The portrait of an artist

Paul Emsley.(Supplied)

Paul Emsley.(Supplied)

One of the highlights of this year's Art Fair will be the showing of London-based South African artist Paul Emsley's portrait of Nelson Mandela.

At last year's event, Emsley's portrait of fellow artist William Kentridge was exhibited and sold to an anonymous buyer, and the superrealistic, larger-than-life image was a talking point of the fair. Later in the year, he was commissioned by the British National Portrait Gallery to paint a portrait of the author VS Naipaul, and the image he created shared the same honest, almost confrontational quality.

Despite the attention and acclaim that his portraits have received, Emsley told the Mail & Guardian that he does not consider himself a traditional "portrait painter", and does not consider himself part of the tradition of portraiture that has been a fundamental element of the history of Western art (and beyond). He says: "As an artist, I am interested in the way light and shade move across an object.
In this regard a human face is no different to a rhino, or a king protea. The face is a landscape." He adds, "Because the portraits are usually larger than life, they have a certain impact. They escape the usual conventions of portraiture."

Despite this approach, where human faces are objects to be sensitively but realistically reproduced, an approach that can be appreciated in his delicate still-life images for which he is also known, Emsley acknowledges that the human face is not a "neutral" subject. "It is a loaded image, the human face. What interests me about the face is that it carries a history. Not just a history of that person. Each face is a tunnel to our ancestors."

There is an interesting paradox at play in Emsley's studied approach to the concrete form of the face and emotional reaction that his images create in the viewer, and Emsley says that people see "meaning" in the works that he did not set out to create. He says, "When I say to people I've just done a portrait of VS Naipaul, there is an interesting reaction. In painting him I treated him as a form, even though I know him as a person. Even though I don't set out to do it, people say the images are searching, penetrating."

His decision to produce a portrait of arguably the world's most iconic leader was made a year and a half ago. "With me being South African, and now doing faces, and faces of prominent people, it seemed natural. And of course I thought of Mandela's age, and my general feeling that there

doesn't seem to be a really good portrait of him. And it's not arrogance, there just isn't one that I think is really good."

"Official" portraiture is bound by conventions and expectations, and the honesty of artists such as Emsley is not welcomed. "People often prefer to be painted by traditional portrait painters," he says.

However, because his portrait was not a commission, he had freedom to approach the work in his own way.

In order to produce the work, Emsley needed to take photographs of Mandela, something that was arranged with the help of the iArt Gallery in October 2009. "There were some difficulties and uncertainties, Mr Mandela being understandably rather tired of being photographed. I was asked not use flash and there was also a small possibility that he would not feel up to coming to the appointment on that particular day.

"When Mr Mandela arrived I was taken in to his office. He was as engaging and warm as I had expected. He had about him a definite atmosphere of benevolent authority. I had to ask him to stop smiling, as my intention was to do a fairly 'serious' portrait. I managed 14 photographs. In the first group he was still smiling but in the second there remained a half-smile as he became more serious; these were the most successful as the later shots were perhaps a little gloomy."

With these photographs, Emsley started work on the portrait. Despite the realism of the final image, the portrait is not a "copy" of a photograph. Emsley says: "The portrait looks photographic, but there is a difference between the portrait and the photographs. This is partly because of the tiny judgements made between hand and eye. I moved his eye, I moved an ear. If you took a tracing of the photograph and the portrait they would be different. I made aesthetic judgements. It was intuitive.

"It's the way I get the object to disappear into darkness. There is a subtlety that only the hand can achieve."

There is always a risk, when reproducing a well-known image or face, that one will "draw from memory" rather than pay attention to unique detail. "For this portrait I worked from one or two photographs," he says. "I had the portrait in my head before I started. I had his image so clearly in my head. Mandela's face is so well known. Maybe because of this the portrait took less time, but there were pitfalls. I had to make sure it didn't fall into caricature. So although it went quickly, it wasn't particularly easy."

After exhibition at the Joburg Art Fair, and then moving to iArt Gallery in Cape Town from April 6 to 17, the future life of the artwork remains uncertain. Says Emsley: "I'm not selling it. It might be donated to a museum. I haven't decided. This portrait is, in some way, a combination of history and art history. I have to ask the question 'What sort of collection?' A collection of portraits? collection of South African art? And there is always the chance I may do another."

Paul Emsley's portrait of Nelson Mandela will be shown at the Joburg Art Fair from March 26 to 29 and then at iArt Gallery in Cape Town from April 6 to 17.

Lisa Van Wyk

Lisa Van Wyk

Lisa van Wyk is the arts editor, which somehow justifies her looking at pretty pictures all day, reading cool art and culture blogs and having the messiest desk in the office. She likes people who share her passion for art, music, food, wine, travel and all things Turkish. She can't ride a bike, but she can read ancient languages and totally understands the offside rule. Read more from Lisa Van Wyk

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