Sunday, March 30, 2008

Portrait of Seider & Sargent 1

I realise there is a common element in the photographs I introduce or advocate.  They tend to have a very painterly effect to them.  Like snapshots of the canvas of an old master or a suddenly lit corner of an ancient fresco.

It carries through to my preference in movies.  A movie may have a rather disappointing plot or mind-numbing dialogue but can be redeemed if it unfolds visages of panoramic swirls of colour, swathes of light and shadow and glorious depictions of dreamscapes that seem to leap from a painting in the Louvre.

A contemporary favourite is 300, which I cannot rave enough about.  Sure, the story veered so much from so-called history and there were moments of supreme cheesiness and tacky OTT-ness, but every frame in that movie was a master painting.  It resurrected the Spartans from the eerie grave back onto the big screen as a masterpiece of art.

For some reason, as I pondered my predilection towards painterly photographers, one name kept sticking in my mind.

David Seidner.

Obviously, this is because of his pièce de résistance, Portraits, inspired by Sargent's portraits.  What an amazing concept to trace the progeny from Sargent's society models for his portraits and re-image them into modern day depictions!  Seidner masterfully transported them into Sargent's canvas with lensed brush strokes and left a legacy that haunts me even after almost a decade of his passing.

In honour of this perfectionistic artist, (he apparently controlled every minute turn of the head, fold of fabric and even placement and cropping of his photographs in magazines - something I totally identify with and can appreciate), I present David Seidner's Portraits.

This portrait is of Hilary Gardner, who is the great-great-grandniece of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the art collector and philanthropist painted by John Singer Sargent in 1888.  

The first glance invites you to marvel at the lustrous and lush use of silk drapes swaddling the floor, above which the modern-day Gardner perches with a hesitant awareness.  Her body seems almost bent on leaping from her seat to disappear into stage right, away from the viewfinder.

The arch of her eyebrows, slightly aggressive forward tilt of her neck and awkward turn of her head give the impression of a reluctant attention that bely her sedentary pose.  The arms are raised in preparation for movement even as they try to rest on the arms of the chair and the billowy skirt.

The colours are phenomenal.  Like the rich gleam of jewels - matured gold, shadowed emerald and mysterious amethyst bloom around her like in a vibrant cloud.  Her peaches and cream complexion glows against this canvas and gives her a measure of delicacy that alleviates her slightly big-boned robustness.

Overall, the impression is of a reluctant princess more used to rugged pursuits and simple personal presentation forced into a frock, makeup and a tiara and feeling like an utter git.  Her patience is running thin and there is a surliness to the look, hinting at impending tantrums and a severe arse whopping.  You get the feeling that any moment now she is going to spring up on her Reeboks hidden under the gown, hitch the layers of taffeta and silk to the waist, stick a middle finger at Seidner and make a break for it.

I would call this portrait The Reluctant Princess but I might get sued.  

You compare that to her ancestor, Mrs Jack, as Isabella Stewart Gardner was known and it is quite a contrast indeed.

I certainly do not see a resemblance which is to be expected in such a long passing of lineage.  I suspect Seidner deliberately veered from replicating the portrait of the older Gardner as he was a very studied artist who created with an eye towards intellectual and surrealistic detail.

Sargent's Gardner is a picture in restrained austerity and understated elegance.  Seidner uses colour and barouque richness in his shot.  Mrs Jack proffers slim lines and serene anticipation.  The young Hilary sits in overflown curves of barely restrained eagerness.  An aura of light surrounds Mrs Jack and gives her a muted halo to her gleaming, pale skin.  The younger Gardner flushes healthily in the pitch darkness that dares not encroach on her abundance of colours.

I confess I much prefer the sophisticated refinement of Mrs Jack and especially love the double strands of pearls accentuated her corseted waist above a slim flute of velvety black.  Much as I love the jewel tones, I think Sargent's masterpiece looks surprisingly modern while Seidner's looks ironically dated, which is his intent in the Portraits series.

In fact, in terms of pose and colours, the other Sargent portrait of Grace Curzon, Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston, seems a more likely reference.  Note the purple sash, armchair and slight forward edge of the body.

I don't know.  Perhaps I am reaching.

The tapestry continues in a rich vein with the next Seidner portrait.  This time, the colour is focused on glowing shades and hues of green.  It is a classic portrait in terms of composition and pose.

Yet the use of colour again modernises Seidner's piece with mellow elegance.

Rachel Feinstein's pale, understated beauty is enhanced by the dark background that seems to dominate all of Seider's works.  The stark and unforgiving backdrop illuminates her muted serenity.

As with all of Seidner's models, her skin is superbly lit and gleams with an almost ghostly glow.  She would look washed out and insipid if not for the flowing green of taffeta that cascades from under her push up bust. 

She sits quietly, perhaps penning a love letter to her faraway lover.  The romantic might see her pining for her husband who is away at war.  The cynic would deduce that she wistfully scribes an illicit missive to her secret lover, while bemoaning a loveless marriage.

There is a resigned sorrow half-hidden in her eyes.  A acceptance of fate in her lips.  The green plays up her settled position and she seems comfortable in her situation despite the slight tugging of past regrets.

The slash of purple at one shoulder offsets the jade and cream, drawing the eye to her face.  It also gives a touch of interest and hints at a deeper strength and complexity to this portrait of a woman caught in a time warp.

We might see the influence of Sargent's Misses Hunter, circa 1902, in Seider's treatment here.  Again, we have the allusion of an afternoon of scholarly pursuit which is probably just the ladies indulging in a bit of dimestore rip bodice novels and penning assignations.  The usage of green lends a bucolic languor to the scene although Seidner's model is slightly more assertive and mature in her repose.

The full skirt is repeated in both tableau and while the Misses Hunters form a tight circle of confidantes, Ms Feinstein evokes a self-inflicted solitude.  You get the sense that although she is alone, she is constantly surrounded by the demands of others.  The difference and similarity between the two paintings give one much to think about and I suspect (if indeed this is one of his inspirations) that was exactly Seider's purpose.

We move on to yet another Seidner piece with this picture of luminescent beauty.  India Hicks, the grand-daughter of Countess Mountbatten, is a study of intelligent, aristocratic grace in this tastefully art-directed gem.

The long line of her neck sets off her features which are turned in three quarter silhouette to the camera.  The gentle colours appear bright without being brashly exuberant.  

The pearlescent glow of the chaise lounge's silk upholstery vies for attention with the alabaster skin of the model.  Excellent use of lighting and composition brings your eye to her despite the complementary tones and hues that might otherwise have washed her out and blended her literally into the furniture.

Her expression seems pensive and slightly perturbed at having her introspection disturbed.  There is a quizzical tweak to her brows and polite but resigned questioning in her eyes.  There is also a slight hint of belligerence in her chin and an imperceptible tightening of her lips that suggests that her contemplation was reaching a critical conclusion before our rude interruption.

She is tastefully attired with effortless elegance and sophisticated simplicity.  The stark severity of the single black velvet choker highlights the radiance of her skin.  The full bloom of the pale peach rose tucked into the waves of her hair picks out the creamy tones of the picture as well as her gown.  

It is a little hard to see here but the dark greyish blue of the background echoes the slightly turbulent, lambent hue of the exotically-named Ms Hicks.  I really like the subdued, clever play of colours here.  A thoroughly arresting piece that keeps drawing the eye.

The Sargent inspiration might have come from the portrait of Mrs Philip Leslie Agnew, also circa 1902.  A similar pose with hues of cream and black.  Unlike Ms Hicks' expression, Mrs Agnew seems to have an almost sneaky humour in the intelligent glint of her eye.  There is a gentle mocking and slightly jaundiced eye to this matron and yet we know she is nervous and projecting a bravado she might not feel.

The telltale sign in in her hands.  She is nervously picking at her own fingers as she gazes at the painter.  We do not see India Hicks' hands but by her body position, we can hazard a guess that they are folded together in her lap and pressing down into her skirts in a bit of tension as well.  Both pieces hint at some intellectual agitation below the seeming composure of both ladies.  However, Hicks appears to possess greater inner strength than her painterly counterpart with the upturn of her face while the latter's downward angle hints at a greater willingness to give in to life's demands.  Or perhaps it is the weight of that massive mound of feathers on her head that is making her bow to convention.

Additionally, one can be forgiven in thinking there is trouble in Ms Agnew's marriage as she is fiddling with her ring finger on which an outrageously loud wedding ring sits.  She is all decked out and seems self-conscious of her over-eager show of affluence and status while the modern-day Hicks parlays a understated class.