nick Danziger taken in March 2003 as Tony Blair took the final steps towards leading Britain to war with Iraq and when Danziger and former Times editor Peter Stothard were given unprecedented access to him. They record not just the dramatic events that led to the outbreak of war but also the very mixed nuances of male performance when Blair was both politically embattled but also, in Stothard's words, engaged in "a period of almost total outward confidence and certainty". Individual photographs show a group of sombrely dressed ministers shortly after the Americans had started bombing Baghdad gathered outside the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street - a space partially defined by the portraits that decorate it - or the aggressive clustering of journalists around Blair on a flight to Washington. Other photographs gain further meaning by attracting contemporary cultural references: the photograph of Blair and Bush striding towards the Camp David heliport "immediately gets the title of 'the Reservoir Dogs shot'". This and the photograph of Blair seated in a helicopter also reminds us of the quasi-military posturing that both men, especially Bush, indulged in at the time. Finally there is Blair on the telephone in his private office in Downing Street, known as "the den". This is to some extent the quintessential Blair image: an informal approach to leadership that became known as "sofa government". Jacket off and apparently relaxed, he was in fact engaged in a difficult call. "During difficult calls", Stothard tells us, "Blair huddles into the phone; when making easier calls to diplomatic friends his body language is more expansive and he often puts his feet up on the desk, complete with its family photographs and 'Daddy' mug". Yet as an important detail in the photograph reminds us - his alpha male communications director Alastair Campbell looking on attentively and reflected in a mirror - the softer, more relaxed type of masculinity that Blair liked to project was not the whole story. As subsequent memoirs of the Blair years have shown - not least Campbell's - the style of government under Blair could be anything but relaxed, instead characterized by expletive strewn episodes of male sparring and an aggressive and combative masculinity. But then it will also be remembered for the ultimate expression of power: men going to war.
Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty (London: Picador, 2004).
Annie Leibovitz, Annie Leibovitz at Work (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008).
Michael Roper, Masculinity and the British Organisation. Man since 1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Simon Schama, "The Domestication of Majesty: Royal Family Portraiture 1500-1850", in Art and History, edited by Robert I. Rotberg and Theordore K. Rabb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 155-84.
Patricia Simon, "Homosociality and erotics in Italian Renaissance Portraiture", in Portraiture: Facing the Subject, edited by Joanna Woodall (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), pp. 29-51.
Peter Stothard, 30 Days: A Month at the Heart of Blair's War (London: HarperCollins, 2003). Shearer West, Portraiture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).