Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: Writing about Portraiture, 18th Century to the Present
“There is no more fascinating surface on earth than that of the human face.” – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
The portrait is one of the most common forms of depiction in Western art history. From era to era, its basic formats have stayed in many ways remarkably consistent, but the significance, the purpose, and the intended destination for the portrait have been in constant flux. These changes, among others, allow for tremendous insight into ideas of the self, of society, of expectations about interpersonal relationships, and of the role of representation in different places and times. Writing successfully about a portrait is tricky, as it involves constant attention to the roles of subject, artist and viewer, rigorous research in the cultural milieu of the work, and close attention to iconographic choices. It also involves thinking very carefully about the relationship between the sitter and the way the artist chooses to manifest, in representation, what they feel to be important about that person: What makes a person worth depicting in that moment and place? How is it different for men and women, for adults and children? If there are multiple figures in the portrait, how can their relationship be described? What are the philosophical ideas that inflect the impression a sitter wishes to make in his or her portrait? And formally speaking, how does the artist either reinforce or comment on the intentions of the subject being depicted?
In this class, we will be reading a selection of art historical literature focused on the investigation and meaning of portraits from the eighteenth century to the present. (We will be working mostly with two-dimensional objects.) The literature on portraiture is varied both methodologically and theoretically, and we will therefore also be introduced to a broader spectrum of ways to look at, think, and write about art. We will also be practicing the basic skills involved in both reading and writing effectively in an academic context.