Saturday, 13 December 2014

So, why would men be more interesting to paint than women ?


    A few weeks ago I read this article on the Daily Telegraph and I just needed to post my views.
Tai-Shan Schierenberg is one of the most important British portrait painters of these days: he has painted very distinguished sitters including the Queen, Lord Sainsbury, Seamus Heane. He won the John Player Portrait Award in 1989 ( now BP Portrait Award), his work is on permanent display at the National Portrait Gallery. He is also the principal of The Art Academy and an honorary member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. In the past two years he's been a judge of the reality show "Sky Portrait of the Year" ( I didn't watch it, does he prefers male portraits in the show ?).

     His latest show, New Works, opened on the 12th of November at Flowers Gallery; I saw it this week and it is an excellent exhibition. Presumably at the press preview for the show, Schierenberg chatted with this Daily Telegraph journalist  who managed to focus his piece on commissioned portraiture - which is not included in the exhibition by the way - and came up with a catchy title that it's not really explained.

     I don't know if or to what extent Schierenberg's words have been misrepresented but the result is a veritable own goal on the part of a very good artist who, aside from blatant sexism, misses an opportunity to talk about what modern portraiture should be.

In the newspaper piece Schierenberg launches himself in a rant against his own sitters. Vanity seems to be one of his main preoccupation when he is at the easel. 

"Men don’t like being shown in any way vulnerable.... They’re worried that I might see something they don’t want me to see, which can cause a bit of a power struggle. Men are often very proud of their scars and their frowns, and they don’t mind showing that stuff, whereas if you show that in a woman’s portrait she’d be very upset."
In a string of common places he says that in his experience men are concerned about their status while women crack under the pressure of being beautiful and youthful. When confronted with their own painted image his sitters are reduced to their Mars/Venus hormonal self, as testosteron inflames men and progesteron reduces women to tears. He concludes by saying that there's something wrong with women because they are not impressed with his struggle and that he cathegorizes them into "attractive and unattractive". 

        I wouldn't object to a painter who states that he is more interested in portraying men because he/she personally prefers to paint harsher and more defined features but these comments on gender attitude strike me as shallow and untrue. 

Perhaps my experience is not comparable to the two decades of high profile career of Mr Schierenberg, but I haven't really encountered these stereotypes. I have encountered a pinch of vanity, yes - don't most of us have that?- and actually I have found that men are concerned about their looks as much or even more than women, but this is nothing compared to the pleasure of getting to know someone and work together. Yes often painting a portrait is a power struggle between artist and sitter - or a sitter's parent- but it is also an engaging collaboration where their input and their commitment is essential.  
I think that it is the duty of a portrait painter to open a channel of communication with the person they are painting, and it's when that happens that the whole process becomes fascinating.
I like listening to their stories or witnessing their thoughts passing through their face. Looking at the latest portrait by Schierenberg, the one he painted of his father on display at the exhibition, charged with emotion, I really can't understand what would prevent him looking for the same humanness in a female sitter. 

 Dear Prominent Ladies, Woman's Hour Power List Game-Changers and the likes,
now that you know if you want to commission a portrait please remember that I am very interested in painting you, at a fraction of the price.

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