'Mirror, Mirror' exhibit revises the meaning of 'portrait' from head to foot


May 16, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

You might think a portrait show drawn from the Baltimore Museum of Art's collections would include works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian, Van Dyck, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney, Greuze, Nattier, Vigee-Lebrun, West, Charles Willson Peale, Copley, Sully, Sargent, Eakins and Warhol.

But "Mirror, Mirror: What Is a Portrait?" (through Aug. 11) contains none of those. It does contain, among other things, masks, shoes, Staffordshire figurines, a snuff box, a madonna and a horse.

As you might have guessed by now, this is not a traditional portrait show. Instead, it's a multi-cultural, multi-medium exhibit that casts its net as widely as possible, pulling in works from North America, South America, Africa, Oceania and Europe, mixing paintings, sculpture, drawings, photography and decorative arts.

And true to its unconventional nature, likeness is not the point. If anything, it's the anti-point. When we hear the word portrait, we may think of an oil painting depicting a particular person. That's the stereotype curator Brenda Richardson battles with this exhibit, in 47 works among which traditional portraits are a minority, and in often detailed accompanying texts.

The point is that a portrait may be many things, from George Stubbs' portrait of the great horse "Eclipse with Mr. Wildman and His Sons" (late 1760s-early 1770s) to Marie Laurencin's multiple portrait "Group of Artists" (1908); from the bust of Augustus the Strong of Saxony on a snuff box (about 1750) to eight portraits of Gertrude Stein; from oil to sculpture to photography.

There are African masks, which represent what professor Jean Borgatti terms "social identity" rather than individual likeness. From Zaire, for instance, there is a "Mask Representing an Old Man" (19th century) and from Nigeria a "Mask Representing an Anti-Social Character." On the other hand, the Peruvian "Stirrup-Spout Portrait Head Vessel" (3rd to 5th century) is a vessel in name only; such works were indeed portraits of individuals, and this one has a quite distinct identity.

There is the portrait as caricature, as in two depictions of "The Vicar and Moses" (about 1770 and 1815) in Staffordshire earthenware. There is the portrait as symbol, as in Joseph Stella's painting "The Ama

zon." There is even the portrait as place to hide, as in Cindy Sherman's photographs of herself in various guises.

The show delights in surprises and definitely stretches one's idea of what a portrait can be. Now and then it stretches a bit far. To include everything from a pair of moccasins (late 19th century) whose beadwork designs might represent "deeds in war and religious experiences" to a "Madonna and Child" (15th century) by the Master of the Legend of St. Lucy means almost anything can be a portrait. That may be Richardson's point, but it makes the word portrait virtually meaningless.

An accompanying show, "As Artists See Us: Drawings from the Museum's Collection" contains 19th and 20th century drawings of faces, including works by David, Ingres, Degas, Daumier, Manet, Morisot, Redon, Cassatt, Eakins and Klee.

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