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Family portraiture

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Family portraiture Empty Family portraiture

Post  eddie Sat Nov 12, 2011 11:01 pm

Artistic relations: how family portraiture changed through the ages

An exhibition exploring the portrayal of the family in British art provides some surprising contrasts

Frances Spalding, Friday 11 November 2011 22.54 GMT

Family portraiture Detail-from-Gainsboroughs-007
Detail from The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly by Thomas Gainsborough. Photograph: National Gallery, London

Alice Maher's House of Thorns (1995) is an eye-catching conundrum. Beautifully made, this small treasure arouses the desire to have and to hold. It is like something out of a fairy tale, but to pick it up would be agony, as its roof and all four sides are lined with rose thorns, which, as any gardener knows, are vicious. It offers a neat amalgam of pleasure and pain. This miniature stronghold triggers awareness of the conflicting emotions that can be aroused in the home. It is our knowledge that family life can veer between extremes which makes Paula Rego's The Family (1988) so disturbing. In this picture two women close in on the father, seated on the bed, in a caring but also sinister fashion, watched by a child on the other side of the room. Nothing is explicit, but the situation arouses a palpable unease. Rego and Maher are two artists in Family Matters whose work alerts us to the fundamental ambivalence in our perception of family and home.

This exhibition boldly celebrates the image of the family in British life across 400 years. Within its five thematic sections – inheritance, childhood, parenting, couple and kinship, and home – it offers a range of perspectives. Even the most straightforward image carries an agenda, ready to be unpacked as we examine pose, gesture, costume and setting, all of which can signal class, wealth, profession, social status or the lack of it. In this exhibition Mark Gertler's image of an impoverished and deracinated Jewish East End family, painted in 1913, is as telling as Zoffany's 1694-95 portrait of the royal princes, George and Frederick, playing in the Queen's second drawing room at Buckingham House (roughly where the Queen's Gallery now is), their poses pointedly echoing those on the walls in portraits of their royal ancestors. Wherever and whenever the family is found, it tells us much about our national and cultural identity through the ages.

Inevitably images of the family have changed greatly over time. The sudden juxtapositions in this exhibition of the historical with the contemporary are used to good effect. This shuttling to and fro across the centuries will encourage visitors, in their looking, to travel beyond their comfort zones, whether their liking is for the contemporary over the historical or vice versa.

One shift that quickly becomes evident is the way that, as patronage and commissioning recede in importance, the artist becomes freer to pursue more personal and political interests. The family becomes less obviously posed. We glimpse its goings on behind the scenes, as it were; and the view can be alarmingly frank or unsettling. Sarah Jones's The Dining Room (1997) is an enormous, openly contrived, affectless photograph in which three well-groomed teenagers are posed so that they neither look at nor interact with each other. One sits with her head on the table, her blonde hair falling across its polished surface, itself one of the luxury ingredients in this impeccable upper-middle-class setting. The narrative remains impenetrable, but attention is gripped by this high-resolution, postmodern conversation piece.

Often in the past family portraiture has deliberately pointed up ancestral lineage. This message is delivered loud and clear at Blenheim Palace in Joshua Reynolds's magnificent portrait of the fourth Duke of Marlborough and his family. In Family Matters, in the inheritance section, it is demonstrated by means of a Jesse tree in The Descent of King James I from Parham House in Sussex. Its branches are decorated, not with the more usual heraldic shields, but with royal faces, and it breaks further with tradition by showing the matrilineal line, in order to prove James's claim, through his mother, to the throne. A more visible image of matriarchal power is shown in the double portrait by Hans Eworth (1559) of Mary Neville, Lady Dacre, and her son. This redoubtable lady set out to restore the family's honour after her first husband was executed at Tyburn in connection with the murder of a gamekeeper during a poaching outing. She succeeded in her aim shortly after the accession of Elizabeth I. This portrait is thought to celebrate this restitution, owing to the large signet ring, a symbol of dynastic power which is shown temporarily resting on the tip of Lady Dacre's forefinger.

The wary faces of both mother and son are embedded in material richness. Lady Dacre's black satin dress is patterned with pearls and other gems, while her fashionable son sports a tight-fitting jacket made exquisite by its ermine lining. Here is proof, should it be needed, of Lacan's claim that a painting can be a "trap for the eye", for each alteration of texture has a fixating appeal. But overhead, hanging from the ceiling, winging their way through this same gallery, are 11 plaster seagulls. These, too, call to ancestral memory, for these birds are Tracey Emin's way of pointing to a funeral rite which her family acts out whenever a relative dies. After the cremation, the ashes are thrown across the sea. The flight of the birds also refers to Emin's own flight from Margate, the seaside town where she grew up. They offer further insight into Emin's interest in the bird theme and an economic alternative to Eworth's elaborate depiction of mortality.

Eworth's fixity may be precisely what Vanessa Bell, in the couples and kinship section, was trying to avoid in her portrait of her sister Virginia Woolf, painted around 1913. The writer is found seated in an armchair, crotcheting, and her facial features are deliberately blurred. At first it is frustrating to be denied precise information as to what Woolf looked like at a specific moment in time. But, instead, Bell opens up this portrait in a new way. It invites us to bring to this image of Woolf, through memory and association, information gained with hindsight and drawn from all periods of her life. It hints also at her interest in interiority and the hidden self. These and other possibilities make this one of the most radical portraits in the exhibition. Bell's intent has an affinity with Jo Spence's ambition in Beyond the Family Album (1988). Spence disliked the way albums of this kind tend to ignore the reality of family life and focus instead just on celebratory moments. Two of the three Spence photographs on display here show the artist taking on her mother's identity in order to record what the family album did not show: her mother working as a cleaner during the second world war.

Contrasts abound in this exhibition, nowhere more so than in the childhood section. Here there are examples of the changing roles imposed on children, from little adults to romantic innocents, as we have wrestled over the years with the issue of nature versus nurture. At first the grace and charm of Gainsborough's The Painter's Daughters chasing a Butterfly (c1756) seem to have little in common with one of Grayson Perry's ceramic pots, titled Difficult Background (2000), and on the surface of which he has incised, with his rasping, awkward use of line, children playing happily in the postwar era. Gradually further background detail emerges – burning buildings, blasted trees and naked figures – and the narrative takes on a different tenor. But, similarly, the more we look at the Gainsborough, in which the two children run towards us, the more it gathers melancholy. This is first signalled by the butterfly, symbolising life's frailty and short duration. It then expands, almost subliminally, through the butterfly shape created by the joint pose of the two girls, with their raised arms and the skirts of their dresses splayed out.

Humour and affection run though all sections, including parenting and home, but a darker element is never far away. It haunts the dark waters in Michael Andrews's Me and Melanie Swimming (1978-79) which drew on a holiday in Perthshire during which he taught his daughter to swim. This acts as a metaphor for the parent-child relationship. Psychologically acute, as his paintings always are, the layered mood is very different to that found in David Hockney's My Parents (1977). Here the coolness of his style keeps sentimentality at bay and the row of books, on a shelf between his parents, stand in for memory, their familiar dustjackets instantly evoking Proust in Scott Moncrieff's translation.

What is missing in this exhibition is any reference to new families, the single-mothers-by-choice, the lesbian parents, gay fathers and mothers, or the growing interest among those born by means of egg or embryo donation in establishing relations with donor siblings. All these challenge the notion of the nuclear family as the gold standard. It is after all over 40 years since the first test-tube baby was born, yet scant attention has so far been paid, at least in any public form, to these new families. It is a surprising lacuna, and not just in this show.

But there is much here that tells us about how we live now. Zineb Sedira's three-screen video, Mother Tongue (2002), testifies to the impact of double migration on the family, owing to the loss, over two generations, of a shared language, the third and final screen showing the necessarily mute relationship between grandparent and grandchild. Equally unforgettable is Donald Rodney's In the House of My Father (1996-97), a photograph showing a hand in the palm of which sits a tiny house made of the skin which was removed from the artist in an attempt to combat his sickle cell anaemia, caused by a genetic blood disorder, and from which he died in 1998.

Many will also find a raw nerve is touched by Gillian Wearing's short film 2 into 1 (1997) in which a confession, obtained from a mother and her twin sons, is lip-synched, so that, in a disturbing inversion, the boys appear to speak with the mother's voice, supplying her analyst with complaints about them, and the mother, in turn, acts as a vehicle for the boys' remarks about her, including the observation that much family life seems to operate on the border between love and hate.

Family Matters is the third touring exhibition to be mounted under the banner of the "Great British Art Debate", a four-year partnership between civic art galleries in Norwich, Sheffield, Newcastle and Tate Britain in London. It is a welcome consortium. Each partner in turn proposes an exhibition, the idea for which is discussed at a seminar at which representatives from all four are present. Behind the project is a twofold desire: to uphold the need for vital exhibition programmes in public art galleries; and to expand access to the richness of their collections. In both they are succeeding. Thanks to this exhibition Henry Walton's moving portrait of the Buxton family (1786) will become much better known. This touching domestic scene, involving reading and books, is woven around a child, placed at the centre of the composition. Evidently the family will soon depart, as the walls of the room are unadorned and the furniture covered with dust sheets. A deep tenderness comes through, while much is left empty or placed out of sight.
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