The human image

Involved looking at the other


A portrait arises from a relationship between three bodies - the artist, the subject, and the viewer - and is based on an exchange of glances. For me, it concerns a physical aspect of looking in which the eyes act as organs of touch. A viewing in which the whole body looks, rather than one that involves mere visual understanding. It does not lead to identification with a figure, but a physical relationship between the viewer and the image. Of importance to the maker is the role of personality, intention, and artistic choice making within the portrait. The physical characteristics and personality of the person portrayed are displayed through craftsmanship. Finally, there is the public play in the museum space; that between the portrait subject and the viewer.



The act of looking in the museum space (I), made by Karel Tuytschaever.


The act of looking in the museum space (II), made by Karel Tuytschaever.



Looking at a portrait is like looking at another person. Full length, en face, trois-quarts or en profil: a portrait generally communicates a look, a glance, a facial expression, and of course so much more. The portrait is expressive and wants to say something about the person depicted; be it a presence, characterization, personality trait, mentality … Thanks to the relationship between the ‘I’ (the viewer) and the Other (the body in the image), the I becomes visible in the face of the Other. Does the depicted body look at the viewer? Is the body in the image aware that the viewer is watching? This game is constantly being perpetuated by numerous viewers who can relate to, deepen, or identify with the body in the image.


When we look at a portrait we are aware of the fact that we are looking at an image; an invention, a construction. This is despite the fact that looking at another person is primarily an experience of confrontation. Is that why portraits are often images of faces? Why else would we always first look for the gaze, the eye contact with the person in the image? As a primal instinct, we look for the eyes. Like no other, we as the human species can reduce someone's gaze, in a fraction of a second, to an expression of emotion or feeling. By looking for a connection from eye to eye, something truly beautiful and interesting happens; the portrait, as a materialized representation of a human being, is momentarily experienced as an encounter in the flesh. The human stands against the human. That is why I find portraiture such an interesting genre within visual arts. It affects our humanity. The image evokes an identity of the other, that can stimulate feelings and experiences in the viewer - as they relate to and question their own identity. By placing oneself rationally, emotionally, or physically in the other, it becomes possible to question your own identity through the other’s identity. The portrait works like a mirror; we can relate to the other and therefore see ourselves. This can lead to an attraction or a repelling. As far as my expertise is concerned, these two movements can only take place when the body in the image is sincere, or, at the very least, carries plausibility.


Some portraits have a voyeuristic effect, when there is an indirect play between the gaze of the person portrayed and the viewer. If the depicted body does not look the viewer in the eye, but their gaze is averted or no eyes are visible, the image does not have a direct effect; the viewer can not feel watched while looking at the depicted person. The image does not look back, which makes the viewer a voyeur. Nevertheless, the mirror with the other remains there - even if the eyes do not speak from the image. Then the sincere body plays a more significant role in communicating something of the being that is portrayed. Due to the human presence in an image, the aura of a human portrait image almost always commands a certain respect within the arts. Furthermore, it has a certain energy and charisma which makes it a unique and ever-evolving artform; you are dealing with a person after all.


The genre plays professionally, like no other, with the pose, light, facial expression, background, presence of clothing, and any objects that are not native to the body. It also regards the size of the image and the camera angle/position from which to view and depict the body (not the body's psychology). Besides, there is also the artist's awareness of how that 2D or 3D portrait image will ultimately be viewed; in a 3D space or a digital space, with the option to determine your perspective as the viewer, or to choose the fixed point of view as an artist. It is this game that connects the portrait genre with performative arts. The body speaks through the way it is captured in an image. The context - place, culture, and history - forms a parallel relationship between the visual and performative arts and how the image of a body is used, made, seen, experienced, understood and appreciated.


However, a portrait - whether painted, photographed, on stage or in stone - is always the result of a relationship between the maker, or viewer, and the person being portrayed. In the end form, it will also be visible how short-lived, long-term, deep or superficial this relationship was or potentially can be. The degree of involvement with the body (for some makers considered an object, for others more a subject) is of crucial importance to the portrait artist.


That is why one of my starting points in establishing artistic connections during this research project is a necessary common interest in the path that we will walk together. Which takes time. My experience is that it often concerns an intention to work longer-term. A sincerely embodied portrait is created only in trust with each other, where mutual fear exists as little as possible. A regular portrait, for example, will be less based on mutual connection, trust, and therefore intimacy. Think of a formal passport photo, which ‘only’ shows physical and neutral representation/recognition. I believe that the degree of involvement and connection always shines through in the portrait itself. For the portrait maker, this requires a certain approach; a combination of personality and mentality, to capture a specific personal conception of the portrait in the image itself. The maker's nature will always be visible in the portrait, even if he makes a portrait of another. Often there is distinctive handwriting or imagery that relates to the artist. In that sense, I would argue that every portrait of the other is always also a self-portrait.





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© 2020 — Karel Tuytschaever