21 May, 2009

Changing Faces: portraits with a difference

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Following the row over the Manic Street Preachers’ album cover, it’s time we opened the debate about disfigurement in art

The human face is one of nature’s miracles. It can express emotion with a smile or a grimace, and acts as a window between mind and world. No wonder portraiture is one of the oldest arts, and one that shows no sign of disappearing. From ancient Roman faces carved in marble to digital photography and the paintings of Gerhard Richter, the portrait is a meditation on physical embodiment, as well as a record of people, places and eras.

A public discussion this week examines the portrait from a new perspective. Recently the campaigning group Changing Faces commissioned three portraits of people living with disfigurement. The paintings – and wider issues about art, aesthetics and difference – will be discussed at Face to Face: Looking at and Portraying Disfigurement, a panel event at the Mall galleries in London. Speakers include James Partridge, founder of Changing Faces; Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait gallery; Alastair Adams, president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters; Mark Cranc, who has spoken about his experience of disfigurement in the media, and me. It’s a debate that should interest not just those with a therapeutic or personal investment in attitudes to different-looking faces, but also anyone who’s interested in portraiture.

This is scarcely a remote issue. Just last week a painting by Jenny Saville of a girl with a large birthmark on the side of her face (which looked to me at first like a boy with a bloody nose) was judged too shocking to be shown in supermarkets on the cover of the new Manic Street Preachers album. Disfigurement is still surrounded by prejudice and fear, and while other social attitudes have advanced, it’s arguable that our responses to faces that appear different are still very primitive.

I’ll report in detail on the discussion later in the week, but it’s worth noting for now that the portraits form part of this year’s annual exhibition by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. It’s appropriate, for here is a theme that can make the painted portrait acutely relevant again.

– Face to Face is at 7pm this Tuesday, 19 May, at the Mall galleries, The Mall, London, SW1. Go to the Changing Faces website for further details, or just turn up.

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