terça-feira, novembro 17, 2009

From fearing and loving God to being Human

Christianity is erroneously viewed as a family of religious movements where human rights, freedom and tolerance for difference are promoted. Unquestionably, when compared to cultures dominated by other religious movements, the ones that historically embraced Christianity are nowadays the most liberal and more socially modern and civilized. However, the liberal character of the Western World is not a consequence of its religious scenery, but instead of the crescent importance given to the human self when compared to God. One should not forget the atrocities practiced by the Inquisition during the Middle and early Modern Ages. Safe a few exceptions, before the Renaissance period, human representation was culturally forbidden or morally discouraged. Only the production of divine and semi-divine characters was allowed. Italian 15th century humanism initiated the separation between Man and God, where the human self started to be defined. Portraiture started when Man began to look at him self and its equals in order to question its existence beyond God. Painting and imagery played a pivotal role in that observation and in the definition of the human being, together with literature and philosophy. Before the time of Velasquez, Saints and biblical figures were portrayed according to rules very similar to the ones used initially in portraiture. Clothing, objects, artifacts, ornaments, hair or beard styles, the presence of certain animals and features in the evolving landscape were used in the representation of holy scenes and characters in the Catholic world in order to transmit a message to a globally illiterate audience. In Figure 1, a famous scene of the life of Christ is presented, where a Native American is portrayed (the first time in European soil) as one of the Wise Men. The divine is here used to portray the newly discovered Native American, who is elevated among the common men to the status of a holy entity. This concept changed through time. The definition of all that is subjected to the observation of Man is in constant mutation. However, due to the strictness of religion, the defining patterns of the human self is much more susceptible to alteration than the concepts of divine figures. Consequent to this condition of humanity, the rate of change in the forms of doing portraiture is also high.

Figure 1 Adoration of the Magi by the artist Vasco Fernandes (Grão Vasco), 1500-1506 located in the Grão Vasco Museum in Viseu Portugal. The peculiarity of this painting is the way Balthazar is portrayed, not presented as usually as an African, but as a Tupinambá Native American. The painting was finished few years after the discovery of America. Fernandes never visited the Americas and there is no registry of any Native American brought in any Portuguese ship to Europe during the time the painting was performed. Therefore it is possible that Fernandes portrayed the Native American inspired in sketches and written / verbal reports.

Many aspects of portraits have been altered, abolished, reinvented, created and extinguished relatively to the definition of the self since the early periods of portraiture. Those changes can be addressed and analyzed in the point of view of scientific progress, social changes and technological achievements. However, in the context of changes within human societies that altered portraiture, how is the perception of the self altered after being represented and how does it affect the next portrait to be produced?
Modernism is commonly characterized as the artistic movement that enhanced the scattering of the self. As a consequence of overdissecting the human visual image, portraiture was asked to be assumedly more than the direct visual representation of the self, where philosophical, political and literary symbols started to play a major role. A self-portrait is presented in Figure 2, where Claude Cahun portraits her self in 1933 as block of granite with arms. The peace inspires a conceptual interpretation. In modernism, the absence of one clear message in a portrait started to be the rule. In fact, nowadays portraits and art pieces in general present as many messages and symbolisms as the ones that can be identified.
A special focus is given here to portraiture in the Western Culture, but the dynamic character of cultural identity is endogenous to all human societies. Before globalization and the actual period of acceleration of History, cultures evolved slowly in their own niches with minimum interactions with the surrounding environment. The postmodern era embraces the intimate interaction of cultures, not only of the present, but also of the past, and the dynamic transformation of concepts when submitted to different cultural readings. The generation of a subjective symbolism resultant from contemplating Cahun’s self-portrait (Figure 2) is dependent on the cultural background of the viewer. Communicative references present in portraiture may take certain cultures to a mood of ecstasies and have no meaning to different cultures. More than before, when performing portraiture, some artists may not only consider the sitter and its own artistic identity, but may understand the identity and cultural references of audience. Passed is the time when an artist like Picasso never felt forced to explain any of his work to an audience. Today is more and more common to expect a special session from some artists where the used symbols and meanings of a work being presented are explained.


Figure 2 Self-portrait by the French artist Claude Cahun, 1933 located in Galerie 1900/2000 in Paris France. Vintage silver print, 10,8 x 8 cm.

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