The changing face of portraiture

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Vesna Kittelson (b. 1947), Giovanni, 2009, Oil on paper on silk, 28 x 22 inches, Courtesy of the artist

The portrait may seem at first glance a bland, straightforward genre of art. It’s just a person’s face, right? But an exhibition at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts reviews more than a century of portrait-making, and in doing so, holds a mirror to a fast-changing nation.

“About Face” is presented by the Minnesota Museum of American Art, which is bringing its art to various venues in the greater Twin Cities metro area while it continues to search for a permanent home. Executive Director Kristin Makholm, who took on her position little over a year and a half ago, says each show she puts together presents another opportunity for her – and the public – to get to know the MMAA collection better.

I just went through it and looked at which portraits stood out. Some were obvious from the beginning – works by Chuck Close, Gordon Parks, Andy Warhol. My goal was partly to highlight the top pieces of our collection but also help the public connect to that collection as a body of work. It’s a portrait of the collection. So when you come in here you can see a variety of things that constitute the MMAA, because many people don’t know the collection.

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Nicholas R. Brewer (1857-1949), Portrait of Mrs. John Kiser, c. 1910, Oil on canvas, 43 ¼ x 33 ¼ inches, MMAA

Makholm says the collection has a strength in Minnesota artists past and present, including everyone from Paul Manship to Wing Young Huie, and the “About Face” exhibition places an emphasis on work by Minnesotans.

The earliest works, like the Portrait of Mrs. John Kiser shown above, are typically oil paintings of wealthy people of European heritage. The image is posed, the subject dressed and surrounded by objects that suggest their status as well as their pastimes.

As time passes, we see the inclusion of images of Native American Indians, either captured in photographs out of anthropological fascination (many people believed they were documenting a dying race), or portrayed in brightly colored pencil to advertise a burgeoning railroad.

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Edward Curtis (1868-1952), Two Leggings–Apsaroke, 1908, Photogravure on Japanese paper, 15 5/8 x 11 5/8 inches, MMAA

Over the course of the twentieth century, the images and media continue to transform – from the paintings of Nicholas Brewer and the sculpture of Paul Manship to the pencil drawings of Chuck Close, the photographs of Gordon Parks and the video of Mike Hazard. The faces depicted change, too, from Caucasian land owners to elderly landladies to immigrant business-owners.

Makholm says today’s portraiture presents a much more broadbased, democratic view of who we are:

It’s a fascinating portrait of America, and how we present ourselves. Our culture embraces so many Americans – Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans. But even how we portray a young man, then and now – our image of ourselves has changed. We consider the huge variety of who we are now.

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Frank Big Bear (b. 1953), Nuclear Portrait #2, 1996, Prismacolor pencil on paper, 22 x 33 ½ inches, MMAA

Perhaps even more important than who’s depicted in the portrait is who’s making the portrait. While in the past photos of Native Americans were taken largely by white Americans, now we Frank Big Bear’s portrait paintings to consider, providing us with a very different view. Included in the exhibition are self-portraits by young Hmong-Americans, trying to figure out who exactly they are as they straddle two cultures.

Seeing the dramatic changes in portraiture made over the 20th century leads one to wonder, what will portraits look like in another hundred years?

“About Face” is on exhibition at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts through March 26.

  • Edward A. Fletcher

    Vesna made a portrait of our grandson. It sends a thrill up my back every time I walk by it and his eyes follow me as I pass. My daughter reports that some of the comments about how mysteriously attractive he is that she hears as she eavesdrops on women looking at it make her want to shout out, “He”s MY son.”