What you have to do is look at what you wish to express long enough and with enough attention to discover an aspect of it that has never been seen or described by anyone before. There is something unexplored in everything, because we have grown used to the memory of what others have thought before us about whatever we are looking at…
In his Notes of a Painter, Matisse articulates the modernist approach to memory: time modifies vision, strengthening knowledge of subject beyond what is immediately apparent. Today, Matisse’s inspirational instruction on how to look, absorb and alter memory would do little to stop the impulsive hand reaching for one’s camera (phone). Human memory is fleeting and, in the contemporary digital world, it has become reflex to capture what we are convinced we will forget; prevailing logic assumes photography gives us a ‘better’ memory: it fools us into believing truth can be seen through its detached, mechanical documentation and crisp detail, the objective eye capturing everything the human eye would miss, saving it with precision for recall. The digital archive has become a positivist signifier of legitimacy. Yet, the inability of human memory to memorise the entirety of a moment, an object, a person in a flash is the most accurate and exciting explanation of what memory truly is.
Memory has become a dominated object, or what Georges Bataille called the limit experience2: the photograph/the file ratifies what it represents, it verifies existence, but does not itself live. However, possession of the file does not mean we possess the memory; a photograph, like any type of memory is merely trace, an aide to the way-finding of remembering. As memory is stored, the further removed it is from its source; the consolidation of memory makes it more malleable and more adaptable for use, embedding itself into consciousness, erasing what is unnecessary detail. With biological memory, there is no avoiding the degradation from the original.
The erasure of portraiture from the Fine Arts curriculum reflects the fear and apathy instilled into so many emerging artists: human memory is malleable; it’s much easier and more accurate to snap a photo. In its most basic definition, portraiture is the likeness of a specific individual. It is perhaps the one genre most stifled by an association with ‘correct’ replication of subject, making it feel staid and irrelevant in a world where anyone can produce a likeness in a flash. However, more than mere likeness, those who dare to engage with the portrait understand it as a map that traces the artist’s perception of their sitter, the circumstances that brought them together and the succession of moments that result in the artwork produced. The portrait acts as living memory rather than static replica even if it is hyper-realistically rendered. The digital has complicated our perception of memory and portraiture perfectly placed to open a dialog about how memory actually works.
The excitement of capturing the ephemeral quality of human interaction is obvious in the works Vincent Van Gogh. His memory is unrestrained (typically from working in the moment); his presence affects our perception of his sitter. We are aware that this is a fleeting instance, which is something far more telling than if the work was a definitive statement of character. Van Gogh’s representation of his friend and doctor Paul Ferdinand Gachet gives us the essence of what all portraiture does when it allows itself to be affected by the space and time between artist and sitter in the moment(s) of creation. Etched quickly one June afternoon, just before the artist’s death, its rough, agitated lines and enclosed, flattened space are, of course like all of Van Gogh’s work, not optically accurate, but expressionistically influenced by his relationship to the sitter. In a letter to his sister Wilhelmina, Van Gogh succinctly describes the evocative potential of portraiture: “I should like to paint portraits, which would appear after a century to people, living then as apparitions.”3 We might compare Van Gogh’s notion of apparition to Alain Badiou’s philosophical notion of the initial subtraction.4 In subtraction we are reliant on what we have subtracted from, yet we are left with only part of the original whole – the subtracted suggests a far greater whole. Building on this idea of subtraction, the artist is present through their absence, what they get from the sitter becomes the viewer’s memory.
This is what Marcel Duchamp called the inframince: the trace left by absence. We can further see this in Michael Clark’s portrait of Derek Jarman. So starkly confrontational and raw one cannot help but feel the presence of the artist who is absent in form, but present in his absence. Clark painted this final portrait of the acclaimed filmmaker on card after several sittings with him on the set of his film Blue. Working from photographs, traces of the times he sat with Jarman, Clark creates a composite after-image of his sitter. The affect of memory is present in the image’s construction. The gridded graphite lines that plot out the composition, giving the artist a structure for someone who is no longer physically present. The mottled flecks of paint, like orbs of light upon the sitter’s face, reflect the passage of time. Inscribed with a quote from the poet Lorca (‘Enjoy the luscious landscape of my wound … but hurry! …. time meets us, and we are destroyed’)5, the imposition of the temporal becomes obvious. His gaze suggests the inframince. Jarman is a visionary, but behind his intense gaze is the artist’s presence.
Eileen Hogan’s process unfolds like the process of memory. She describes it as witnessing; her experience and sense are an integral part of the drawn/painted narrative. She explains: ‘Writing notes, making lists, drawing the same things over and over again; gradually, this allowed me to learn what really mattered to me. I find out what I’m thinking through this sort of drawing and I find out what really matters to me through working from memory.’6 Hogan’s dynamic process of knowledge acquisition appears within her worked surfaces and mimics the pathways and processes that memories take as they embed themselves into our consciousness.
The artist’s A Narrated Portrait (2008-2011) is a notebook of drawings, notations and paintings the artist made as she witnessed Anya Sainsbury be interviewed by Cathy Courtney for National Life Stories at the British Library.7 The 2013 version of A Narrated Portrait is digital mixed media: drawing, painting, voice recording and film presented in a digital format.8 The resulting fragments compose a complex assemblage of Sainsbury settling into herself over time. Notations transcribe dialog as well as visual details of colour (‘pale blue shirt’). On one page we find a figure rendered in tight hatch marks indicating how the light falls. On another, a date marks the top of the page, hanging over square brushstrokes of ‘autumn colours’. On the next we find the faceless form of Sainsbury juxtaposed with the meticulous patterning of her shirt, drawn over and over in pen and paint.
The fragments are the traces of the artist’s perception, her subtraction made from the whole of the context. Viewing the entire notebook is a dialog of exploration. The traces speak to one another through their assemblage and show us how both artist and subject are settling into this conversation.
Hogan’s mark-making is an evocative narrative tool; it is literally the artist’s presence and temporal absence. In her Self-Portrait through the wardrobe I (2014) the physical presence of the mark is palpable; created with oil and wax the surface bears the signs of scraping, leaving traces of what once remained. The inanimate is made animate through artistic process and bodily association. Colours and brushwork blur, blend and mingle with crisply delineated fabric folds and crumpled sleeves. This is again Duchamp’s inframince, something he best explained as the warmth of a chair once someone has stood up. To appropriate Jacques Rancière’s reading of Badiou we might also describe this type of mark as an inscription of disappearance.9 Like memory once present, it now only exists as trace.
The actual subject, an arrangement of clothes associates itself with the physical presence of the body and the individual who has chosen their style and arrangement. However, space of the painting is ‘unpeopled’; there is tangible presence of absence. The overlapping sleeves vie for position shoved haphazardly onto a clothing rack with unevenly spaced hangers. Hogan looks at her subjects for a very long time, allowing the subject to sit with her as Matisse advised; the artist’s careful looking becomes part of the artwork narrative.
Hogan’s interest in the notion of trace shows up in the mark-making that maps her perception. Her works are a trace of a particular day, the memory of her experience looking. In Ian Hamilton Finlay walking towards the Roman Garden (2009), Finlay both emerges out of and is simultaneously merged with his garden. Finlay is intrinsically part of the space, his Little Sparta, the garden that he worked on and in for decades. Hogan’s perception of the sitter, as he continually emerges from the hedges is the result of her view, on that day.
The artist powerfully describes the methodology of her process as listening, witnessing and watching the subject settle into themselves over a period of time. Not only do we see Finlay settling in, we see Hogan is settling in as well, her perception, her moments of looking, her memory taking form. More than asking deeply personal questions to penetrate the character, perhaps to limit the experience, Hogan’s memory is unrestricted by the transience of the interaction, the passage of time. Other portraits might render Finlay differently, but it is the artist’s inframince, her presence’s absence that make the portrait limitless. There are bits of a conversation, marks made and erased, paint, gesture, precise line. All of these are momentary traces of memory’s action – all made without limiting the character of the individual. We read these marks, notations and painted surfaces as moments of passing time, specific instances that are evocative rather than definitive. The subtraction from the whole is much richer than seeing each and every hair on the subject’s head or each blade of grass in his garden. The presence of absence allows for the viewer’s memory to leave new traces.
Bernard Steigler explains that memory ‘is remorselessly – and rapidly – effaced: living memory is fundamentally unstable’10. However, instead of fearing loss, we should embrace the fallibility of memory as the heart of its narrative potential. What is left out leaves gaps for interpretation and living use. Portraiture destabilises memory because it is the trace of a moment(s) of interrogation and exploration by the artist of their sitter and their context. It is the present as it is made, but the past immediately after and always the living memory of an individual observed by another. In portraiture, memory expands to its complex potential, beyond that which is memorised, digitised and categorised. The portrait is not what is captured, but what is learned; it is not a bite of storage, rather it is a network of connections.
Sarah Jaffray is an art historian and educator currently working at the British Museum and Wellcome Collection. After a decade-long career as a tenured professor in Los Angeles, Sarah relocated to London to be with her husband and embarked on a career in museum education. As an expert in modernism, her research is focused on the intersection of artistic process and philosophy.