The title of the project is The Visionary Academy of Ocular Mentality. You could say that Luca Del Baldo is the academy’s official portraitist. If he paints your portrait, then you have become a member. The title came from Arthur C. Danto, whose portrait Luca had painted.
— John Yau
Some years ago Luca Del Baldo, who is an Italian professional portrait painter, initiated a marvelously imaginative project. Working entirely on his own, outside of any art world institutions, he asked famous art critics, art historians, and philosophers for headshot photographs of themselves, which he used to make paintings. He then shared the paintings with his subjects and told them to comment on the results. His goal was thus not simply to make a portrait, but to establish a relationship with his subject; how that person responds is revealing.
Indeed, many of these subjects responded at length. I know two other portrait artists: at the Clark Institute, the gifted art historian and figurative painter Jonathan Weinberg did my portrait, and more recently Phong Bui, publisher of Brooklyn Rail, did another; he regularly draws portraits using photographs from the subjects of interviews in his journal. But neither of them developed Del Baldo’s systematic style of portraiture.
Del Baldo was inspired to do this project, in part, by his friendship with Arthur C. Danto, which came about after he did a portrait of that philosopher. And I, in turn, learned about him through Danto; when he praised Del Baldo’s portraits, I was intrigued enough to ask Del Baldo also to do mine, and later to meet him on two occasions. For many years we have been close friends, and so he regularly informs me about the progress of this ambitious project. To date he’s done more than 70 such portraits, accompanied by the written commentary provided by his subjects.
Well into the 19th century, making portrait painting was an important activity for European visual artists. Often powerful and famous people wanted images of themselves. But then of course the development of photography changed this situation drastically. Photographs were relatively quick and easy to make, and so soon enough almost everyone could have their own portrait, or even make a self-portrait. And this meant that when ambitious artists like Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso did portraits, they depicted people in their distinctive personal styles, which departed from the mechanical exactitude of the photograph.
Then in the era of Abstract Expressionism, the portrait became a moribund genre. When a corporate CEO or a Catholic bishop retired, sometimes a painted portrait would be commissioned. But such works are generally made by specialists, and not by the most distinguished artists of the day.
Andy Warhol is credited with reviving art world interest in portraits with his commercial work in the 1970s. Working quickly, using Polaroids, he transformed his subjects into celebrities. His college friend, Philip Pearlstein, also made portraits, but in a clinically observational mode, while Alice Neel dove into the emotional depths of her sitters. More recently, of course, a number of other good artists have done portraits.
Nowadays almost everyone is making photographic self-portraits of one form or another. But normally when scholars discuss portraits, they deal with images of other people. And so it’s instructive for them to look at and respond to Del Baldo’s portraits.
Viewing your features in a portrait forces you to see yourself as if in a mirror, in much the same way you view other people. This form of self-consciousness, demanding that you look at yourself from a distance, often is philosophically revealing. Seeing an image of yourself is perhaps like hearing your own voice. You hear yourself all the time but hearing a recording can be surprising. That, at any rate is my experience.
I have read with great fascination many of the commentaries that Del Baldo’s subjects have made on their painted images, which now constitute a large body of writing (they are found on Del Baldo’s website). Knowing a writer’s publications does not always prepare you for the way he or she will reflect on such a portrait.
Some subjects respond in academic terms. The art historian Jonathan Brown relates Del Baldo’s Visionary Academy of Ocular Mentality to the villa built on Lake Como, where the artist maintains his studio, by the Italian humanist Paolo Giovio (1483-1552), in which he housed his collection of portraits of famous people, now lost. The curator Arthur Wheelock notes that in these paintings, faces appear somewhat craggier than in reality due to Del Baldo’s distinctive manner of modeling with bold, unblended brush strokes. The theorist Mieke Bal compares Del Baldo’s image of her to Francesco Goya’s self-portraits.
Slavoj Zizek frames his response to in terms drawn from his reading of Hegel, that “a good portrait resembles the person it portrays more than this person resembles itself — it distills the inner truth of a person covered up by his or her accidental features.” Fredic Jameson, noting that “one’s being-for-others” can be uncomfortable, pronounces himself pleased with his portrait. Boris Groys discusses the importance of Del Baldo’s interpretations of his subjects works, since he doesn’t know most of them personally. He tells us that the painter “obviously take[s] seriously the traditional writer’s claim that the soul is to be found in writing [.]… Thus, he makes a personal interpretation of his model on the ground of his reading of this model’s writings.” But then he asks, “[C]an a writer recognize himself or herself in such a portrait?”
Stephen Greenblatt, the great Shakespeare scholar, in effect reversed the process, going to Google to look for a photographic portrait of Del Baldo. Hal Foster, who “truly hate[s] all pictures of myself” recalled Sigmund Freud’s experience in old age of “catch[ing] sight of a nasty old guy on a train, only to discover that it is his own reflection.” Andreas Huyssen compares Del Baldo’s paintings with Gerhard Richter’s “photopainting,” which “opens up a temporal dimension.” And Andreas Beyer compares Del Baldo’s Academy of portraits painted from afar to Leon Battista Alberti’s encouragement to his 15th-century contemporaries “to mold the faces, the heads of one’s friends in clay, in order to be surrounded by them even though they might be distant.”
Other sitters respond in surprisingly , sometimes painfully, personal ways. Noam Chomsky said that he would comment if it were an image of someone else, but, citing a sense of personal privacy, he felt inhibited about responding to his own image.
Expressing gratitude for what his portrait shows him “temporality and the forms of realism,” James Clifford then notes, . “But having now joined his Academy, I feel a certain melancholy. Where and when are we, this gathering of intellectuals?” John Yau was fascinated because he sees in his portrait “a person I once resembled but don’t really know, at least in this version of him.” The theorist W. J. T. Mitchell looked at his own image with similar astonishment, viewing it as “a writer’s mask, a persona constructed carefully by the agonizing work of arranging words on a page until they seem to capture a truth, convey an insight, or tell a compelling story.”
The art historian T. J. Clark was led to recall unexpectedly encountering one of his favorite former students, who seemed to have at last found happiness. Martin J. Kemp, the noted Leonardo scholar, finds uncanniness in the way that the portrait allows him to be present to visitors at his home, even when he himself is absent. And Michael Ann Holly, another well-known scholar, was brought back to her childhood. As for me, de Baldo’s portrait is very familiar, for I see it every day in my home. And yet the person depicted never ceases to be slightly unfamiliar.
As Del Baldo has said: “I believe that the best contemporary artists are like entomologists of the historical-social reality and know how to choose the right images to synthesize it.” The successful portrait, Hegel says in his 1820s lectures on aesthetics, must “have stamped on it the unity of the spiritual personality, and the spiritual character must be emphasized and made predominant.” It thus can characterize “the individual himself in his most personal inmost being.”
I do not believe, however, that Hegel’s account provides a correct characterization of these portraits. Del Baldo, who is nothing if not ambitious, speaks of his desire to use his “personal research on the human face” to “establish a ‘Socratic’ dialogue, the most sincere and free, at a distance with some of the brilliant minds in the last few years.” He is interested in the relation of the physical appearance of these thinkers, as rendered in his portraits, to what he speaks of as their “souls.” Here, as he well recognizes, Del Baldo raises questions that are not easy to answer. He wants to know “are they […] as I have as I have painted them,” but he also wants to know “how they are towards themselves and the world[?]” Or, he asks enigmatically, “is there something else?”
In a written statement about his portraits, he describes our post-Hegelian situation this way:
In our contemporary society in which the Church no longer has such a fundamental role, the artist doesn’t need to give a religious message [. . .] . [M]an himself is anthropologically changed in a profound manner. The idea of the sacred and divine [has] no reason to exist, the idea of redemption is banned. In this wasteland of simulacra, of cold virtual reality [. . .] painting is now only itself, a shell of flesh mute, deaf and void that will soon be swallowed into the earth. The shock is just that, seeing that body without any “aura,” ready for the morgue, and not for resurrection.
To my surprise, Del Baldo’s insatiable curiosity does not extend to one person: he has not yet portrayed himself.
Note: The quotation by Hegel comes from his Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox. My quotations from Del Baldo come from our correspondence. More information about him, including discussion of his other bodies of work, is on his website.