Above: Jeffrey Silverthorne, Self portrait with Rachel, a document of expectations, 2006, courtesy of Gallery VU.
Text by Carina Allen
While exploring and studying both art history and photography for a month in Europe, I visited many museums that exhibited works by artists ranging from those alive in Italy and Flanders in the 1500s, to artists creating work today, aiming to develop new concepts in art that haven’t been explored before. While the works I saw created by some of today’s artists display ideas and concentrations that I haven’t seen explored by other artists in the past, the underlying reliance these pieces have on the foundations crafted by the painters and sculptors of the 1500s and 1600s are ever-present, or at least they are to the mind of a student analyzing Renaissance paintings 5 out of 7 days of the week.
In the 15th century, portraits of individuals were commissioned mostly by the wealthy and for a specific purpose. Portraits were painted to display facts about a person such as their profession or economic status. Many works were commissioned by the extremely religious, as many were across Europe at the time. Pieces were created to function as altarpieces or as personal displays of devotion to the church that would be displayed in a person’s home. It took a great deal of time for artists to begin to paint portraits of people who were not of great wealth or importance. Women were scarcely painted individually, and when they were, the painting was created as a token for their husband or husband-to-be. Self-portraiture was scarce, but the form was taken on as a way for artists to move beyond painting images of other people, and for them to make a statement about themselves as an artist and as an individual.
Without the steps taken by artists like Jan Van Eyck, the renown Northern Renaissance artist who was the first to create a self-portrait, or Leonardo da Vinci, the classic Renaissance man and first artist to create a female portrait that displayed his subject with individuality and power, we would have no foundation for the types of creative and innovative portraits that artists are creating today. Without the first rule-breakers, artists today would be following the same formats and functions for portraiture that were most common during the years leading up to the Renaissance.
After the growth and development of art over centuries, artists today are forced to rethink and reinvent the portrait, an artistic convention with a definition that has been fogged over and thrown around loosely as artists have pushed the boundaries of art. Some of the photographic works on display across Europe that I had the opportunity to see challenge the standard definition of a portrait, approach displaying subjects in new ways, and in some cases, show that a good portrait never gets old. Here is a brief summary of some of the exhibitions on display this past summer.
JEFFREY SILVERTHORNE “The Precision of Silence” FoMu, Antwerp, Belgium – Feb. 20 – June 6 2015
Left: Jeffrey Silverthorne, Rosa with Lipstick, 1993, Right: Jeffrey Silverthorne, Woman who died in her sleep, 1972, images courtesy of Galerie VU.
The retrospective of the 69-year old American photographer’s work covers topics including, death, sex, age, and gender. Between capturing transsexuals in hotel rooms to dead bodies in morgues, Silverthorne likes to challenge the viewer with images of what may be considered traditionally uncomfortable. Silverthorne shifts the backbone idea of portraiture far from its roots of being saved for the poised upper class. The wide collection of Silverthorne’s array of work also includes self-portraits, studio images, candids, and set up portraits with props. Although all different, Silverthorne’s various series all display his draw to subjects that aren’t quite pristine, and his range of material shows that he has worked his way around the concept of portraiture, fine tuning what a Silverthorne portrait aims to do; startle the viewer, display the lives of those that are different from us, and challenge us to face things that aren’t always perfectly pretty.
Jeffrey Silverthorne is represented by Agence VU and some of his work can be viewed here: https://www.agencevu.com/photographers/photographer.php?id=213
Read PART TWO here.