Michael Hafftka and the (changing) art of portraiture
by Claudia Moscovici
James Abbott McNeill Whistler once stated “It takes a long time for a man to look like his portrait”. A great portrait captures someone’s character, not just a characteristic pose. It isn’t easy for an artist to depict a person’s sense of identity and past in a single image. The contemporary artist Michael Hafftka achieves this challenging task. Hafftka has painted the portraits of numerous leading American figures in the arts–poets, musicians and writers–in an Expressionist manner with a touch of the abstract. While his paintings bear some visual resemblance to the persons he depicts, the artist prioritizes their inner essence and, sometimes, the emotional rapport (with the artist). This is especially the case in his family portrait of his beloved wife (Yonat) and daughter (Raina):
True to the modernist tradition that inspires him, Hafftka is less interested in a photographic, externally realistic representation than he is in conveying in a realist manner their inner landscape. Focused on family, the mother places a protective arm around her daughter, turning to her rather than to the viewer. The daughter, arms folded on her lap, faces the painter–her father–with an open gaze. The mother wears vibrant colors, red lipstick, giving the impression of a forceful personality. The daughter wears a muted pink shirt, expressing her softer, budding femininity. Behind them we see the background of light blue, evoking the sky and perhaps unbounded creativity. Underneath it the artist places a dark grid pattern, almost mathematical since, after all, art requires both imagination and precision.
Centuries ago, kings, queens and members of the aristocracy were the favorite subjects of portrait painters. Today, celebrities–singers and actors–are the new faces of royalty. Recently, Hafftka painted the portrait of the popular singer Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange), featured also on the poster for a concert Devonté is giving in Central Park on Saturday, August 16. If you’ve seen Blood Orange perform on stage or in a music video, you know that he’s not only a great singer but also an agile, accomplished dancer. In his portrait, Hafftka captures the singer’s agility and rhythm even though the subject is sitting down. The position of his hands, one directed upward the other downwards, and the sinuous curve of his torso nonetheless suggest energy and motion. Blood Orange is dressed in a casual teeshirt: the painting manages to convey his simple yet elegant style. In this portrait, as on stage, Blood Orange is recognizable not only through his signature songs but also through his hairstyle and hat. While some rap songs may be ostentatious and aggressive, that’s clearly not Blood Orange’s style. Surrounded by pinkish-mauve hues, the talented singer gives off a vibe of harmony, rhythm and melody.
In the portrait of rapper Zebra Katz (the stage name of Ojay Morgan, image above), Hafftka shows the singer standing straight, poised yet relaxed, in a stance as powerful and defiant as his songs. The rapper’s also dressed simply, in a teeshirt and slacks, but the contrast of red and black draw attention to him nonetheless. The atmosphere around him–palette knife strokes of blue, black and white with only a few touches of yellow and blood red–suggest power and masculinity, perhaps even hinting at potential violence.
Both as an artist and as a person, Michael Hafftka has a special relationship to poetry. This genre goes well with his emotionally charged paintings. The poet Robert Creely argued that art shifts one’s emotional center. He described his collaboration the artist Francesco Clemente as a symbiotic rapport of two artists resonating through different mediums: “Any person reading what I’ve written and seeing what he’s made is moving back and forth between two emotional fields… It’s not a question of understanding the paintings, but of picking up their vibes – more like playing in a band”. Hafftka, who, incidentally, is himself a talented musician as well, has collaborated with several notable poets–including Tom Sleigh, Peter Klappert and Rodger Kamenetz–on art books. His paintings complement the poetry but are not mere illustrations. As the Hafftka states in his introduction of KM4, the book co-authored with the poet Tom Sleigh, he tries to convey through art “his experience of the poem” thus avoiding the trap of describing its content, or as he puts it, “the trap of illustration”.
Given his sensibility for poetry and literature, it’s not surprising that Hafftka has painted the portraits of world-renowned poets and writers, many of whom he considers his friends. His portrait of the American poet Edward Hirsch, who was appointed the fourth President of the Guggenheim Foundation in 2002, seems to capture both sensibility and sorrow. The somber colors of his blue shirt against the dark background convey a sense that this person has suffered a lot. The intelligent, piercing eyes gaze straight at the viewer. The white strokes of the graying hair seem to blend in the luminosity of the face. Time, and life, have weighed heavily upon this sensitive poet, who has gone through and–more remarkably–found a way to express through poetry some of the most difficult experience a parent can go through: the loss of his son, Gabriel, at the young age of 22. Alec Wilkinson, a friend of Edward Hirsch, describes this painful experience in an article published on August 4, 2014 in the New Yorker called, “Finding the Words”.
To convey human suffering through Expressionist art–a style given to exploring the range of human emotions–may seem natural. As I’ve discussed in previous articles, Hafftka, who is himself the son of two Holocaust survivors, finds inspiration in the Expressionist movement as well as in abstract expressionism to depict in his paintings the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators upon countless innocent human beings:
It is, I believe, an even greater challenge to convey this painful historical past in a portrait. Yet Hafftka manages to allude to this experience in his portrait of the poet Irena Klepfisz, who was born in 1941 in the Polish Ghetto and survived, by miracle, by virtue of being hidden with her mother by farmers in the Polish countryside. Klepfisz was only two years old when her father, Michal, a member of the Jewish Labor Bund, was killed on the second day of the Jewish Ghetto uprising, a subject which I have written about in an article called “Heroism in Hell”:
After the war, Klepfisz went on to immigrate first to Sweden and then to the United States, where she studied with the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, founder of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Although she’s known for being a Yiddishist and for her translations of the poets Kadya Molodowsky and Fradl Shtok, Klepfisz, a polyglot, describes her sense of rootlessness, both culturally and linguistically, in the anthology The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology, coedited with Melanie Kaye. In her portrait, Hafftka also focuses on dark blue, as if alluding to Picasso’s blue period, to suggest a darker mood. The poet is standing, her hands folded before her, perhaps with nervous energy, perhaps lost in contemplation. Dressed in blue jeans and a trench coat, her hair white and wearing glasses, she’s appears as the embodiment of today’s American intellectual: casually dressed and approachable, yet at the same time learned and distinguished.
The changing art of portraiture
E. H. Gombrich declared in his monumental history of art, The Story of Art, that “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists”(15). By this he meant that art has no timeless standards of value or beauty; there is no essence that encompasses that which different periods and cultures call artistic. Rather than trying to capture the essence of art, Gombrich focuses instead on the particularity of artistic movements and the accomplishments of individual artists. Hafftka, I believe, is one of the contemporary artists whose legacy will last. His series of portraits usually depict fellow artists working in different fields. They represent a kind of solidarity among the arts as well as feelings of friendship for the accomplished individuals he depicts. They also evoke the now dying tradition of “immortalizing” consecrated writers, musicians and artists. In this sense, Michael Hafftka belongs in a rich and longstanding yet constantly changing tradition of portrait painters.
One of the main functions of art, particularly of the (changing) art of portraiture, was to “immortalize” or, more modestly put, preserve the memory of the person depicted. This tradition dates back to the Egyptians, for whom, however, art had a sacred rather than secular meaning. Simply put, Egyptian artists sought to immortalize the pharaos.Tombs, busts and paintings were used as a means of preserving and glorifying the souls of kings, queens and other privileged members of society. E.H. Gombrich tells us that, appropriately enough, one Egyptian word for sculptor was “He-who-keeps-alive.” Egyptian artists depicted the human figure not as they saw it, nor to express or provoke emotion, but to capture the essence of an important person’s spirit for the afterlife by representing his or her body from its most characteristic angles. The face was shown in profile; the eye from the front; the shoulders and chest from the front; the legs from the side, with the feet seen from the inside and toes pointed upward. (The Story of Art, 60-1). For millennia Egyptian figures had a frozen and immobile, non-expressive look that strove to freeze the souls of powerful men and women in time and to safeguard their happiness in the afterlife.During the Renaissance, artists were often hired by rich and powerful patrons, among which the most important (in Italy) were members of the Medici family, to represent them in a way that expressed their political prestige and left an enduring cultural legacy. Next to having children, art has always been regarded as one of the most important ways to leave a trace of oneself for future generations. Artists themselves often prioritized this means of “reproduction”. As the fourteenth-century artist Giotto di Bondone is said to have replied, partly in jest, when someone asked him why his paintings are so beautiful and his children so ugly, “I paint by daylight but reproduce by the darkness of night.” Nothing immortalizes an individual’s status and power as much as art does.Napoleon Bonaparte realized the political and cultural importance of portraiture. He commissioned France’s leading artists of the Neoclassical period–Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres–to evoke the glory of ancient Rome in order to symbolize his power as Emperor. In the portrait “Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne” (1806), Ingres represents Napoleon with scepter and staff, reigning supreme, in all of his imperial glory.
A few decades later, the Impressionists changed what would be regarded as acceptable subjects for portraiture, a genre formerly reserved mostly to royalty and the aristocracy. Depicting the middle and upper middle classes became a favorite theme for new generations of artists. One of the greatest portrait painters of the nineteenth century, John Singer Sargent, depicted his wealthy patrons, particularly women, in portraits that conveyed their social status, beauty and grace. “Consider the word ‘portrait,’ the critic and philosopher Arthur Danto invites us. “Narrower in its reference than the word ‘picture,’ in the sense that something can be a picture of a generalized woman or tree or apple without representing any specific woman… a portrait is a picture of a particular individual… But portraiture must have involved an even more mysterious achievement, the drawing forth, as it were, of the inner self or soul… Sargent’s personages are, in Lucy Flint’s words, ‘all face and fashion,’ shown as they appear or wanted to appear, as if they had stood before a mirror in which they composed their features, put on their best face, arranged their garments to suit themselves’.” (Arthur Danto, The Nation, February 7, 1987)
Even Warhol’s pop art, while undermining the whole notion of a stable identity in its
infinitely reproducible images, nonetheless immortalizes the “celebrity” status of cultural icons such as Marylin Monroe and Elvis Presley. Michael Hafftka’s portraits of poets, musicians and writers not only offer an homage to the individuals he paints, but also reveal a collaboration among different artistic fields and constitute a celebration of the arts in general.
Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com