Lucy Dahlsen on the Philosophy of Portraiture

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Our sixth Nutshell features Lucy Dahlsen

Lucy Dahlsen is a curator based in London and former Associate Curator of 20th century and contemporary portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery. Her recent projects at the NPG include curating solo exhibitions of the contemporary artists Elizabeth Peyton (2019-20), Njideka Akunyili Crosby (2018) and Samuel Fosso (2017). She was also co-curator of the Gallery’s major group exhibition Michael Jackson: On the Wall (2018) and was assistant curator on exhibitions of the artists Howard Hodgkin (2017) and Alberto Giacometti (2016). She is currently studying for an MA in Philosophy at King’s College, London.

Lucy Dahlsen | King’s Cultural Institute | CPA


This morning, before settling in to write this nutshell, I visited a portrait. It is tucked down a quiet hallway of the National Portrait Gallery in London. And when I say I visited it, of course I mean I clicked on it, which is the only way one can visit these paintings in a pandemic lockdown. I have met with this portrait before. The face is intelligent yet surprisingly benign, not in the least smug and even somewhat self-effacing. Each time I visit it I am struck by the contrast between the Thomas Hobbes I have read and the man who is looking at me. He of the infamous anti-utopian dictum that life without law is ‘nasty brutish and short’. Yet, the person I see seems so utterly at odds with the thinker I have studied. I am drawn to return to him in his painting even though I am not drawn to return to his writing. What compels me to look and look again, is that the artist seems to have distilled some ‘essence of Hobbes’. Each time I see Hobbes the portrayed, I experience a tiny shock of recognition – of Hobbes the man.

Thomas Hobbes by John Michael Wright, oil on canvas, circa 1669-1670. NPG 225 (with permission).

People are often reluctant to dispose of portraits. The ancient Fayum portraits in all their delicacy and intimacy encapsulate why this is so. Portraits (done well) are people. Or at least, they weigh on us like people do. They raise questions about identity, dialogue and the passage of time. About endurance and ephemerality. Even when they are not pretty, they can still be strangely beautiful. Even when they do not mimetically depict the sitter, they can still give us an experience of that person. Although they only came into popularity in England in the early 16th century, they have been a staple of non-Western art for much longer than that. But, on this island, and largely due to the extraordinary talents of Hans Holbein the Younger and Lucas Horenbaut they have come to be considered a Tudor innovation.  

It is difficult to think back to a time when portraits were a rarity – for the elite not the mainstream. Although our fascination with faces is primitive, our mediated relationship to faces – via portraits and selfies – is now ubiquitous. Nowadays we use them to open hearts and banking apps. Yet despite portraits being literally everywhere, contemporary aesthetics has until recently overlooked the genre. A new book Portraits and Philosophy takes initial steps to correct this. It encourages us to think about what a portrait is, how psychological states are conveyed and evoked by them and how they might relate to portraits in other mediums, e.g. novels and musical riffs. But it remains a rarity.

Today I am talking to Lucy Dahlsen, former Associate Curator of 20th century and contemporary portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, London and soon to be Mistress of Philosophy at King’s College, London. I want to find out more about the philosophy of visual portraiture.

  • VB: Vanessa Brassey
  • LD: Lucy Dahlsen 

Transcript excerpts from Interview 

VB: Hi Lucy, thank you for joining me today to discuss the philosophy of portraits.

LD Thank you for having me.

VB: What was it about portraiture that appealed to you as a curator of modern and contemporary art?

LD: I have always been drawn to portraiture. I’m fascinated by the idea that a portrait is ‘more’ than a record of a person’s appearance and exploring this notion through 20th century and contemporary approaches to the genre. 

Portraiture has long been embedded in the belief that a person’s appearance, or ‘physiognomy’, provides a guide to their soul and inner character. This has led to the idea that an artistic representation of a person demands a physical likeness. Yet, this is a historic conception – we no longer think that we can necessarily gleam the essential nature of a person by looking at them and it would be controversial to say that a person’s physical appearance gives a complete account of their being. 

As we see throughout the 20th century, artists have long embraced a wide understanding of what it means to make a portrait and represent a person. Increasingly, 20th century artists moved beyond mimesis, making portraits that depend on more than visual recognition or resemblance. This shift occurred in parallel with Modernism, and with the movement’s ethos of progress, its infatuation with the new and its reforming zeal. Within this history, there was still, of course, a place for direct observation from life and a commitment to naturalistic depiction. As a curator of portraits of this period, it is fascinating to consider the profusion of styles in the whole, to see Modernism as an integral part of a wider pattern in which tradition and experiment coexisted.

We have reached an age where artists are engaging with portraiture in increasingly imaginative ways. The traditional art historical boundaries between the genres of portrait, landscape and still life are blurred and many contemporary artists who are engaging with the genre of ‘portraiture’ do not think of themselves as ‘portraitists’. Artists continue to go beyond likeness, whilst breaking free of traditional media. Often artists are drawn to portraiture as a means to explore complex ideas of identity and respond to political, religious, and social issues. I have been fascinated to explore the inventiveness of diversity of contemporary approaches.   

VB: We are going to talk a bit more later about your recent exhibition Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels, but which other artists have you worked with?

LD: I have been fortunate to work with a wide range of artists on both exhibitions and in developing commissions for the NPG Collection. In 2018 the Gallery commissioned the Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat to make a portrait of Malala Yousafzai.

Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat, archival ink on gelatin silver print on fibre-based paper, 2018. NPG 7052

This was an amazing project to work on. I attended the sitting in London, where Neshat took a series of photographs. From this we selected two photographs with Neshat, onto which she hand inscribed in calligraphy a poem, MALALA II: (Malala Yousafzai), by the Pushto poet Rahman Shah Sayel from Peshawar, written in 2011 when Malala had already become a well-known activist for education. 

Also in 2018, I curated the first solo display in a UK museum of the Nigerian born, LA based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Drawing on historical, political and personal references, Akunyili Crosby creates large-scale, densely layered figurative compositions that conjure the complexity of contemporary diasporic experience. 

Installation view, Njideka Akunyili Crosby: “The Beautyful Ones”, 2018 – 2019
Installation view, Njideka Akunyili Crosby: “The Beautyful Ones”, NPG, 2018 – 2019

In 2017 I worked with the Cameroonian-born artist Samuel Fosso to curate a display of his self-portraits. Fosso began making self-portraits aged thirteen when he opened his own photographic studio in Bangui, Central African Republic in 1975. In these private studio self-portraits, the artist used masquerade and performance, borrowing iconic images and cultural stereotypes to explore African identities.

Installation view, Samuel Fosso: Self-Portraits, NPG, 2018 – 2019

In the display, we included a number of early works alongside a body of new self-portraits made in 2015–6. 

Installation view, Samuel Fosso: Self-Portraits, NPG, 2018 – 2019

Also in 2017 I assisted the curator Paul Moorhouse in curating the first exhibition of portraits by Howard Hodgkin. 

VB: In one sense such exhibitions are defining portraiture for us (the gallery going audience). But of course, curators such as yourself will have a predetermined idea of what falls into the category ‘portraits’. Can you articulate what that is? I ask because there is substantial disagreement in regard to defining ‘portraiture’ within philosophical circles. Some thinkers, following Cynthia Freeland and Paolo Spinicci, hold that the viewer determines whether or not a picture is also a portrait. Others, following Hans Maes, disagree and provide extensional accounts (i.e. the picture should have certain features which they then list).  Outside of philosophy, this debate may seem to be a pointless game of hairsplitting. In your view, is sorting out the necessary and sufficient conditions for a portrait an achievable or even desirable task?

So, if you’re saying that curators are the ones making the definitions, this would be what philosophers would call an institutional theory of portraiture, which I instinctively find quite problematic. Why should portraiture be defined by the ‘artworld?’

Institutional theories aside, turning to the second question – in short, no! Or at least I think it’s going to be very tricky. It’s similar to sorting out the necessary and sufficient conditions for art. There might be some very good accounts that accommodate much of what we think of as art/portraiture, but as soon as you come up with a definition, someone is going to make something that undermines it. 

Let’s take the former of the positions you mention, that something is only a portrait if a viewer understands it to be so. Although I am not entirely familiar with these particular accounts, this view seems to suggest (1) that a portrait’s ‘being’ is unstable, as viewers may disagree, and (2) that the meaning of a work of art is entirely dependent on the viewer? Can a work of art not still be a portrait if someone thinks it is not? What about portraits that are never seen? It feels wrong to say that the meaning of an artwork depends entirely on a viewer’s understanding. Rather, I would argue, the meaning of an artwork is the result of a complex (and ongoing) collaboration between artist, sitter and audience. I would argue that portraits, like all art, resist fixed meanings and that it is possible for us to appreciate works of art without having a complete understanding of them. My main hesitation when it comes to creating definitions and boundaries between genres is the limitation that this task involves. I would rather adopt a broad understanding of portraiture that encompasses varied experimental approaches. Perhaps I would say that a portrait must evoke a person, that is all.

VB: That’s interesting. Does meeting the condition of evoking a person suggest that the following conditions (1) recognisability or being able to tell who the sitter is (2) expressivity,  of psychological properties by the sitter and (3) posing, understood as the sitter’s self-conscious presentation within the picture world to portraiture, are not necessary or sufficient?

LD: I can immediately think of examples that refute each of these criteria. For example, how about Howard Hodgkin’s abstract portraits? These do not meet the recognisability condition (1). Hodgkin was a non-figurative painter and his portraits do not give literal descriptions of his subjects’ appearances. Rather, they are comprised of expressive colours, shapes and marks that form visual equivalents of the artist’s memories and emotions associated with the people they depict. The pictorial language at play is metaphor rather than resemblance. In the final room of our 2017 exhibition of the artist’s work, we included his last major painting and final self-portrait, Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music (2016). The highly expressive six-foot painting was made just three months before he died on the eve of the opening of our exhibition. Whilst Hodgkin worked on the painting, recordings of two pieces of music were played continuously: ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’, composed by Jerome Kern and published in 1940, and the zither music from the 1949 film The Third Man, composed and performed by Anton Karas. Both pieces were favourites of the artist and closely linked with earlier times in his life. The large-scale painting works as a self-portrait not by recording the artist’s appearance, but by evoking the act of the artist remembering in abstract colour and form.

Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music
Howard Hodgkin, Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music, oil on wood, 2011 – 2016

Condition (2), expressivity, is perhaps more integral to portraiture. However, there are exceptions. How about Marc Quinn’s portrait of the geneticist John Sulston (2001), which consists of a sample of sitter’s DNA suspended in agar jelly.

Sir John Edward Sulston by Marc Quinn, sample of sitter’s DNA in agar jelly mounted in stainless steel, 2001. NPG 6591

The work is an accurate display of Sulston’s essential identity since it is composed of his own DNA. Yet it clearly does not express the psychological properties of the sitter – nor does it meet the recognisability condition. Finally, condition (3) is also dubious. What about posthumous portraits such as Marlene Dumas’ portrait of Amy Winehouse, Amy-Blue (2011), which is a commemorative work derived from one of the many photographs available of the singer in the media. 

Amy Winehouse (‘Amy-Blue’) by Marlene Dumas, oil on canvas, 2011. NPG 6948

As you see – definitions become tricky as soon as you start to map them onto actual portrait practice.

VB: I take your point to be that if we want our artists to keep pushing the creative boundaries with portraits then we have to relinquish any criterial demands on what they produce. Since this opens up visual portraiture enormously, I wanted to ask you a bit more about the way music may have influenced Hodgin’s self portrait.  Do you think there is a consistent underlying expressive value that Hodgkin has managed to map between the mediums? For instance, if one looked at the painting while listening to the music – might the audience’s experience be enriched and if so in what way? Or even, could we substitute the visual portrait with the music and have a comparable expressive experience?

LD: This is a fascinating question! Again, my answer is instinctive rather than theoretical. But I would say no, as I think of art as transformative. The source material of an artwork is not the same as the finished piece and one cannot stand in for the other.  A piece of music might be a prompt for a painting but it is entirely transformed in the act of creation so that the expressive value of each is unique. Of course, it might be the case that a viewer’s experience of looking at Hodgkin’s painting could be enriched by listening to the music he was listening to when he created it, but I wouldn’t say this would necessarily be the case. We might call this an interpretation tool. It is perhaps similar to having a caption with information about the artwork. The music or information might help in providing context about the work for the viewer but it is not part of the artwork. The artwork exists in its own right. Music is often used as a form of interpretation for visual art exhibitions – or the other way around. I remember a really interesting exhibition called ‘Soundscapes’ at the National Gallery a few years ago for which musicians were commissioned to compose music in response to paintings in the Collection. The audience then listened to the music whilst looking at the painting – it was really immersive.

There is also something to be said about the different ways in which artists work. Howard Hodgkin and Elizabeth Peyton are two visual artists for whom music plays a very important role. But I wouldn’t know where to begin in comparing their approaches. There is something quite mysterious about the connection between the experience of the artist and the finished work and I am not sure if it is possible to understand exactly how this works.

VB: As we have been discussing, the emphasis in portraiture has shifted away from conveying the appearance of sitters and toward capturing (or evoking) their individuality or identity.  So, identity and ‘likeness’ come apart in ‘art’ portraiture in a way that we would find unacceptable in say a police mugshot or passport document. Basically identity documentation. Is that right? Why is that? 

LD: Yes, I think so and I think the simple answer is that a person’s identity is not the same as their appearance, we are not skin deep. This is a fairly obvious statement, yet people still struggle with the idea that likeness is not a necessary feature of portraiture. Many would still contest that Howard Hodgkin made portraits.

Do we think that identity documentation actually tells us anything about identity? Maybe we’ve got the wrong word for it? Maybe it should be ‘recognition documentation’ or something like that.

VB: In that case, maybe there is a clear answer to a problem philosophers like to puzzle over concerning twins and portraits. The puzzle goes something like this. If a doppelganger of the Queen acts as sitter in place of the real Queen (Elizabeth II) – and the artist creates a portrait  and says it represents the Queen, who in fact has been painted?

LD: I don’t think we will ever have an answer to this! Perhaps it’s down to the individual artist and the way in which they work. If you have an artist for whom direct observation from life is integral, then it’s going to be the person who actually sat for them, so the doppleganger. If, on the other hand, the sitting is just a prompt for an artist, it could still be the Queen. I think it’s probably less black and white than either of these options and somehow both. 

VB: Does the intimacy between artist, sitter and audience explain Jenefer Robinson’s thesis that Kokoschka’s portraits are evidence of his empathy with his subjects? Since we can empathise through a sort of fellow-feeling, could this be the basis of shared feeling (all participants re-enacting the initial feeling) through portrait appreciation?

LD: I do often think that I can ‘sense’ the emotions of an artist or sitter when I experience a portrait. However, I would be hesitant to call this a ‘re-enactment’ and I am intrigued to know more about Robinson’s argument. I don’t think that it would actually be possible to re-enact someone else’s feelings, or what this would mean. Again, I would be wary to say that there is a correct way to understand or experience a portrait, or a correct way to feel (*Dahlsen is, my view, correct to suggest Robinson holds a re-enactment theory of expression of emotion in art – although this is probably debatable*). When we experience art, we necessarily bring our own experience/feelings/emotions to it – and these are fundamentally ours.

The most recent exhibition I curated was Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels (2019-20), which was a major survey of the artist’s work. 

Installation view, Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels, NPG, 2019

Peyton is widely known for her ‘portraits’ but is an example of an artist who doesn’t think of herself as a ‘portraitist’. Rather she is an artist who makes pictures – often of people – that explore love, individuality, beauty and the passing of time. Peyton has described the process of making an artwork as an attempt to put an emotion or sensation into one place and contain it. In recent years, still lifes and pictures inspired by the opera have increasingly entered her repertoire. She said that these subjects ‘offer a way to make something that has all of the intense emotions I feel without literally revealing them. Usually they are about a person or love in some way’. This was really interesting to me and I chose to include a number of still lifes in the exhibition, despite the fact that it was the Portrait Gallery. What I find interesting is the element of mystery. Peyton’s pictorial language is figurative but in no way literal. It is never immediately obvious who or what a picture is about. A painting of flowers might be highly emotive for the viewer. Yet, when we experience emotion when viewing such works, it would be wrong to suggest that our feelings could be in any way a ‘re-enactment’ of the artist’s.

VB. Changing tack slightly, I wanted to ask you about another intriguing aspect about how we are compelled by visual portraiture. We seem to thirst for it even when we can’t see it. I’m thinking of Wilde’s celebrated novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and more recently Haru Murikami’s Killing Commendatore. Both books use the portrait to play with notions of selfhood, time and even goodness. Murikami’s novel which introduces elements of magical realism incorporates a protagonist who is a gifted portraitist and we (the reader) are encouraged to imagine a breakthrough in portrait style that lacks likeness. Which artist’s do you think have most successfully managed to achieve greater psychological intimacy with less depicted ‘resemblance’?

LD: This is such a great question – and so difficult to choose, there are so many! I am really interested in this apparent tension between adherence to likeness and emotional resonance. It reminds me of Vanessa Bell, who, in 1913 wrote to Leonard Woolf: ‘it can’t be the object of a great artist to tell you the facts at the cost of telling you what he feels about them.’ Bell was writing at the time when she was experimenting with ‘significant form’, the aesthetic purged of narrative detail. One of my (many) favourite portraits in the NPG Collection is Bell’s understated depiction of her sister Virginia Woolf, which captures the sitter in a private moment, leaning back in a chair, crocheting. Bell has gently abstracted Woolf’s facial features through the use of bold areas of colour. Yet rather than distancing her, to me, this portrait evokes a heightened sense of psychological intimacy. 

Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant, oil on canvas, circa 1918, NPG 4331

VB: Final question! Is there an increasing trend toward using abstract forms to portray? How has this developed and what do you think is most interesting about it?

LD: This is a huge question – its a trend that has been around for a long time! Perhaps you could say that abstract art has its origins in Romanticism, which put forward ideas about art that denied any emphasis on imitation, stressing the roles of imagination and emotion as essential creative forces. Romanticism denied that the point of art was to be realistic, or to describe the contingencies of everyday life. It highlighted the gap between art and natural appearances. 

In talking about abstract art, there are crucial distinctions to draw between abstraction, or abstracting from appearances, and making works of art out of forms that are not drawn from the visible world. But, to take the latter category, such art is still representational. I would argue that art is always representational. It is hard to imagine a work of art that exists purely on its own pictorial terms and has no meaning. To me, the most exciting thing about abstract art is the freedom it enables.

VB: Thank you for this fascinating conversation. I think there is probably much more to say on all of these topics. Once lockdown eases, maybe I can entice you to discuss this more in front of the actual works. 

LD : I would love that – and can’t wait!