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The Portrait Artist

‘But don’t you agree that figurative painting died with the development of photography?’ the student asked.

Steven paused to consider a reply and the student, as they tended to, leapt in to fill the space, ‘I mean, when you can capture a perfect image on photograph, in seconds, why bother spending hundreds of hours trying to capture it in oil?’

Steven nodded, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but there are a number of holes in that argument,’ he paused to rephrase, ‘a number of assumptions.’

‘Like what?’ the student asked.

The lecture hall quietened as the rest of the students, recognising the possible beginnings of a decent argument, began to pay real attention. Keen bugger, Steven thought, aware of the change in the hall, and then looking back at the student. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘the assumption that photographs capture a perfect image is one. That figurative painting is trying to capture a photographic likeness is another. That we’re in the business of maximising time-efficiency is a third.’

He paused, ‘I think the only thing that we can be sure that the photograph has killed off is the idea that a big bushy beard looks good on a man,’ he held the mouse over a thumbnail image on his laptop, clicked, and the screen behind him changed to show a photograph of Karl Marx, ‘This was taken when the subject was forty four years old. Compare him to Brad Pitt at around the same age.’

The students laughed.

‘Looks like Father Time,’ someone said.

‘Indeed. And if you want more evidence about how photography has waged war on the hirsute,’ he said, ‘witness the demise of pubic hair since online pornography became available at the click of a mouse.’

Some students sniggered.

It crossed his mind that perhaps they were expecting him to click on a thumbnail of some pornographic image and display it on the large screen behind him.

‘What are you saying then?’ the student asked. ‘That photography makes us shave?’


‘Maybe it infantilises us,’ he suggested.

‘Or tells us we need a haircut.’

I don’t know if you can paint, Steven thought, but if you can’t, we’ll make a critic of you yet. ‘Perhaps,’ he suggested, ‘photography, in purporting to capture our likeness, changes the way that we see ourselves.’

‘Doesn’t portraiture do that too?’

‘Portraiture attempts to capture something more than the sum of the superficial, and I think that that is discovered and developed through the relationship between painter and subject. Photography only captures the surface. You might argue that it’s merely voyeuristic.’

‘We getting back to pornography again,’ one of the jokers at the back said.

He paused, not wanting to stifle debate but not wanting it to veer into laddish territory either, ‘…though, I don’t want you to start disparaging photography. Feel free to save that for Mr. Johnstone’s lectures.’

The students tittered; Johnstone was the photography lecturer, well known for his taste in racy images.

‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘maybe we should leave the sports category of art criticism to another lecture,’ and he turned back to the first student, ‘I’m not saying you’re wrong to question the purpose or the need for figurative painting; I’m just not sure it’s a simple choice between painting and photography.’

‘And dead sharks,’ the class joker suggested.

‘And dead sharks,’ Steven demurred, before continuing, he looked keenly at the faces in the lecture hall, ‘But, whatever the options, it’s part of your job, as students of art, as artists, to make your own decision on the validity and purpose of figurative art.’

‘Do you like figurative painting?’ a female student asked, pointedly.

‘Like? Yes, I like it best,’ he admitted.

‘Does your liking it make it valid though?’ the original student asked.

‘Well, yes, to me. But to you?’ he shrugged, ‘I can’t say. That’s entirely your choice.’

‘I’m just not convinced,’ the student replied. ‘I worry that figurative art is a lie.’

Steven nodded; ‘The word ‘art’ is a synonym for artifice, which means a trick, or a lie, so maybe you’ve got a point,’ he said. ‘We’ve had thousands of years of figurative art, and now digital photography, along with film and TV has superseded painting as a way of recording things. So that requires us to ask critical questions of portraiture.’

He looked around at the students, Art Theory 103, trying to widen the debate which was focussing too much on him and a single student, ‘But as artists, what are the questions should we be asking?’

He noticed one female student pushing her file into a rucksack and glanced at his watch, looked up again and paused, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’m afraid it’s that time again so we’ll have to leave that question hanging. I’m sure you’d all much prefer to spend the rest of the evening sitting here discussing the purpose of art, than in the union bar, but I have to tell you I stopped getting paid about three minutes ago, so maybe we should continue this discussion next week,’ he looked around, smiling, ‘And I’ll be expecting input from more than one or two of the usual suspects,’ he looked over and acknowledged his interrogator once more, with a nod, and then clicked off the thumbnails.

The class began to pack away their files, notes and sketches, and in minutes the lecture hall was emptying, though as always after a lecture, a number of students approached him to discuss ideas, grades and points that had been made, or not made, in the lecture, and he was happy to stop back and chat. The fifteen minutes after a lecture were often the most productive of the evening.

Eventually the room emptied, save for a couple of stragglers, and he went back to his Macbook and began to methodically close all the files he’d used, before turning it off and snapping shut the lid. As often, he was amused by the thought that whatever direction these often free-ranging end-of-lecture debates took, and whatever he taught, theorised or discussed in the lecture hall, it had absolutely no impact on his own work as a painter. Analysing art in the lecture hall, no matter how interesting or thought-provoking, never tempted him to analyse his own work.

Not at all.

‘You’re smiling,’ a voice said.

He looked up to see a student, a new face, talking to him. ‘Just thoughts,’ he said.

‘Penny for ‘em,’ she said, standing very close, looking at him with a twinkle in her eye.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, mildly disconcerted, then said, ‘Well, it’s just that, while I hope my lectures are interesting…,’

‘They are,’ she said.

‘Thankyou,’ he said, ‘And useful, to you undergraduates…’

‘I’m not an undergraduate,’ she said.

‘Really? But aren’t you the one that asked me if I like painting?’

‘I am. But go on.’

He was having a little trouble with this conversation. Who was she? Not an undergraduate, she said, so… someone’s friend? Kid sister? He wasn’t sure. Just a freckle-faced girl with a wide mouth and black hair. He forced himself to return to the conversation, explaining, ‘I was just amused at the idea that, if I was a student, none of what I said tonight would be of any interest, to me.’

‘Hmm,’ was all she said, nodding.

He asked, ‘If you aren’t an undergraduate, what are you?’

What am I?’ she asked, her wide mouth opening slowly in a smile that displayed perfectly even white teeth. She took a slow deep breath and then, as she exhaled, said, ‘I’m the daughter.’

‘Who’s daughter?’ he asked.

Your daughter,’ she said.

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