Did Australia picture an unsmiling Queen Elizabeth II on its new five-dollar bank note because she’s not hot letting the country out of her kingdom? The Aussie’S desire to be a republic has been brewing for some years now and Elizabeth has shown no sign of relinquishing her reign. Is the portrait revenge?
British art critic Jonathan Jones seems to think, calling it “awkward,” and “just the latest unflattering depiction of Elizabeth II. Artists are falling foul of the fine line between regal myth and obvious lies.”
But wouldn’t pasting a grin on Elizabeth’s face be the lie? Portrait painting, after all, is an interpretation, not an instagram. Since when does an unsmiling face signify anything negative? There are benign states of mind – like thoughtful, caring and prudent – that don’t automatically come with a happy face.
Can it be that Jones is conditioned by the advertising world that plasters everything it sells with toothpaste smiles? Where does that leave sober-faced portraits and reflective expression?
One of Jones’ examples of “lies” in portraying the Queen in paint is Lucien Freud’s 2001 image of her, which the critic deems “somewhat glum.” portrait; although Jones sees her impassivity as a sign of her office, calling her “a decoration of the state, not a real ruler. So, portraitists have to work hard to pretend it is all the things it is not.”
But capturing Elizabeth’s station in life was not Freud’s goal. He doesn’t invent glamour or power in his take on the queen. As he has famously said, portrait painting to him is “a kind of truth-telling exercise.”
How truth-telling? As this column noted when reviewing the Freud portrait of Elizabeth, the image summoned up the portrait in the “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the 1945 flick based on Oscar Wilde’s novel in which a decadent young man swaps his soul to keep his innocent good looks while a portrait of him reveals the truth of his decadence?
Freud’s portrait is like that, except it’s not depravity that he captured, but a played-out queen worn by time. Gone is her starched and coolly remote public persona. It’s as if Freud ripped away the tent of royalty that surrounds her to expose an aged woman pale, grey and shriveled, like a rubber inflatable with all its air let out.
Not unlike his grandfather, Sigmund Freud, pioneer of modern psychoanalysis, Lucien Freud focused on inwardness, even painting people in the nude to get past their protective layers.
A good portrait does that. Bad ones are about surface, outward appearance and yes – smiling. Freud’s beyond-public-image approach is neither a lie nor a laurel. It’s his “truth-telling exercise,” and Jones should have known that.