There are those who say that all works of art are in some way a portrait of the artist. While as a topic this would invite much debate, it is fair to say that all artists address the self and its preoccupations in the process of creativity and expression. Two recent shows – in very different and seemingly unconnected ways – draw our attention to the self-scrutiny of portraits and the artistic process. They are two shows that inspire and excite in equal measure, in disparate ways but for quite similar reasons.
The first of these is a gem of a small show at the British Museum – Iranian Voices: Recent Acquisitions of Works on Paper, curated by Dr Venetia Porter. Thanks to the museum's Contemporary and Modern Middle East Art Patron group, and other generous donors such as Maryam and Edward Eisler, the Museum now has a growing collection of over 200 established and emerging artists from across the region. This particular group of works on view just behind the Addis Gallery brings together thoughtfully juxtaposed pieces by such well-known names as Bahman Mohassess, Parviz Tanavoli, Parastou Fourouhar, Ali Akbar Sadeghi, Shahpour Pouyan, Tarlan Rafiee and Yashar Samimi Mofakham, Fereydoun Ave, Bahman Jalali, and Ali Banisadr. With the thoughtfulness and historicity characteristic of British Museum exhibitions, this show unfolds a series of unexpected connections and a contextualisation that makes it an eye-opening experience. For one thing, it is fascinating to see works on paper by artists some of whom are better known as painters. The viewer gets to witness the artist's process, smaller experimentations, sketches of more complex compositions, as well as stylistic departures.
Ali Banisadr for example, best known for his monumental paintings in which he introduces us to a surreal world inspired by Persian mythology, is represented in this show by an exquisite small work on paper where he uses a roller loaded with colour over which tiny figures emerge from the landscape, forcing the viewer to "investigate the scene like a forensic scientist". The group of works on paper by Bahman Mohassess – another dedicated painter – also depict small scale, phantasmagoric figures in prints and collages that he described as 'Assemblages'. These he made from cut-up magazines, often overlaid by drawing, expressing a brutal, quirky personal philosophy and vision of life. While the turbaned 'shark' is a playful allusion to a former politician, Pour Munch, referencing The Scream, is a kind of self-portrait, cleverly juxtaposed in this show with a portrait of Mohassess himself by photographer Ahmad Aali, in front of one of his paintings of mythical creatures.
Lucian Freud. Self-Portrait: Reflection. 1996. Etching. Courtesy of Royal Collection trust and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016
We see the same type of fascinating juxtaposition in the brilliant Portrait of the Artist exhibition at the Queen's Gallery, where the reciprocal portraits on board the HMY Britannia, of two friends – the Duke of Edinburgh and Edward Seago – allow the viewer to make the artists the object of scrutiny. Just like Shideh Tami in the British Museum show, a self-taught Iranian artist and poet (who incorporates piercing verses into her self portraits that delve deep into her soul), we see a powerfully honest, unflinching Lucien Freud self-portrait at the Queen's Gallery. Contrastingly, Parastou Forouhar at the British Museum proposes faceless portraits of transgressors or victims woven subtly into colourful wall-paper-like patterns, drawing us up close for an intimate dialogue. Another group of hand-coloured prints by Tarlan Rafiee depicts portraits of famous Middle Eastern divas, pop singers, actors and actresses, reminding us that the region has a far-reaching cultural dimension well removed from the current clichés. Meanwhile at the Queen's Gallery, an extensive array of famous artist names such as Holbein, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Rembrandt and Da Vinci, make a rather interesting contrast. Here, an exquisite selection of 150 works from the Royal Collection reminds us of the magnificent holdings at Buckingham Palace. The changing image of the creative genius from the 15th century through the present day, spread within thematically-distinct rooms, allows the viewer to journey through this rather vast historical scope with ease and accessibility. Painting after iconic painting brings a dazzling display which is rarely seen in such a carefully-curated context. The world's most important group of artists' self-portraits hangs in the Vasari Corridor of the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, but is now – for the first time ever – displayed in miniature copy at the Queen's Gallery. How ironic that the public gets to see 224 miniatures in a show of European, and not Iranian art! These miniatures were commissioned in 1760 by leading art patron Lord Cowper who asked the Italian artist Giuseppe Macpherson to create small scale copies of the works for presentation to George III. Elsewhere in this richly stimulating exhibition, the relationship between contemporaries in the art world is explored through representations of artists by their friends, admirers and pupils.
While the Royal Collection show reminds us that for centuries portraits have been a valuable commodity that has been actively collected, the British Museum show of contemporary acquisitions also pays clever tribute to this historical context, and draws attention to the place and value of figurative imagery in the process of defining identity. A fascinating 'group portrait' by photographer Bahman Jalali is displayed next to a 19th century Qajar stone bas relief, with carved figures referencing Jalali's preoccupation with Qajar era photographs. Here Jalali superimposes layers of imagery – one of traditional wrestlers framing another image of a suited man, over another of a beautiful Qajar woman emerging from underneath calligraphic lettering – to achieve a haunting effect. “Each of these artists has a voice, and when you look at the works together you can see how they are almost like a mosaic,” says curator Venetia Porter. “They ‘speak’ about their engagement with an identity, in all its cultural complexity – history, literature, politics, art and with incredible subtlety.”
Indeed, viewing both the iconic portraits at the Queen's Gallery, and the recent acquisitions of contemporary Iranian art – though smaller and on paper – one realises that often it is the commonalities lying at the basis of the human condition, the truths that artists seek to highlight through their highly personal imagery, which capture us most, and while one show might highlight issues of identity and politics, the other – with its tracing of the history of European portraiture – is not so far removed in what it seeks to express: that artists all seek their unique voices in offering us the most fundamental of truths.
Both exhibitions run through the festive period, and it can safely be said that there are few better choices for an afternoon well spent than visiting these eye-opening shows.
Iranian Voices, Recent Acquisitions of works on paper is at the British Museum until 2 April 2014
Portrait of the Artist is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until 17 April 2017
This article was previously posted on Roxane Zand's Cultural Crossroads blog on Sotheby's