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One face, many facets

Don Bachardy is the author, most recently, of "Stars in My Eyes." His drawings and paintings are in major art museums, including the Metropolitan in New York and London's National Portrait Gallery.

This book is like no other I know. It is a collection of portraits of one person, the writer and art critic James Lord, by 24 artists, several world famous and several unknown to me. The portraits -- mostly drawings or paintings, some photographs and one sculpted head -- are accompanied by Lord’s account of the sittings themselves and the circumstances that led up to them. I have often imagined what delights there could be in a book written by a portrait artist -- such as Sargent, Whistler, Velazquez, Goya, Hals or Klimt -- that described his sittings with a selection of his subjects, whether famous or not, young or old, cooperative or difficult. Whereas there are many artists who might have written about their sittings with various subjects but didn’t, there are far fewer people who, like Lord, have sat for many artists -- besides some royal figures, perhaps the only contenders are Lady Ottoline Morrell and Edith Sitwell -- and relatively few nowadays who have sat for any artist at all, since most portraitists today work from photographs.

I am often asked by someone coming to sit for the first time: “What will be expected of me and how can I prepare for the experience?” This book would be the ideal primer for a prospective sitter. And it would supply him or her with an ample sense of the magnitude of the occasion, something I would be reluctant even to imply. Though I rejoice in the significance Lord still finds in portraiture, I would certainly be embarrassed to tell a prospective sitter that what we will be doing together “deals in the lovely illusion of deathless duration.” And I am sure my sitter would be scared off altogether by Lord’s idea that the subject of a portrait “gazes outward in the hope of getting out, so to speak, alive.” “But he never will,” Lord continues, “having relinquished his identity to the whim of the artist, who is also a prisoner of the creation, for as his hand has worked to capture the presence of the model a vital part of the substance of his own life has flowed away from him forever into his work.” That last idea frightens even me, though I will support it and am also willing to believe that it’s true. To the charge of being “a prisoner of the creation,” I plead guilty.

In recounting his experiences with each of his portraitists -- the sittings range over close to 60 years of his life -- Lord provides himself with an effective structure for an oblique but deft memoir in which he reveals much about his own personality and his unusual life. It has been largely devoted to art and artists -- to meeting them and inspecting their work and writing books about both, along with art reviews and essays for art catalogs. (“A Giacometti Portrait,” Lord’s small volume about being painted by Alberto Giacometti, is a day-by-day account of the many sittings the artist required before he was satisfied with the result.) Lord’s privileged background is implied rather than stated, but however acquired, a quality education and a lack of financial worries are distinct advantages in the pursuit of a career dedicated to art, whether making it, collecting it or writing about it.

Lord’s interest in art began with a visit to the Picasso retrospective mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in 1939. Five years later, when, as a serviceman in World War II, he was on leave in Paris, he had the temerity to knock on Picasso’s door without an introduction. Belying the artist’s dauntingly forceful and sometimes fierce public image, Picasso not only received him kindly but granted his request for a portrait. An indifferent pencil drawing on which Picasso spent only a few minutes, it nevertheless has the master’s signature as well as an inscription to Lord, who took the drawing away with him. On Lord’s second visit to Paris a few months later, Picasso received him again and at his request did a second and better drawing of him, this time deigning to achieve a likeness. Lord took this drawing away with him too. (Since he makes no mention of money changing hands, I assume both portraits were gifts.)

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Beginner’s luck. Lord makes the claim that he never again asked an artist to portray him: “With the perverse exception of Balthus [who did three pencil portraits of Lord in exchange for a carpet that had belonged to Lord’s grandmother], portraits seemed to materialize because I was so often before the eyes of artists.” Indeed, this book includes, besides the two Picasso drawings, portraits of Lord by Giacometti, Jean Cocteau, Dora Maar, Lucian Freud, Theophilus Brown and Henri Cartier-Bresson as well as several excellent drawings and paintings by less known but thoroughly accomplished artists, whose portraits of him are sometimes better than those of the art stars. Lord speculates that perhaps the others were “tempted because Picasso had already drawn me, that fact proving so frequently persuasive.” (A competent drawing by an unknown Russian street artist whom Lord selected from among several exhibiting their portraits in a St. Petersburg square is included in the book and may be deemed an exception to Lord’s claim.)

Lord’s concise prose portraits of each of his recorders are often vivid and memorable, particularly those of Giacometti, relentlessly dissatisfied with his efforts and repeatedly painting over his work of the previous day or starting again from scratch, and the elusive and mysterious faux-aristocrat Balthus, a teasing tormentor who made Lord wait months for the fulfillment of their bargain, a sitting to recompense Lord for that carpet, which had long since been doing service in Balthus’ castle at Chassy. After Lord was finally invited for a few days’ visit, Balthus contrived to postpone their sitting until the last possible moment, but then did three drawings of Lord and insisted that Lord take all of them.

An account of Lord’s friendship with Cartier-Bresson, one of three photographers whose portraits of Lord are reproduced in this book, provides the context for Lord’s opinion of the photographic portrait as a rival of the artist’s painted or drawn portrait. “The photographer ... is at the mercy, so to speak, of his machine. Henri has entitled one of his volumes of photographs The Decisive Moment. The decision is made by the camera. It becomes momentous after the fact, not before, according to the aesthetic discretion of the photographer, who selects the decisive image from amongst an indeterminate quantity of negatives. There is no getting round the vital gap between what the mind thinks it sees and what the eye actually perceives, and it is this impassable gap which forever differentiates the static fixity of a photographic image from the tremulous mutability of a work of art, which from century to century, if not from hour to hour, is never the same.”

In recent years, photography has enjoyed a steady ascendancy as an accepted art form, evidenced in part by the increasing number of photographic exhibitions in art galleries and museums that were once devoted exclusively to paintings, drawings and sculpture. I am encouraged to know that one as informed in aesthetic values as Lord shares an opinion similar to my own of the difference between art and photography. However (and it seems almost blasphemous, as well as traitorous to my own beliefs), were it not for the few photographs of Lord in this book -- most particularly Cartier-Bresson’s arresting version -- I doubt I would know clearly from the drawings and paintings and one sculpted head just what Lord looked like at any age. I read his book from first page to last without skipping forward, and until I saw the Cartier-Bresson photograph, which appears a little more than halfway through, I wasn’t sure I could have identified Lord in a police lineup of similar physical types. Yet Lord tells us that Cartier-Bresson himself “would have been the first to see incomparably less in it [his photograph of Lord] than in a drawing by Alberto [Giacometti] or Balthus. It was just at this moment, indeed, that Henri turned decisively away from photography after a lifetime as ‘the greatest photographer of modern times’ ” -- in favor of drawing portraits of people from life instead of using his camera.

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Cartier-Bresson’s drawing of Lord, done not long after the photograph was taken, is reproduced a few pages later, and it is one of the weakest portraits in the entire collection. With all his skill and fame as a photographer, it is ironic that Cartier-Bresson finally chose instead to pursue his far more modest gifts as a draftsman. He also held exhibitions of his drawings, as though unwilling or unable to see their inferiority to his photographs of people. He even asked Lord to write an essay for a catalog of his drawings. “I determined insofar as possible,” Lord writes, “to say nothing I did not believe to be true about Henri’s drawings themselves and his pursuit of honest draftsmanship. This was far from easy, but with the careful camouflage of florid rhetoric I came tolerably close to my intention while seeming to assert that Henri’s drawings deserved discerning appreciation.” Despite my choice of Cartier-Bresson’s photograph as the most revealing likeness of Lord in the book, I haven’t lost my belief in portraits drawn or painted from life; it simply challenges me further to achieve the character and aliveness of Cartier-Bresson’s best photographic portraits, but without a camera.

Lord doesn’t blindly praise every nonphotographic portrait of himself, nor do I agree with each assessment he makes, whether approving or dismissive. Though often personal, his standards are high, and he even admits that the portrait by Roger Gindertael, which he considers good (I, too, think it’s one of the better portraits), is one he doesn’t want to live with. The charcoal drawing of him by Paul Mondain he keeps in a portfolio rather than framed and hanging on the wall. “I occasionally lift the drawing from its portfolio and wistfully gaze at it like the illustration of some story about the fanciful, long-forgotten adventures of some anonymous youth. There is no metaphysical statement here. The portrait’s paradox, indeed, resides in the mystery of relations between artist and model, model and artist, and the semblance -- a semblance only -- of idealization with an image which in reality owed very little to the overt conduct of either. The mystery turned out to be superficial, trivial, perverse.... [T]here is no self within the image to interrogate my own searching gaze. From the frontier of the quest I come back to myself unfulfilled.” I like knowing that someone cares enough about a portrait to search it for something metaphysical and also considers the effect on it of the conduct, overt or subtle, of both artist and subject during its making. I particularly like the subject of a portrait demanding an interrogation from his own image.

Of the three drawings Balthus did of him, Lord devotes an entire paragraph to what he regards as the almost complete failure of the first and ends his complaints with the following: “All in all, likeness left to indifference, the drawing is no portrait but a roughly executed representation of a male head, looking very like that of an anonymous ruffian or, perhaps, a man recently released from prison. If this were the product of Balthus’s inclination to tease, and to use creative originality to express a lack of esteem, then I thought he’d done well.” He then turns to the other two, both profiles of the same side of Lord’s face, one a head only and the other with a hint of a neck and shoulder line. Lord’s lavish praise of them seems undeserved to me and a refutation of his beloved Giacometti, the one artist out of the 24 in the book whom he clearly most trusts and admires. “Alberto often remarked that a profile could not be a satisfactory portrait because it inevitably lacked the life of the model’s gaze. But I believe that Balthus’s drawing of my profile, my head alone, would have roused Alberto’s astonishment and admiration by bringing to life not only what is visible but also what is unseen though at the same time a vital element of the entire aesthetic experience.” I agree with Giacometti’s dissatisfaction with profiles and don’t believe that Lord could have persuaded him to admire either of Balthus’ attempts, nor do I feel that Balthus has brought to life that unseen side of Lord’s face.

Lord’s fine-tuned handling of the personalities and behavior of his artist friends, his appreciation for detail and nuance, his knowledge of his subject and the candor of his observations (regarding himself as well as each artist) should make this book of interest to any reader curious to know more about the idiosyncratic world of artists and collectors. I don’t know another that offers such a penetrating and convincing account of it, and even novices in the graphic arts will enjoy inspecting and judging for themselves the interpretations of a specific face and personality and choosing their favorites. Mine are those by Thomas Cordell, Jean-Baptiste Secheret, Theophilus Brown, Youla Chapoval (second drawing only), Sam Szafran and Raymond Mason; and of the three photographers represented, Cartier-Bresson easily gets my vote.


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