Stretching from the 19th century to the present day, Who are you? shows how portraits have developed and changed over the past two hundred years. The exhibition begins with very traditional examples of portraiture – oil paintings and busts. The focus here is on the Austrian aristocracy, with carefully composed pieces that portray the subjects as they wanted to be seen by society, projecting power, leadership and strength. These works are juxtaposed with modern portraits of Graz’s mayors and university rectors – showing that this way of communicating status is still relevant today. Despite the development of photography, which creates such detailed, true-to-life images, paintings have not lost their relevance when it comes to representing hierarchy and function.
But the exhibition also shows that by the 19th century, the aristocracy wasn’t the only social class interested in immortalising itself through portraiture. Industrialisation meant that the bourgeoisie had gained increased influence and wealth – and could also afford to commission oil paintings. Echoing the style of aristocratic portraits, many of these paintings make use of a classical background – this time using new symbols to represent new sources of income. But, for this social class, portraits weren’t only about representation in the public space – the bourgeoisie also commissioned smaller portraits, wax figures, silhouettes and photographs for their families and homes. By showing these pieces, the exhibition reveals how portraiture took on a second role – becoming a memory carrier in the private realm.
Up on the second floor, the exhibition shows the 20th century move away from pure representation – reactions to the development of photography, to the trauma of war, to the exploring of new options in art. A sculpture of an unidentified head is reduced to corners and flat surfaces; bloated heads populate an anonymous city, menacingly reminiscent of children’s drawings; a sculpture by British artist Tony Cragg carves out a revolving collection of heads that appear and disappear as you circle the work; body parts are separated and made abstract; the portrait is pulled apart and reassembled using photography and collage; digital prints of lines, letters and block colours depict fragments of genetic code.
In one room, visitors are confronted with a wall-sized photograph of a digital camera. Turning around, you see the same camera placed at head-height. Then you hear the sound of a clicking shutter and you find yourself featured on the screen to the left of the camera. You become part of the artwork, captured on camera, whether you want it or not. As well as reflecting the dominance of technology in self-portraiture today, the work reminds the viewer of both the permanence and impermanence of today’s images. The screen shows only a limited number of photos that are constantly being replaced. The part you played in the installation is soon no longer visible. And you don’t know where the images are saved, whether they will be reused or simply deleted. The portraits simply disappear and you are left to move on to the next space.
Throughout the exhibition, the gallery has also included the most 21st century of portraits – the selfie. Visitors are encouraged to take photos of themselves as they walk through the rooms and post their pictures on the gallery’s Instagram page – becoming part of the museum’s online presence. The nature of selfies provides a stark contrast to the other media in the exhibition – rather than being a unique item to be treasured, they record individual moments, can be taken in their dozens within a few minutes, then removed and forgotten in a click.
This is an exhibition that encourages you to interact with the pieces while at the same time prompting you to think about where portraiture will go next. Greater abstraction? More technology? Whichever direction the discipline takes, one thing is clear – this is not a field that is going to stagnate any time soon.
You can see the exhibition Who are you? at the Neue Galerie in Graz from 25th May 2017 to 25th February 2018. Located right in the centre of town, the gallery is part of the Universalmuseum Joanneum which is made up of 12 different museums in the Graz area.