NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Like it or not, our portraits are everywhere. From “selfies” we post on social media to security camera film of us crossing the street, we can’t escape the fact that our images – and what they might communicate to the world about who we are – are potentially being shared with millions.
Technology is challenging how people view the traditional genre of portraits: What is the difference between a photograph taken by an artist and one shot by a teenager with a smartphone? Must a portrait include a face? Such questions about the evolving nature of the portrait lie at the core of the groundbreaking exhibition, “Striking Resemblance: The Changing Art of Portraiture,” at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, which opened this month and runs through July 13.
“Everything about the portrait has changed with social media,” says Susan Sidlauskas, professor and graduate director in the Department of Art History, who co-organized the show with Donna Gustafson, the Zimmerli’s Andrew W. Mellon liaison for academic programs and curator. “Our focus on the portrait examines the social aspects of how we present ourselves, our significant relationships and our communities.”
By their very nature, portraits are a form of social media. “By being passed down from generation to generation, they become the connection between people,” Gustafson explains.
The exhibition, spanning two centuries with 130 works in a variety of media by artists from the late 19th century to the present, is organized by sections devoted to the single, double and group portrait. It presents a fundamentally new account of how people view themselves, their significant others and their social circles. “When people think ‘portrait,’ they picture a single sitter and don’t think of the intersections that lie within the portrait,” Gustafson says. “This show seeks to undermine that assumption. The portrait is – and can be – so much more.”
“Striking Resemblance” sets the stage by opening with the traditional presentation of single portraits, illustrating how individuals are honored and remembered by their friends and families through such oil paintings from the Zimmerli’s collection as “Lucretia Harris Holmes” (mid to late 1830s) and “Portrait of Princess Ekaterina Nikolaevna Lopukhina (Portrait of a Lady)” (1799).
The exhibition then breaks from the traditional to explore the very essence of identity. Portraits that do not depict a face, such as those of the nestled hands of Victorian poet- lovers Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, tell more intimate and captivating stories. Korean artist Do Ho Suh’s “Uni-Form/s: Self Portrait/s: All My 39 Years” (2006) is a series of school and military uniform jackets obediently lined up one behind the other, smallest to largest, as a self-portrait that not only exemplifies the evolution of an individual, but also how his culture shapes him. And in the show’s most interactive work, Felix Gonzales Torres’ “Untitled (Double Portrait)” (1991), the portrait is a stack of printed sheets with an interlocking double circle; guests are invited to select a sheet to take home. “This is a symbolic gesture of generosity and an excellent example of portraiture as a social agent,” Gustafson says.
The selected double portraits highlight the connections between pairs, such as lovers, parents and children, twins and even the self, represented twice in the same image. And group portraits – including families and people united by a common interest – examine how individuals fit into a group and also maintain their sense of self.
“There’s a certain tension in the group portraits between fitting in and standing out,” Sidlauskas says. “In general, people don’t find group portraits very interesting – but if you look carefully at any group, intriguing relationships develop.” For example, when examining “Castricum aan Zee, the Netherlands,” Rineke Dijkstra’s photograph of nine adolescent girls standing on a beach on the North Sea, the social dynamics of intimacy and isolation emerge. The viewer notices subgroups, a variation in body language ranging from affectionate physical contact to the folded arms of one girl, and another who is pivoting away. Relationships, like portraits, are ever-evolving.
As perhaps one of the earliest “selfie” assemblages, “445 Portraits of a Man” (1930s–1940s) captures an anonymous subject by an unidentified artist. This extraordinary collection of photo booth images taken over many years – and never before publically exhibited – elicits provocative questions: Who was this man and why were these created? “Its lack of context is what makes this work so compelling – much like photographs we take and place on social media,” says Sidlauskas.
In mounting this exhibition, Sidlauskas and Gustafson anticipate visitors will reconsider their definitions of portraiture and think more about how they, themselves, might want to be portrayed. To emphasize this point, as guests leave the exhibition, they can step inside a photo booth and take their own portrait – and see what it tells them.
“We want people to learn not to take anything for granted,” Sidaluskas says. “By really looking at these portraits, people will sharpen their eyes. It’s a skill that they can take away and use in their daily interactions. There’s more to a person than their face.”
Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., and the first Wednesday of each month, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and on major holidays.