Controversy surrounding the painting of Kate Middleton has brought portraiture back into the limelight. But what do people want from representative art today? And what should they really expect to get back from it?
Over the last few decades figurative work has begun to creep back into fine art, after decades of abstraction and conceptual art which left the galleries full of ideas, symbols and texts, but fewer readable narratives and fewer traditional art objects like the painting or the sculpture.
But painters like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud’s frank, psychological studies including the famous portrait of the Queen herself – have succeeded in bringing the human figure back into the artistic canon.
At the turn of the 21st century, a group led by Billy Childish and Charles Thomson started calling themselves Stuckists and promoted the use of authenticity and figurative painting in their manifestos. Still more recently, the Contemporary Realists have insisted on more representative forms of art, in response to both today’s world and the pre-Modernist artists of the 19th century.
For a public grown tired of the broad definition of art which saw Martin Creed’s lights switching on and off win the Turner Prize in 2001, this has come as something of a relief.
But contemporary portrait artists are not the Joshua Reynolds and John Singer Sargents of the past. They do not paint sitters to represent their status and wealth like the aristocracy of previous centuries would have expected. Indeed, the most successful artists who could be said to produce portraiture, like Jack Vettriano and Elizabeth Peyton, place their figures in context.
That context could be the world of modern icons, as in Peyton’s ‘rock star portraits’ of Jarvis Cocker and Liam Gallagher, or in the timeless but accessible country lane or seashore scenarios of Vettriano and artists on various websites online. Portraiture here seems to be mingling with contemporary social and historic painting, depicting a time and a place with the people involved. Kate Middleton’s painting was not supposed to do this, of course. It was an official portrait.
The likeness is accurate enough, but it may have been a sense of the personality beneath the pageantry, her well-known liveliness and energy that was needed. Figurative and portrait art needs to be about real people these days and perhaps it was this that disappointed the public where Kate’s picture was concerned.