Saturday, June 11, 2011

Three Portraits

How do you capture an individual? How do you condense an essence into an expression? Not over the course of a novel or film but in as short a time as possible? What medium do you choose: word, image, or sound? Are they all even possibilities? Perhaps I have made the task sound unduly difficult for surely we all have favorite photographs of ourselves and others. How often, though, are these images mere captures, mere documentations. Usually one can simply say, "He looks happy," or "she looks pretty." Quite difficult it is to suggest that the state in the photograph is the character of the person. We might think of a particular picture as being a "classic" or "typical" look of someone we know, but how do you suggest that in just one viewing?

With those questions in mind, let us take a look at how three masters did it in three different mediums.

Sargent, Nancy Astor

The painting is probably the form most associated with the notion of a portrait. Maybe such is so because the medium is especially suited to a balance of both the literal and figurative. Here Sargent balances just those choices, capturing the decisive character of the viscountess with that so bold line down the left of her figure. The shimmering sash is a splash of flair and serves to lead one's eye back up and left to her face. Inclined forward and turned to you, one feels as if she's deigned to look at you for a moment before moving on. Indeed she is the woman who, as the story goes, told Winston Churchill, "If you were my husband, I'd poison your tea."

Catullus, 41 & 43

Ameana puella defututa
tota milia me decem poposcit,
ista turpiculo puella naso,
decoctoris amica Formiani.
propinqui, quibus est puella curae,
amicos medicosque convocate:
non est sana puella, nec rogare
qualis sit solet aes imaginosum.
Salve, nec minimo puella naso
nec bello pede nec nigris ocellis
nec longis digitis nec ore sicco
nec sane nimis elegante lingua,
decoctoris amica Formiani.
ten provincia narrat esse bellam?
tecum Lesbia nostra comparatur?
o saeclum insapiens et infacetum!

Catullus' colorful vocabulary is a wonderful counterpart to Sargent's palette.  This pair of poems forms an indirect attack on a certain Mamurra, a Roman prefect under Caesar and well-known profligate, by way of his girlfriend. Here Catullus lets it rip from line 1 with defututa (you'll have to look that one up yourselves, dear readers) and follows it up with her fee. Catullus caps off the first salvo with the delicious little phrase, "turpiculo naso," a "somewhat ugly" nose. So call together her relatives to come take care of her, because with her looks she must be quite out of her head to charge that price. Certainly she's not used to consulting the mirror.

43 is a catalog of the defects of this Ameana, with her perfectly awful features. Her nose is of not minimum size, her feet are not pretty (perhaps too big), her fingers are too short, and her mouth is, we might say, too runny. Just what Catullus means by lingua, whether speech or actual tongue, is not specified but she's not very refined with it.

Mozart, Sonata for piano in C, KV.309 (284b)

Mozart wrote this movement for Rosa Cannabich, the daughter of Christian C., director of the court orchestra at Munich. Mlle. Cannabich was Mozart's pupil while he wrote this musical portrait of her in the autumn of 1777, when the composer was 21 and Rosa 16. In a letter to his father Mozart reports his student was "a very pretty and charming girl. She is very intelligent and steady for her age. She is serious, does not say much, but when she does speak, she is pleasant and amiable." He goes on, "She is exactly like the Andante. . ."

II. Andante un poco adagio, in F

Standing out foremost in this sonata are the sarabande-like rhythm and continuous variations between forte and piano. Mozart emphasized this andante "must not be taken too quickly" and indeed to do so would be to disrupt the genteel pace and motion which unifies the expressive contrasts. Could Mlle. Cannabich have been, or anyone be, as charming as this sonata, so expressive yet gracious, and growing lovelier still in each variation?

While we see these are each brilliant portraits, it is hard to say whether their success owes to some separate skill for portraiture. These artists all demonstrate a talent for color and a command of large and small scale structure elsewhere. Is it some balance of a keen perception and skill in the medium? One might suggest they are simply works of exaggeration, but I would propose a turn of thought from T. S. Eliot, the "working up of the ordinary into poetry," and "expressing feelings which are not in actual emotions at all." Hence the difference between an accurate depiction and a living portrait.

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