Faces Then, Faces Now. Bozar, Brussels until May 17.

Have human faces changed over the centuries?  Probably less than you think.

Dentistry has brightened our smiles, globalisation has widened the gene pool, but the closer you look into the faces of a new Brussels exhibition dedicated to Renaissance portraits from the Low Countries and to European portrait photography since 1990, the more you see continuity.  One constant is that we are concerned as ever with our own place in society and a portrait’s prime role is to demonstrate that.

Given the super-abundance of portraits in the world, the curators wisely have selected two narrow periods.

Faces Then focuses on the 16th-century, regarded as the golden age of the portrait, when it was the rich, the powerful and the burgeoning bourgeoisie who could afford to have their portraits taken.

Faces Now confines itself to the period since 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, with it, the collapse of ideologies and artistic parameters.  But even when the rules are broken, the portrait artists only find themselves grappling with new versions of the old aesthetic dilemmas: how realistic can or indeed should a portrait be and how do you portray the thoughts and the context that lie beneath a fixed expression at a given moment?

The 16th-century flowering of Low Countries portraiture takes us from static representation to greater nuance and efforts to reveal the personality behind the face.  One of the stand-outs is Antwerp painter Quinten Metsys and his Portrait of a Man in Profile (1513).  In Flemish portraiture, this kind of profile, which harks back to old coins, is rare – but powerful.  Seen from the side, it is clear the man, who was in the past identified as Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici or alternatively as Duke Philip the Bold, had a determined character.  Another immortalised strong personality is an Old Lady with her Dog (1558), painted by Frans Floris de Vriendt.  She is clearly a woman of substance, with her fur trim and bulging stomach, and seemingly a woman of warm affections too, as she clutches to her side a dog, with tender, appealing eyes.

When you’ve absorbed all you can of Faces Then, imagine traversing the centuries as you cross a hallway to get to the exhibition’s diptych Faces Now.  We move from the taciturnity of paint to the profusion of photography that lets in so many more clues – or are they just so much more rhetoric and distraction?  Ultimately, a face is always a mask unless you really know what’s going on behind it.

One portrait that is disturbingly realistic is Boris Mickailov’s Untitled from his Case History series 1997-1998.  The series is an account of the grinding poverty in Ukraine after the fall of Communism – and continuing in the horror of conflict today.  He depicts two homeless people in a forest carrying a fish and a bottle of wine in a bitterly ironic allusion to Biblical plenty.

At the other end of the social scale, French photographer Christian Courreges takes on the challenge of depicting the potency of Europe’s leaders.  Classic black and white portraits depict the confidence of former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing and former French health minister Simone Veil.  Credited with doing more than anyone else to advance women’s legal rights in France in the 20th-century, she stares out unflinching from the frame.

Regardless of our place in society and how many photographs we take of ourselves even as we walk around the exhibition, the juxtaposition of Faces Then with Faces Now serves to remind us that we will all one day be Faces Then.  One of the most troubling images is a death portrait by Belgian photographer Stephan Vanfleteren of Jan Hoet, a curator who founded S.M.A.K., the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent.  Before his death, Hoet gave permission for the photograph.  Next to it, however, is a notice demanding that, out of respect for him and his family, we put away our own cameras and refrain from any reproductions of this particular final portrait.

Barbara Lewis © 2015.

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