The portrait, together with it being one of the principle missions of art from its very beginning, has also forever been one of its problematic genres. Although it is destined according to its essence to present the human image, it is also required to represent it; and on being aware of the representing act, it began to strive under its emulating presentation and imprint its apparent image. Up to the end of the Middle Ages – apart from certain exceptions – the portrait did not aim as a rule, to display the external resemblance of the presented image, but rather todisplayits ideal design, an image born as an conceptual abstractionof itself – less of a unique figure and more of a general type having accompanying attributive symbols such as letters, signs and dress. This was the accepted convention in the Far East, in ancient Greece up to the fourth century BCE and, in fact, throughout the Middle Ages up to the 14th century. A mimetic portrait presentation, directed mainly to an individual resemblance, in contrast, required realistic art, and this began to appear (in certain artistic media) during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and more distinctly – in Europe, from the modern period onwards.
However, just when realistic portrait painting began to evolve, theoretically it also became clear that its presentational purpose had in store its inherentlylatent failure, and that the presentation act, in spite of its declared conceptual assumptions, i.e.: “to describe things as they are”, was actually incapable of avoiding the presentation linked to it from the start. This, not only because the portrait was a privilege of the elite social classes, but because social presentation was (and remains) a clear element in accruing their cultural capital and ideological crystallization of their political control, and also because, essentially, any act of description is bound to generate, simultaneously with the mimetic presentation (as precise as it may be), the conceptual presentation of that which is being described, for indeed,no direct , unmediated copy exists, and if only because the emulating act is always accompanied by the emulating consciousness. Furthermore: a gap willalways widen between the delineating from the emulating point of view and the delineated in its position as the copy’s object as indeed, the delineated is not ‘the thing itself’ but an image (conceptual, visual, ideal, or other) which we have concerning it. Not only is the emulating portrait an artificial act in essence (and indeed, this is the nature of art per se), but the artificial itself is an essential mediator (and there is no need to proceed and elaborate on this thought, pondering whether the mediation itself is mediating a constantly growing chain of more and more mediations).
The problem also deepens when this refers to artistic portraits of theatrical actors or movie artists. Indeed, the object of the portrait depiction in this case – the actor himself – is already appearing mediated by what his professional halo essentially dictates to him: concealing his personality by a mask, or more precisely, turning into a public figure in its standing as a personal mask. Of course, it is possible (and there is a need) to distinguish between the actor’s portrait as an artist and his portrait as a private person. However, the question to be asked is, is such a separation possible in the final analysis: indeed, as even the cliché about the clown-crying-behind-the scenes is nurtured dialectically by the clown’s joyous image who performs his comical act in front of an audience, so does the particular excitement from the personal appearance of a cinema or theatrical actor ensue, first and foremost, by crossing the clear border between the actor who has become the mask for his professional life’s purpose and between what is actually his life without that purpose. The determining element in establishing our perceptive viewing contents concerning the actor’s private appearance, an element whichdraws its strength essentially from the actor’s haloof the actor the man as being in the role of “the actor”, turns that private life itself into a kind of mask – a character mask. Thus, both fetishism of the persona to the extent of turning it into a brand,as well as the commercialization of the brand appearing as character mask to the extent of turning the “private life” into merchandise in itself, have been keeping theculture mill nurtured since it began to conquer the public sphere in the modern era, penetrating every corner, niche and crack of the worlds of private lives and their individual existence.
What, then, can the artist do, who paints famous theatrical actors’ portraits? And especially, if his models do not “sit for him” and his artwork has to rely on photographs of those actors? Not only will those photographs be essentially pronounced portraits of character masks of thehalo of the theatrical image -stylized to the last detail - a work of art will not be able to occur in any way other than as a design of a portrait of a portrait (and as stated, there is no need to continue and keep on with the thought, how many additional mediating layers are within the genealogy of that portrait – second conjugation). The painter could merge with this objective “limitation” forced upon him and empower it affirmatively:the character mask will be declared as such and win the approval by way of sanctifying the absence of the portrait’s authenticity, which has lost its actual source, by means of the painting’s halo as a medium of producing autonomous art – portrait-no-portrait as a conscious declaration for itself, concerning the imminent failure of assuming presenting something which is beyond representation; the character mask as a “finite” reality. This in itself could clearly be seen as an authentic work blessed with an absence of authenticity. But it seems that the work of art, which does not coerce itself completely into dictated photographic “realism”, contains the ability to generate, nevertheless, an additional something beyond the “surrender”, praiseworthy in itself, to failing to assume the realistic portrait: it could request – by means of its own expressive means while deconstructing the linear form, deconstructing the surfaced front, undermining natural colorfulness and undermining the “obvious” texture – to expose some concealed essence of the displayed represented image, an essence nurtured however from the concealing and exposure which could uproot it from being such, but simultaneously also able to mark, if only for a moment, the existence of the image’s “other” actuality, that which the representation cannot but request to control, but in the great moments of protesting the artistic representation in the artistic style, it succeeds in avoiding the overpowering and opening its eyes to us. One needs quite a degree of daringto request and realize this aim – to grasp that essence on the way of painting. But no less a degree of artistic irresponsibility is needed not to request to realize it, from the moment the artist has committed to just this: painting a portrait.