Sometimes I’m struck by how odd it is that we still commission and spend money to see painted portraits – and I say this as an art historian. I mean, I love portraiture – it’s possibly one of my favourite forms of art. But in the 21st century it can still occasionally feel just a little antiquated.
A recent walk about the National Portrait Gallery got me thinking about 20th century painted portraits; and specifically portraiture from the early 1980s. That diabolical decade of excess feels like the least likely period for a flourishing of portraiture. And yet it was a decade which witnessed a ‘new realism’.
Coinciding with Margaret Thatcher’s election to the Conservative premiership, this ‘new realism’ appears have been a response to the apparently chaotic voices of Post-Modernism and its association with left-wing agitation. The painter Bryan Organ (b.1935) dabbled in left-wing abstraction during his youth before by the 1980s becoming a conservative ‘realist’. His abstract roots indeed are evident, for in Organ’s most famous images he treads a fine line: his figures are scrutinised with an unforgiving, if slightly other-worldly, ‘realism’ whilst existing in an abstracted context where the world conveniently departs, only momentarily, in order than we might catch the sitter alone and unable to hide behind their attributes. Organ is perhaps most famous for his iconic portraits of The Prince of Wales (1980) and Lady Diana Spencer (1981) – two separate images, forming in the Renaissance manner a mysterious altar piece devoted to the worship of marriage. Whilst not unresponsive to the cultural currents of the time (naturally his modern-day sitters are self-aware and lack a degree of certainty; his ‘style’ enigmatically restrained) in many ways Organ’s work of the 1980s essentially does the same as that of Reynolds in the 18th century and Sargent in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.
His 1980 portrait of former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is monumental in the Victorian manner, and yet at the same time deeply unforgiving, indeed almost mocking. Immediately striking is the dark two-dimensional background and the odd vantage point of the portrait: Macmillan is old and broken and is almost a small child who cannot see above the parapet. He is grand in the noble artistic tradition – and yet he is also impotent: symbolic of Britain’s imperial demise. The way Organ poses his sitters tells us all we need to know; they are neat little narratives to distract the eye. Princess Diana is awkward, Harold Macmillan frail, Margaret Thatcher watery-eyed and calculated, David Hicks louche, Prince Philip stern, Prince Charles earnest, Jim Callaghan harassed, Alan Sugar arrogant, Francois Mitterrand stubborn, Elton John insecure and ‘Dickie’ Attenborough engaging.
When photography can so easily capture a person, a mood, a moment, it does seem odd that the Establishment still crave immortality at the stroke of a brush. But it is the difference between a well-cooked meal and a sugary snack. Time and leisure suddenly became more expensive than ever during the 1980s and consequently one of the greatest status symbols remained: the laboriously painted portrait. Portraiture an excess? Certainly. But with cash to spend (even if one loathes Organ’s tepid approach) it is a rather glorious excess.