Alec Wilkinson, art blog, art history, Blood Orange Hafftka portrait, Claudia Moscovici, Devonté Hynes, E. H. Gombrich, Edward Hirsch portrait by Michael Hafftka, Irena Klepfisz by Michael Hafffka, Michael Hafftka, Michael Hafftka portraits, the art of portraiture, the Holocaust, The New Yorker, the Warsaw Ghetto, Yonat and Raina Hafftka, Zebra Katz
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:
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.