Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Portrait forms and historical sources: David Holt's Illustrated History paintings at Loop, September 14 - October 6, 2013. 


Third floor portrait display at the Pioneer Memorial Museum, Salt Lake City, Utah

Many of the paintings for my exhibition, Illustrated History, were influenced by my encounters with different historical forms of portraiture and serial displays. An exciting recent discovery was at the Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City, Utah, where portraits of 19th century Mormon pioneers cover the museum's walls (there are over 25,000 in the collection). They include some daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes but most are photographic crayon portraits, which combine elements of both photography and drawing, sometimes with fascinatingly awkward results.

Crayon Portrait, Negative Outline Process, Dark Chamber, from 1891 Annual Encyclopedia, D. Appleton and Co.

crayon portrait example, Florida Dept. Of State Div. of Library and Information Services

My paintings of pioneer women in this exhibition were based loosely on my Utah museum sketches, and on photographs accompanying the biographies in the mammoth four volume collection, Pioneer Women of Faith and Fortitude, published in 1998 by the International Society of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. 

David Holt-sketchbook pages, 4"x 6" each

 David Holt, Pioneer Women, 16"x30", acrylic/canvas, 2013

Another influence for me has been the tradition of portrait miniatures, especially from the 17th and 18th centuries, and their displays (typically together in groups) in museums, such as the display of the Thomson collection of miniatures at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The vast digital collection of miniatures in the Victoria and Albert Museum has been very helpful. Other good sources for Baroque era portraits and costumes have been a flickr photo set of 1,493 images of Tudor and Stuart People, the University of Toronto's  Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection of Hollar's etchings,

 Wenceslaus Hollar, Duchess of Lennox, State 1, 1645, Univ. of Toronto Libraries

and one of my favorite surprise finds, quirky but charming 17th century English Delftware portraits, such as those in the Gardiner Museum in Toronto.  

Gentleman, Brislington Portrait Charger, Delftware, 1690, Gardiner Museum, Toronto

David Holt - sketchbook pages, 4"x 6" each

David Holt, Baroque Heads, 30"x30", acrylic/canvas, 2013

For many years I have worked with subjects from natural history such as primates, fossils, plants, and birds, and have often used antique prints as sources. More recently I have been exploring ethnographic portraits, the history of anthropological museum displays, and representations of world cultures and costumes in early geographic atlases such as Oliver Goldsmith's A History of Earth and Animated Nature, 1848; James Pritchard's Natural History of Man, 1855, and M. F. Maury's New Complete Geography, 1907.

 frontispiece, Maury's New Complete Geography, 1907

Of course the early history of ethnographic representation and display is complex and interwoven with problematic ideas about race, evolution, and the politics of colonial power, which are the focus of much of contemporary postcolonial scholarship. Other modern efforts to correct misconceptions about race include UNESCO's 1978 Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, Stephen Jay Gould's popular but controversial 1981 The Mismeasure of Man, and recent exhibitions such as  Human Zoos, the Invention of the Savage  at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, and the website Gene Watch by the Council for Responsible Genetics. Among others, Raymond Corbey's 1993 article, Ethnographic Showcases, 1870-1930, provides an excellent analysis of the role of the visual aspects of early ethnography (complete illustrated PDF version here).  Practices such as ethnic cleansing and genocide have made use of pseudosciences like eugenics, physiognomy, phrenology, social Darwinism, biological determinism, and criminal atavism, which were propagated in part through the use of ethnographic and racial anthropometry and through comparative and composite portrait photographs such as those made by Francis Galton (1822-1911) and Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909).

 anthropometric photograph of an Andaman child by Maurice Vidal Portman, c.1890s, British Museum 

 composite photographs of "criminal" features by Galton

Lombroso, Pazzi Criminali, from L'uomo delinquente, (Eng. trans. Criminal Man, 1911)

Still, many early publications such as Goldsmith's 1848 A History of Earth and Animated Nature, Auguste Racinet's 1888 Complete Costume History, and Freidrich Justin Bertuch's  Peoples of the World in Costume, c.1800, provide intriguing interpretations of world costume history.

from Oliver Goldsmith's Animated Nature, 1848

Holt- sketchbook pages, 4" x6" each

David Holt, Turbans, 26"x28", acrylic/canvas, 2013

Other of my paintings in the exhibition include portraits and paintings of groups of carved sculpture heads inspired not only by early ethnographic prints, but also by Neolithic and Oceanic sculpture.

 carved head from Borneo, early 20th century,  (Brian Stephenson)

More modern influences include works by artists such as those featured in MOMA's 1959 exhibition, New Images of Man, curated by Peter Selz, that emphasized the existential "human predicament" of the "disquiet man" at the end of World War II.  Quasi archetypal heads by Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti,  Edoardo Paolozzi, Leon Golub, and others such as Adolph Gottlieb (in some of his Pictograph paintings), Lester Johnson, David Park, and Hans Josephson, reveal traces of the monumental, the ancient, the quotidian, and the absurd in various measures.

sculptures by Hans Josephson in the Kesselhaus Josephson

Lester Johnson, Three Men, 1960

David Holt- sketchbook pages, 4" x6" each

David Holt- sketchbook pages, 4" x6" each

David Holt, Head Pair, 5"x7", acrylic/canvas, 2013

David Holt, Head, 6"x6". acrylic/canvas, 2013

Also in the exhibition are paintings derived from photographic records of Native Americans/First Nations peoples from archives such as the Rhinehart Collection at Haskell University, photographic portraits of Civil War officers, school yearbook and class photographs, and numismatic displays.

Images of the paintings for the exhibition can be seen on the Illustrated History page of my website https://sites.google.com/site/davidholtpaintings/.