Art Talk (February): Face-to-Face in the Wallraf

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Art Talk this month was held at the Wallraf Richartz Museum in Cologne, where Karla gave us a fascinating insight into the history of the portrait from the medieval era right up until the early 20th century.
She began by showing us three religious paintings from the 15th century, a time when painters were considered to be craftsmen rather than artists. These were not portraits in the usual sense but largely paintings of religious iconography where the donor/s had smaller images of themselves included at the feet of the saints or Christ himself. This apparently served as a failsafe in securing salvation for their souls in the afterlife.

Our next stop were the 17th and 18th centuries where the portraits focused entirely on the sitters themselves. Two prominent paintings featured separate portraits of a wine merchant and his wife circa the early 17th century. Here the depiction of affluence was the main objective, as the artist concentrated on the richness of their clothing and the luxuriant nature of their home furnishings-a complete contrast to the modest depictions of the medieval donors. However, the self-importance of this couple paled into insignificance when we viewed the portrait of an 18th century French marchioness. We saw a highly rouged and self possessed young woman lavishly dressed in lace and silk. With one hand resting imperiously on the shoulder of a black slave she clearly presented a testimony to the power of the French empire.

The final section of the talk brought us to the late 19th and early 20th centuries where we observed an impressionist portrait of a young woman rendered in bright playful brush strokes, which proved effective without the need for elaborate detail.

The final painting was a dramatic self-portrait of the silent movie director Georges Melies who presented himself with his head thrust through a canvas. This provoked a certain amount of debate since the meaning of this portrait remains ambiguous.

As always Karla’s discussion was full of fascinating information, and provided an invaluable couple of hours for anyone interested in the subject of art.

Alison Nicol