Outwin Bocheaver Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. Catalog Essay
The Portrait Now and Then
Although only a few of the portraits in this competition work with untraditional materials and forms, all wrestle with two perennial questions: how to balance resemblance and artistry, and how to make a portrait that exceeds its generic definition to the ‘artistic rendering of an individual.’ David Kassan takes on both challenges in Portrait of My Mother, Roberta (fig. 4). In some ways the painting appears to erase the intervention of the artist and promote direct confrontation with the sitter. The particularized features and detailing of the wrinkles, veins, and sagging flesh suggest an individualized likeness, and the sitter appears to meet us eye-to-eye as she looks out of the frame. Kassan furthers this sense of direct confrontation by erasing the marks of his brush, at least in representing Roberta. At the same time, the work draws attention to itself as art in the painterly background filled with undecipherable marks and letters. Thus in placing a painted figure that seems transparent to the real against an opaque, painterly background, the portrait claims to be both nature itself and entirely artifice. The work, in fact, proposes no chance encounter with the mother, who is carefully and artfully posed. And although Roberta is hunched over with hands firmly clasped in a prayer like gesture, when combined with her focused gaze, her posture does not suggest resigned acceptance of declining strength.
Although artists from Albrecht Durer to Salvador Dali portrayed their mothers, today the best known maternal portrait is Whistler’s depiction of his mother, entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black #1 (fig. 5). Here is a good example of a work that both in title and appearance draws attention to the portrait as an artful composition of colors arranged on the canvas. Kassan’s portrait might be called Arrangement in Grey and Darker Grey, for it is rendered in a subtle palette enlivened primarily by the auburn of Roberta’s hair. Yet whereas Whistler transformed his mother into an aesthetic object drained of personhood, Roberta appears as a living subject staring at us with as appraising eye. Kassan’s portrait therefore recalls both the psychic power of the mother and the objectifying power of the gaze, here turned on the real viewer.