Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.
— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891

The question beneath the surface in our subconscious is why? Better yet, it is the declarative, who cares? The subject is portraiture in art today.

For David Tomb, the subject matter is himself or, like his artistic hero Lucien Freud, close friends or acquaintances who share mutual trust and understanding.Tomb makes no concession to the vanity of his sitter or the technical demands of aping a formal verisimilitude. In his art, he follows the dictum of Schopenhauer, who wrote in 1856: Take note, young man, that the portrait should not be a reflection in a mirror, a daguerreotype reproduces that far better. The portrait must be a lyric poem, through which a whole personality, with all its thoughts, feelings and desires, speaks.” 1 And as he is so engaged with his sitter so, in turn, does Tomb engage the viewer to invest feeling for a stranger. This is accomplished through the alchemy of balancing an emotionally charged rendering of subject with the parallel activity of abstracted gestural markings.

Critics Mark van Proyen and Kenneth Baker have both perceptively noted this tendency in Tomb’s art. Van Proyen writes that Tomb creates figurative images described by a rather odd, gestural mark-making that runs the gamut from the blatantly crude to the pleasantly facile. These gestural marks all give evidence of a remarkable engaged rhythm that allows them to be read as almost a seismographic record of the artist’s internalized emotions.” 2 And Kenneth Baker writes: The lines behave as if they start out being descriptive, but abruptly become ends in themselves, as if Tomb’s attention kept reverting compulsively from model to marks. Tomb intensifies into a struggle the normal draftsmanly transit of attention between subject and process, and process wins.” 3

The slightly wild, unkempt quality of Tomb’s surface is often in keeping with the emotions conveyed by his subjects, but it serves as a constant reminder that it is too, after all, a piece of paper or canvas with markings on it. In Lucien Freud’s confrontationally intense canvases, for example, much of the satisfaction of his achievement is negated if one’s attention is so focused on subject and meaning that his skilled application of the thick granular paint, lovingly built up upon the canvas, is overlooked.

Portraiture is at once the most esteemed and most vilified of artistic subject matter. It ranges from transfixing icons of art, such as Leonardo’s Mona Lisaand Rembrandt’s self-portraits, to the numbingly routine (and best forgotten) portraits of former bank presidents cluttering some anonymous corporate hallway. The best portraits do not fall back on the fame of the subject, or attempt to appeal to the sitter’s vanity. Only one person should wield the brush, and that is the artist.

A curious evolution has occurred in the second half of the twentieth century, most succinctly expressed by the earlier words of the Italian Futurist, Umberto Boccioni: ?In order for a portrait to be a work of art, it must not resemble the sitter.” 4 In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein commented that Pablo Picasso’s portrait of her was not a good resemblance. After a little while, I murmured to Picasso that I liked his portrait of Gertrude Stein. “Yes,” he said, “everybody says that she does not look like it, but that does not make any difference, she will,” he said. 5

We live in an age of contradictions, when the facile media make it all too possible to delude ourselves that mere recognition of an idea equates with thoughtful reflection. Portraiture as a vehicle for ideas is dead in the consciousness of the public — that is, portraiture in painting, drawing, and sculpture.Portraiture in photography, however, thrives like some fast-growing water lily that replicates itself into an unwarranted dominance of its environment. Photographic portraiture is ripe for an age of remote- control attention spans and the cult of celebrity. Robert Mappelthrope, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, and Herb Ritts concentrate their portraiture on the art of the sure thing, celebrity recognition. Quality of insightfulness is almost beside the point in photographing celebrities, and the extent of the photographer’s art is treated almost as an oversight because the fact of who is portrayed so overwhelms the viewer’s attention:That’s Madonna!” That’s Dennis Hopper!”

It’s not that meaningful photographic portraiture does not exist.It does, — ranging from the starkly composed portrait images of Richard Avedon’s series In the American West to the intensely intimate series on AIDS patients by Nicholas Nixon. These photographs succeed without the crutch of celebrity, but they still contain an element that the public constantly feels compelled by and comfortable with: the overpowering reassurance that what they are seeing is fact tempered by art, not the other way around.

Portraiture in painting, drawing, and sculpture hit a high-water mark in the general consciousness at the end of the last century, and arrived at a clear dividing of paths. One path consisted of those artists who created the icons of the famous and the rich, as exemplified in the life-size renderings on canvas of John Singer Sargent. About such portraits, Max Beerbohm once quipped,Most women are not so young as they are painted.” 6 This area of portraiture to please” continues to limp along today as a service industry to the rich, conferring about the same amount of status to the individual as the installation of a private tennis court.

The other path is the twisted, often torturous trail of the artist coming to terms with his or her inner self, as expressed in the depiction of an individual’s most personal and charismatic feature: the human face. Edgar Degas, Thomas Eakins, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Lovis Corinth, and Max Beckman, to name just a few artists of the past century, successfully achieved the kind of portraiture of which Horace spoke in the first century B.C.: In painting he shows both the face and the mind.” 7 Much of this portraiture is popularly associated with the romantic notion of the angst-ridden artist baring his or her soul through the depiction of an individual, or better yet, the artist’s own visage.

Certain artists have aimed for an art of surface artifice — portraits as symbols and shapes, rather than expression, substance and emotion. Contemporary artists who have worked in this manner include Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Alex Katz, and Gerhard Richter. But another category of contemporary portraiture while truly representative of our own modernist era, also demands of itself, as it demands of the viewer, an emotional focus on the person portrayed, in the tradition of deeply felt portraiture of the past. Artists of the past forty years who have exemplified this standard include Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, Antonio Lopez-García, Alice Neel, Lucien Freud, and R. B. Kitaj. Within an art world in large part emotionally disconnected, it takes a certain bravery to center one’s art on this form of expression, yet that is exactly what David Tomb has done.

David Tomb, in his art, allows us to engage our attention and often our feelings in his deeply felt and often troubling portraits, in a kind of voyeurism akin to overhearing a fascinating and intelligent conversation. That he cares profoundly about his art is self-evident. Whether we care, or how the work is perceived, is up to the individual. Pablo Picasso wisely stated, A picture is not thought out and settled before hand. While it is being done, it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it is finished, it still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whomever is looking at it.” 8

David Tomb is a young artist whose career has not followed the trends and fashions of the current art world. The only thing more compelling than his current body of work is the promise of what is to come.

Robert Flynn Johnson
Curator in Charge
Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Notes:

  1. A Dictionary of Art Quotations. Ian Crofton, ed., Schirmer Books, New York, 1988, p. 151.
  2. Mark Van Proyen. “A Reflective Protagonist.” Artweek, April 22, 1989.
  3. Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 1995.
  4. A Dictionary of Art Quotations, p. 151.
  5. Four Americans in Paris. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970, cited p. 167.
  6. Max Beerbohm, “A Defence of Cosmetics,” 1896, in A Dictionary of Art Quotations, p. 151.
  7. Horace, Epistles, II, i (1st century B.C.), in Ibid., p. 148.
  8. Dore Ashton. Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views. Viking Press, New York, 1972, p. 8.