The first thing you see is a face, adrift in a cold ocean, vivid blue eyes looking away as if in contemplation. A diving helmet sits atop our man’s greying hair, the iron collar of an old-fashioned diving suit circles his fisherman’s collar. Thing is, if this man is drowning, he doesn’t look at all worried. Rather, he seems philosophical.
Closer inspection reveals he is not only in the sea, he is of the sea too. He’s part of the water,– a shark forms his frown, squid etch themselves into the lines of his face. There is much being said about him, and the title has a lot to say too – it’s called ‘Whisper a vow to the long sweet silence under blessing and a bell’(A portrait of George Mackay Brown 1921 – 1996 by Ian Charles Scott). George Mackay Brown was, of course, Scotland’s much-loved poet, novelist and lifetime champion of the Orkney Isles.
This is the work at the entrance to Revealing Characters, one of two big portrait exhibitions at the McManus in Dundee, the other being Face to Face in the adjacent gallery space. In all there will be 112 works by 87 artists on show in two galleries, all celebrating portraiture.
These exhibitions have been curated to offer us insight into the painter and the painted, and glimpses into other worlds, both lives and times. They had our selfie-obsessed culture in mind when curating these exhibitions notes Anna Robinson, fine and applied art section leader at the gallery, and while there are no answers, the fun is in the questions.
In order to get us thinking and involved in the lives of the people gazing at us, the presentation and grouping of the works has been carefully thought out explains Susan Keracher, fine art curator. Sometimes extra elements are added to give a work further context. For example the striking portrait by society painter Howard Sommerville of Sylvia Booth, debutante daughter of shipping magnate Sir Alfred, celebrates an elegant, beautiful young woman dressed in the height of Twenties fashion. Next to this a similar style dress is displayed.
Revealing Characters looks at the enduring attraction of the portrait as a character sketch, drawing on works from the late 1800s to contemporary pieces. Who are these people? What do their portraits say about them? What challenges did the portrait artist face? How do they show us their subjects? Face to Face, meanwhile, looks at what makes a successful portrait, what is compelling and why. Its intention is to draw the viewer in – that’s you – and make you part of the process. After all, since they were first commissioned thousands of years ago, portraits were meant to be looked at, and in many cases, including the great and the good of Dundee, they were status symbols, records of success and wealth for posterity.
Utter privilege almost commands you across the room to stand beneath Philip de Laszlo’s imperious ‘The Right Honourable Mabel Ogilvy, Dowager Countess of Airlie’ where, beneath her haughty gaze, you notice the lustre of her pearls, the soft sheen of her kid gloves.
Status and wealth couldn’t be further removed from the group of works by Joseph McKenzie, celebrated post-war photographer and founder of the Duncan and Jordonstone photography department. His black and white pictures of children, chosen in homage to the Year of Young People, are moments in ordinary lives, captured in glorious informality, while at the far wall – a Worthy Wall if ever there was one – the great and good from Dundee’s past look down on us from their superior height, coolly observing us observing them in their ermine robes and Provost’s chains.
It’s an observer’s world, this wealth of portraits, drawn from all walks of life, and telling a story through the people gazing out from their moment in time.
Revealing Characters opens Saturday, January 27 and continues throughout 2018.
Face to Face also opens tomorrow, and runs until May 20. Both exhibitions are free.