Reaching The Threshold of Cultural Maturity
by Bruce Meyer
One of the beautiful things about medieval books can be found in those tiny, ornate images known as “illuminations.” I love to paw over these in museums and libraries because they say so much about the lives of those whose words intertwined with the images on the page. The best ones portray human beings in the midst of the small things that articulate their lives – women sitting in a garden, a boy asleep beside a haystack in a meadow, or a couple being wed in a solemn ceremony. They are often highlighted with gold leaf, as if the artist wanted to say “this is worth making special.”
I find it interesting that a goldsmith by trade and crystal artist by profession has undertaken the project of capturing these images of Canadian authors. The author images of Mark Raynes Roberts are a breakthrough in Canadian portraiture. Raynes Roberts’s images reach beyond what previous photographers have achieved by capturing his sitters in moments of reflection where the photographer not only speaks through the portraits to the beholder about what he sees, but offers subtle comments about the writers’ works and creative drives. In the truest sense of the word, Raynes Roberts’s images are contemporary icons, though of an entirely secular design. The artists who created icons, especially in medieval Western Europe in alter pieces and shrines, made it their purpose to give every saint, every madonna, unique qualities so that they would be instantly recognizable to beholders. In other words, icons work if each one conveys its own personality.
Raynes Roberts’s images draw on a very wide-ranging vocabulary of portraitures from the great masters to the moderns. In Michael Ondaatje’s portrait, for example, lurks subtle notes of the work of nineteen century British photographic pioneer, Julia Margaret Cameron. As the light falls on Ondaatje’s face, there is the sense of impending movement as if, in looking away, he has just noticed something and will turn and look back at you in an instant.
Look closely at Sheila Heti’s portrait as she sits on the stoop of a weathered building. There’s an Edward Weston’s frankness in that shot, though what takes it beyond Weston is the photo-bombing cat prancing across the lower left of the image that reminds me of the anamorphosaic skull in Holbein’s famous canvas, “The Ambassadors.” The face-front serious of the subject is lightened by the humour of the cat so that the picture becomes a moment of celebration. In other portraits, such as my own, Raynes Roberts has added a touch of Hans Holbein – likely an idea that emerged during our session conversation. We discovered we both adore Holbein – and there is a touch of Roger van Weyden’s late medieval arrangement of the figure thrown in for good measure.
What makes Raynes Roberts’s images unique, however, is the breadth of artistic knowledge that he brings to each image. He has studied the masters. He knows what a portrait can and should convey. His palette, in terms of design, is supplied with a vocabulary of styles so that no two portraits seem alike. Each is as unique as a saint in an icon. In capturing Canadian writers in these rare moments of reflection, Raynes Roberts suggests that not only Canadian literature, but Canadian portraiture has come of age with a startling complexity that is aesthetically non-exclusive in the way that an icon is non-exclusive. Icons are meant to create dialogue between the image and the beholder. They are literally conversation pieces.
Portraiture is, perhaps, the most difficult of all forms of visual art. The artist, if he is to be successful, must understand his subject matter, not merely as the object of his study, but as a psychological statement. What one sees in a portrait is not the person who sat for the portrait, but the ideas that the portrait wants to convey. The great portrait painters and photographers of the past, from van Weyden to Karsh and Beaton, studied not only form, pose, and decorative ornamentation, but the human figure as the vessel for souls. When the sitter looks into the eye of the artist, he or she is looking into the eye of time and presenting not merely an image of themselves but a biography, a catalogue of ideas, nuances, experiences, and attitudes that says to the beholder “this is who I am.” A good portrait artist knows this. He permits his image to be more than a likeness. He wants it to become a visual book.
What I find disturbing in bad portraiture is when the artist imposes his or her artistic style and statements on his subject matter. In the Senior Common Room of Victoria College at the University of Toronto, there is a portrait of Northrop Frye that was executed by scholar, editor, and painter Barker Fairley. It is very much a portrait of its time. It was painted in the late 1940s. The portrait is presented in a series of beige monotones. Frye, looking ill-at-ease even through Fairley’s neo-Cubist rendering is not the Frye I knew. It lacks the man’s wit and humanity that were the hallmarks of Frye’s scholarship and his powerful classroom presence. Likewise, the very talented photographer and artist Arnaud Maggs included Frye in a series of studies of leading Canadian cultural figures. Frye’s portrait, a head and shoulders image makes him look startled, almost frightened. Irving Layton’s portrait in the same series gives the poet glassy eyes as if he has been caught by a flash of light. In life, Layton’s eyes were the windows to his passions: they could dance with irreverent joy or cloud over and turn black as storms.
In the case of Frye, who was a popular subject for portrait painters and photographers, there are three that, to my mind, capture the man who mentored me in literature. The first, and perhaps the most playful, is the bronze sculpture of Frye seated on a park bench with an open book in his lap. He is looking up as if an intriguing thought has just struck him. The bemused smile that I remember from our conversations together is there on his face. The sculptor created two equal likenesses: one resides in his home town of Moncton, New Brunswick, and the other in his spiritual home, Victoria College. In the quad at Victoria College, I love to watch children sit beside Frye and have their parents take their pictures. The second image of Frye that I admire is his official ‘chancellor’s’ portrait that hangs in the foyer of Old Victoria College. He is seated, but the wry curl of the mouth, the glint in his eye, and the awkwardly relaxed posture are things I remember about him. Alas, this image is a ‘state’ portrait, the kind that kings and chairmen of boards have painted. It bears an official quality that wants to suppress the imaginative power behind Frye’s eyes. It says business more than delight in ideas.
The third portrait of Frye, another in the Victoria College collection, hangs in the Pratt Library. In that magic-realist canvas, Frye is seated in mid-air above a barren, almost waste land-like landscape, as if he is a magus in a realm that is about to bloom from the power of the imagination. The famous “mid-air” portrait is the Frye of his works. The artist has turned his subject matter into an icon where the subject is identified purely by the sitter’s ideas. It is brilliant, startling, and slightly sad in that it captures a sense of loneliness and isolation that I often sensed he felt because he dwelt in a mind that few could completely fathom.
I mention these portraits of Northrop Frye because portraiture is a protean art. A subject, depending on the artist, can morph into whatever the portrait requires the subject to be. Portraits are rarely definitive, yet the best ones, the ones we remember and carry with us in our imaginations are definitive in ways we cannot often explain. The process of being photographed, of being caught in various lights and poses and in various places that the digital camera affords – hundreds of images of me were taken by Raynes Roberts in the course of several hours – is an intriguing experience.
Mark Raynes Roberts captured me in a spectrum of perspectives during our session. In some, he has caught me in headshot with a knowing look in my eye. This is the early Renaissance portrait artist in Raynes Roberts, the possessor of an eye that says “this is a portrait that tells others what you look like,” with a directness that pre-Holbein artists used to capture their subjects. In others, such as the one Raynes Roberts chose of me, the portrait taken in the “Little Cloister” that connects University College to its chapter house, there is a very powerful sense that I would be well at home with the pair of ambassadors that Hans Holbein depicted in London in 1553. This is an icon painting.
Of the series that Raynes Roberts took of me, the one I chose, and that has appeared already as my author portrait in two recently released books, shows me standing in galleried bay window at Hart House. My left hand is outstretched on the brass railing. The columns of the window’s stone work rise over my left shoulder, while to my right a staircase leads up into the darkness of the Bickersteth Room. I chose that one as my favorite because the hand on the rail reminded me of Karsh’s portrait of Winston Churchill that the photographer snapped at the bottom of a staircase in the House of Commons as the wartime British Prime Minister hurried between meetings.
Raynes Roberts, in the course of our session, proved that portraiture works as a medium of commentary and response when the artist is adept at a range of styles rather than merely one way of pronouncing what he thinks of his subject. The breadth of range in his artistic vocabulary is stunning; he is in one protean gasp Julia Margaret Cameron, Nadar, or the contemporary British literary iconographer Christopher Barker. In some portraits, he has captured the artists at work – an aspect that reminds me of the work of the American, Jill Krementz. In other portraits, there are edges of Edward Weston, intimate shots reminiscent of Yousef Karsh, Don Denton, or John Reeves. What draws Raynes Roberts’ work together and gives it a unity and its own unique stamp of vitality is that he never fails to capture a profound sense of summation, psychologically, visually, intellectually, and personally about his subjects. He tries to know his subjects not only for what they have written but for how they present themselves. I have seen none that are ill-at-ease, which is one of the most flattering things that can be said about a portrait artist. But what is most distinct about Raynes Roberts’ portraits is that each one is the product of reading, not merely the books that the authors may have created, but the personalities, the individuals behind the works.
As I was revisiting Raynes Roberts’ portraits that he posted to his page on Facebook, three per day for fifty days until he had presented all one hundred and fifty subjects he had captured, I was reminded of an anecdote shared with me by the late Canadian poet, Ralph Gustafson. Gustafson told me, very proudly, that he was Karsh’s first photographic subject. Karsh apprenticed with Gustafson’s father in a portrait studio in Sherbrooke, Quebec. I asked Gustafson what he thought of the portrait of a young, almost symphonic-looking poet that appeared on the dust jacket of an early book. “Karsh photographed my poems,” Gustafson said. “He forgot that we were two friends who hung out together at the local malt shop.”
The odd thing about portraiture is that there are two avenues that the photographer or painter can follow on his way to creating the finished image. The first is the avenue of the sitter’s self-perception. As is the case with the literary interview, a subject will recreate himself as he wishes to be seen, but not necessarily as he is perceived by others. My Churchill-esque portrait is a case-in-point. The other avenue that a portrait artist can follow is to present his sitter with the image of how he or she is perceived. The choice between flattery and actuality is a demanding one for a portrait artist. He faces the challenge of satisfying two masters. There is an equestrian portrait of Charles I that was painted by Van Dyck, who did over a hundred images of the king, sometime five to a canvas. Charles, who was small in stature, insisted on being given a much larger body in his portraits. Van Dyck got the better of the king when, mounted on horseback, the king was given a full-size body, but the horse received a very tiny head.
What Raynes Roberts did in the ILLUMINATION – “Portraits of Canadian Authors” project was to give his sitters both options. I was encouraged to choose the image I liked for my own purposes from a half-dozen of the best images Raynes Roberts selected from the entire shoot, while he kept me informed as to which one he wanted to present to the viewers as the way he saw me. In some respects, the process was akin to staring in a mirror and then having an out-of-body experience. The most successful portraits, not merely in this series but in the history of portraiture, I believe, strike a balance between the perception of the sitter and the perception of the artist. To find that middle ground, that place where the portrait becomes a dialogue between artist and subject, is no mean feat, yet that is what is accomplished in these portraits. And beyond the dialogue between artist and subject, the successful portrait is going to begin a lengthy conversation between subject and viewer that is mediated by the artistic skills of the photographer. At this point, the portrait enters into a much broader discussion that is the realm of criticism.
From the point-of-view of a critic and not merely a subject of a portrait, I am delighted that one hundred and fifty of Canada’s authors not only agreed to sit for Raynes Roberts, but participated in the ILLUMINATION project. There is a tremendous confidence and a powerful sense of statement in this collection that goes beyond words. These images are meant to be conversation starters. There was a time, a little over fifty years ago, that Canadian authors were, for the most part, faceless. Their words were on the page. Their pages were being published and read, albeit in significantly smaller numbers than Canadian literature of today, but the act of putting a face to the name, a visual identity to the words, was a far more modest statement. Authors had book jacket portraits, but these resemble the kind of business image that one finds today on the cards of real estate brokers. The sense of the author’s place, moment, personality, and passion, was subordinated to statements of casual likeness. I can think of only one book in Canadian literature prior to the 1960s that presented a gallery of authors, and that was John Garvin’s 1910 anthology, Canadian Poets. Atop each biographical introduction to the works of roughly forty poets, Garvin insisted on the inclusion of a portrait of the author. He understood that literature is not merely words but the expression of a personality.
It was Jack McClelland at McClelland and Stewart who triggered a sensational breakthrough in the way Canadian literature could be marketed and perceived when in the 1960s he went to the lengths of putting author’s portraits on their stationery and their envelopes. I recall receiving a bundle of poems from Irving Layton for a magazine I was editing. The envelope had no return address. It just had the face of the poet on the front. The idea of connecting personality to words is a sign of a mature culture. Rather than demurely hide beneath the covers of a book, Canadian authors are making an international statement with their ideas, and they are not afraid to put their personal seal, their visual identity, on the line for what they say, and they are not afraid to do so for fear of immodesty or self-promotion. Writers are personalities.
What is important about the ILLUMINATION – “Portraits of Canadian Authors” project is that Canadian writers are no longer suffering from an exaggerated case of self-deprecation. What makes the ILLUMINATION project significant, at least from a critic’s point-of-view is that Raynes Roberts has managed to give every voice, every face, a sense of unique, personal expression. That is not easy to do one hundred and fifty times over, especially in a country as vast a Canada. What Raynes Roberts remains true to is the skill of listening. He is a very fine conversationalist, but beyond verbal conversation he listens with the lens of his camera. That may sound odd, but in the synesthesiac world where two arts meet with one purpose, listening with the eye is a mandatory skill that requires a very strong background in the way human beings have perceived each other.
As the portraits appeared, three per day, I could not help but compare the authors I have known to the portraits by Mark Raynes Roberts. I followed the postings after each portrait. There was always applause, but quite often there was a comment such as “I hadn’t seen that in so-and-so,” and that gave me great relief. Everyone knows everyone else in the Canadian literary community. Authors from across the country converse with each other on a daily basis via social media. Canada has a community of authors. To reveal something new about a familiar face is one of the intriguing things that emerged as each portrait was posted on-line. Each image was a pleasant surprise, and the conversation became richer for them.
A good photographer is as much a critic as any print. Great portraits do not merely present their sitters; they make a statement about them. These authors have been read in the printed medium by many, and they were read again the moment they appeared through the viewfinder of Raynes Roberts’s camera. I feel relieved that someone, at last, has captured our moment – a brief era of creative conversation in an energetic and unparalleled cultural milieu (at least for Canada) – and has left his commentary for others to read and debate. These images provide the kind of texture of statement that suggests we may have reached a threshold of cultural maturity and perceptual intensity. ILLUMINATION – “Portraits of Canadian Authors” makes an important statement in as much as it says that we are no longer afraid to look at ourselves, see ourselves with a sense of confidence and humility, be perceived by others, and share those images of a moment in time that will dialogue with readers of print and image for years to come.