No Shadow Without Sun
There was a Door to which I found no Key
There was a Veil past which I could not see
Edward Fitzgerald, Omar Khayyam, ed I, XXXii
Photography may appear to tell all, but is often at its strongest and most effective when concealing more than it reveals. This is especially so in portraiture, where the process of photography has introduced the concept of the mug shot as part of everyday vocabulary, a desire by society to seek to control and restrain. Whether anthropometric studies of physiognomy, criminal records or passport photos, photographic portraits have revolutionised our understanding and use of the visual images. Yet the history of art is peppered with these sorts of representations, produced as much to document and record as for creative expression. Far from daunting contemporary artists, the long and noble history of portraiture is often the starting point for work which is primarily concerned with the way we perceive and understand images. A portrait in Hatfield House, known as the Rainbow Portrait, depicts Elizabeth I as a god-like figure. Adorned in the finest clothes and wearing exquisite jewellery, she clasps a rainbow in her hand above which is painted the motto ‘non sine sole iris’ (no rainbow without the sun). The rainbow, a traditional symbol of peace derived from the biblical story of God showing his rainbow to Noah after the flood, is only part of the complex symbolism in this ornate painting. The dress is covered with a fine design of eyes and ears, while along the sleeve of her left arm is embroidered a writhing serpent, from whose mouth hangs a jewel in the form of a heart.
There is little doubt that the unattributed artist was setting out to create a commanding image, indicting the power, wealth, intelligence and wisdom of the monarch, taking great pains to spell this out within a recognisable and accepted tradition. Such a portrait, with its weight of symbol and meaning, would appear to be telling all, without veils. Yet this make-believe painting with its plethora of comment and information employs the classic displacement device, diverting attention from any discussion of the sitter’s humanity. For Liz Rideal, the Rainbow portrait is a quintessentially conventional portrait which brilliantly evokes the status and power of the sitter. From it has sprung The Rainbow Series, Rideal’s fourteen paired self-portraits, inspired initially by the amount of emblematic information and suggestion in the Rainbow portrait, and by the magical suggestion that so earthly a figure could hold so elusive a phenomenon as a rainbow in her hand.
For scientists, the rainbow is merely a result of particular weather conditions when sunlight, refracted through water is broken up into its seven component colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. But so prosaic an explanation fails to capture the ethereal spectacle of the rainbow, or to evoke the myths associated with the dramatic but gentle arch of coloured light. Photography – the pencil of light – also breaks up the image into its component parts, and through a sophisticated technical processes, is able to recreate it on paper. The photographer, far from playing God, is part technician, part artist, organising the process to secure the required image.
Despite much discussion to the contrary, photography is still accepted as conveying some element of truth, embodied in the time honoured phase ‘the camera cannot lie’. No such strictures would be placed on the Rainbow portrait. It is clearly a construct carefully devised by the subject as much as by the artist who is facilitating the agenda of the monarch to produce an image representing her power and authority. The portrait probably only vaguely resembled the Queen who is known to have strictly controlled all representations of herself. What, one wonders are the veils, what remains hidden?
It is these sorts of issues which at least in part prompted Liz Rideal to investigate the way the figure can be evoked as much by absence and concealment as by representation – a challenge made even more complex by using a photo-booth, which above all other photographic systems, embodies the notion of the instant ‘snap and tell’ photograph.
Having worked for several years with small, photo-booth images assembled into large compositions, Rideal was often struck by the way casual, accidental shots recording a stray hand or a flash of unintended brilliant colour, could stimulate the imagination. Despite the minimal amount of information, they opened up a discourse in which the fragment challenged the eye and the imagination to construct what is not shown – or concealed. The seven colours of the rainbow form glowing acidic-coloured backdrops to the larger-than-life portraits, and illuminate the figure by colour association with such feelings as danger, melancholy and jealousy. The faces however, concealed behind great swaths of flowing hair tossed about in wild abandon, are blurred and hidden. Far from producing a figure composed and quiet, they evoke movement and passion whilst allowing the figure to remain elusive and evasive. Displayed side-by-side so they can be seen as part of a single image, the effect is both startlingly colourful, and intriguingly dark. Though a rippling sense of movement runs through the series, each remains individual, an independent part of the whole. The prints are suspended on the wall without frames or obvious means, and suggest this is a temporary resting place, while the absence of protecting frames implies fragility and vulnerability. The transient qualities take up the popular concept of the photo-booth as producer of casual and short-lived images usually intended to have only a brief life, even if the process of posing involves a private performance taking place in a small theatre behind closed curtains. A sense of drama pervades The Rainbow Portraits, the performance of the figure evoking an epic narrative. The idea movement and action is taken further in the textural qualities of the prints. Though luscious in colour, they display the grain brought about by enlarging a tiny print measuring 4 x 5cms to ones 51 x 67cms, at which size they cease to be precious, and like the concept of suggested movement caught in the instant flash, celebrate the possibilities of photography.
The documentary mug shot, so endemic a part of modern life, may be thought of as an intrinsic part of the photographic age, yet the idea of depicting figures from different points of view in the same composition is well established within the history of art. Lotto’s famous triple portrait of a jeweller and Kneller’s three sketches of the Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham are notable examples. One of the most successful is HYPERLINK “http://www.abcgallery.com/V/vandyck/vandyck40.html”Van Dyck’s triple portrait of Charles I in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen, in which the artist depicts his patron in profile, full face, and facing the left. It was painted to enable the Italian sculptor Bernini carve a marble bust of the King. Although setting out to record rather than comment, the portrait dazzlingly creates both the appearance of the figure, and gives an uncanny sense of presence of the King . All prefigure the work of the photographer in systematically recording the human head.
The idea of the artist methodically picturing aspects of the head in an apparently objective process, is an intriguing theme for Rideal. In these images, some in the form of diptych and triptych, Rideal further subverts the notion of the photo-booth as a machine dispensing clarity and truth. In Lost Portrait the series of twelve self-portraits appear as if in a filmic sequence in which the figure moves jerkily from one pose to the next as if part of a documentary process, implying a relentless search for some aspect of truth. This search is partially obscured by old damaged glass negatives of portraits placed in front of the lens which interferes with and partly obliterates the image, casting a veil of mystery and intrigue, shielding and camouflaging the face. Although unable to escape the relentless gaze of the camera, the figure retains a sense of her own identity.
In contrast to the figure in Lost Portrait, the women in the portrait Portrait: Fake Fur creates a completely different sort of impression. The sort of veiling and concealment of Lost Portrait is replaced by sharpness and clarity. Yet, in turning her back to the camera, the figure avoids confrontational scrutiny, a purposeful look away evoking an agenda at which we can only guess. The air of sophistication is suggested by the carefully pinned up hair, the simple but elegant hair grip, and the discrete pearl earrings is slightly subverted by the fake fur coat, the collar of which is pulled rakishly up, in a display of casual abandon. The combination of both opulence and sensuality suggests that this figure is out for a good time. The determined stance, of someone presenting their identity in this way, implies both confidence and assurance, a figure with no doubts of her own identity, yet still elusive and inscrutable.
Enigmatic themes, so engaging in Liz Rideal’s work, are pushed in a different direction in the composite image The Balcony. Here, the delicate wrought-iron tracery of the balcony creates a shimmering composition of brilliant whites and deep blacks, evoking the heat and intense light of summer. The photograph of a partly shuttered window from which the image has been derived, is equally enigmatic. Are the shutters half open or half closed, does the wrought-iron offer decoration or protection, is this bedroom or living room? People, though absent, seem not far away. The acute awareness of place, time and atmosphere is suggested rather than stated, it is up to us to make of it what we can. As in all Liz Rideal’s spare minimal work, there is a veil past which one cannot see.
Creative Camera 1994