People often describe fine art as “a universal language” and it is true that despite geographical, ethnic and cultural differences, it is natural for humans to enjoy art not because it is necessary for survival, but for art’s own sake. The impulse behind art lies in the pleasure that is derived from conveying the ‘beauty’ that we see and feel around us to an audience. Art in turn colours our perception of the world and our place in it by stimulating us to respond to others observations of beauty with pleasure. Perhaps shared pleasures, much like shared ideas, play a fundamental part in enabling us to co-operate with one another and thrive in our endeavours.
While local aesthetics differ, we have common ideas of what is meant by beauty or ugliness in nature, just as we have shared responses to food, music and fine art. This is not to say we all like the same things, only that we have shared frames of reference. So perhaps it is unsurprising that we often use the same language to describe these different art forms, such as rhythm, tone, shade and colour. It is interesting that there are mathematical similarities between what is considered harmonious to the eye and to the ear.
The various art forms intersect with one another and together they connect us to one another and to the world around us. Human beings share thoughts and feelings, so it follows that we are all capable of empathising with and enjoying shared aesthetic experiences. Artists, like virtuoso musicians or dancers, simply have an unusual ability, honed by hard work, experience and natural ability, to convey those human connections.
So what is the value of fine art in general and portraiture in particular? I believe that when we see the work of great artists, regardless of whether we are looking at abstract or naturalistic art, we are entering the mind of the artist. Fine art, whether drawing or painting, is expressive on a very primal level. Each brush stoke speaks not only of what the artist sees but also of how the artist feels about what he or she sees, whether that be the quality of light piercing turbulent waters in a seascape, or the softness of a young girl’s mouth.
I believe that as human beings we have an innate understanding of the subtlest nuances of expression. The artist’s ability to capture these enables the portrait to resonate across time. The essence of a likeness – so difficult to achieve – is that the portrait artist must not only succeed in capturing the architecture of the face but must also convey the interconnection of fleeting expressions which makes the drawing or painting come to life. Capturing this is mysterious because it is largely subconscious and comes as much from the artist as the subject. Hence every picture is really a portrait of the artist and our ability to connect with it, an affirmation of our humanity.