The portrait has always been a focal point of the arts where the earliest surviving painted portraits aimed to immortalise the dead. The art of portraiture gained prominence in Ancient Greece and Rome with the rise of individualized and realistic portraits that were sometimes even unflattering. Since the Renaissance, even as commissioned portraits became more popular, portraiture has always been looked down on by artists as a lesser form of mimesis art that lacks interpretation. But people have always shown a fascination with faces and portraits as we try to relate to the face looking back at us. Various theorists view portraits as complex constructions of identity that have the ability to express power and status as well as larger social morals and statements.
Belgian artist Francis Al˙ shares this fascination with portraits. Aly spent 15 years looking through flea markets and junk shops in Britain, continental Europe, Mexico and the United States searching for relicas of the minor French painter Jean-Jacques Henner's original painting, now lost, of Saint Fabiola. The portrait depicts Fabiola facing right, her head in profile, hooded in a red veil against a dark background. In 2009, the National Portrait Gallery in London exhibited 300 of Al˙'s collected portraits creating an unexpected, original, and thoughtful installation that filled every inch of the walls.
Stuart Trent by Andre Naude
Stuart Trent by Jaco Benade
This is what inspired Stuart Trent, owner of the Trent Gallery in Pretoria, to begin his own collection of portraits, all with the same subject, himself. Trent began asking South African artists who crossed his path to create portraits within the framework of the Fabiola exhibition as inspiration. The portraits are in various media, sizes and styles and features portraits done by established artists such as Gunther van der Reis, Andre Naude, Diek Grobler, Eric Duplan as well as emerging artists. The portraits, featuring profile, full face and three quarter views, display the likeness, personality and mood of Trent in varying degrees of artistic expression. Trent's collection has grown to 114 artworks by 96 artists in total. The latest additions features Nhlanhla Nhlapho, Greg Scultz, Kristin Hau Yang and John Robberts.
Similar to Al˙'s collection, with the subject unchanging, each portrait is tellingly different in each unique style of interpretation. Interestingly as one looks at each portrait, one takes in the technical ability of each artist (even though some are not executed as well as others) as well as how each artist aimed to capture an element that makes up Stuart Trent.
The National Portrait Gallery focuses on history rather than art, on the status of the sitter rather than the quality or character of a particular image considered as a work of art. Portraits are able to offer viewers a cross section of history of a particular time, place or person. Trent's portraits offer such a cross section of South African artists from the emerging artists to established styles but essentially offers viewers a look into Trent's own art inspired world. Trent plans grow the collection until it is fully fledged. He hopes to one day approach the National Portrait Gallery and donate the collection as a representation of South African artists.