edited by Wendy Wick Reaves. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, and D Giles Ltd., London, September 2018. 344 p.ill. 9781911282204 (h/c), $35.00.
Reviewed March 2019
The cover image of the new book Beyond the Face is unsettling: a selfie of a young woman in a field, with an emergency vehicle and a plane crash behind her. As a selfie, the image conveys ideas of twenty-first-century sensationalism and narcissism, until the reader discovers that the amateur photographer, Hannah Udren, sent this to her parents to reassure them she was safe after the crash. Juxtaposed with this image, on the back cover, is Alice Neel’s self-portrait at the age of eighty, wrinkled sacks of naked flesh beautifully composed, the paintbrush and her gaze daring the viewer not to admire her artistry and her body. These two images quickly inform the reader that this book offers something new. Although few of the essays actually consider self-portraits, most in fact do offer innovative ways of interpreting the art of portraiture.
Edited by curator emerita Wendy Wick Reaves and published to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the National Portrait Gallery, this book was released to coincide with a symposium held in September 2018 where the authors presented these essays. All focus on American portraiture, but many inherently challenge the notions of what an “American” identity is, an appropriate subject today as the United States engages with issues of immigration and border walls and debates on nationalism and patriotism. The essays begin traditionally enough, focusing on portrait paintings by John Singleton Copley, but presenting them from the perspective of iconoclasm and conservation. Thereafter, the topics quickly shift to focus more on identity politics. Some of the more thought-provoking essays include Jennifer Van Horn on artist Prince Demah, considering the shift in power when a slave holds a paint brush and a white man is a sitter; and Juanita Solano Roa’s investigation of Latino identities in late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century work by photographers in Colombia, Peru, and Mexico.
Many of the essays focus on photography, successfully integrating topics of process and technique with cultural theory. A number of essays also offer intriguing insights into non-white representation, with four in particular considering black identities, such as abolitionist propaganda appropriated by Matthew Brady’s photograph of the scarred back of the slave Gordon, to the isolationist self-presentations of contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems (Nikki Greene’s interpretation of Weems’s photograph Guggenheim Bilbao is brilliant). The book is illustrated beautifully with high-quality color images, and the essays are written in a lucid style that all emphasize art objects. This book is certainly an important contribution to the study of portraiture, and thus appropriate for academic and museum libraries. It will be useful not just for art historians but those interested in identity politics and American cultural history.