Brian Cohen, Man with Eyes Closed (Walter White) (2014)
- Etching, 5 x 5 inches. Edition of 22. Printed and published by Bridge Press, Westminster Station, Vermont. $150.
Recently, while conducting research for an exhibition on the portrait in print, I came across the art historical concept of the tronie.1 A subgenre of portraiture that developed during the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age, tronies described “lifelike images of single, anonymous figures.” Rembrandt was a great exponent, and his etchings of these unidentified sitters include portraits of elderly faces, their expressions and physiognomies explored in loving detail. Surprisingly, the enigmatic Vermeer was also described as a tronie artist when three of his paintings were auctioned as part of the Jacob Dissius collection in 1696. I was compelled to wonder, where are today’s tronie artists? Is the genre of any interest to printmakers in the age of ready photographic imaging? Looking through the submissions to the Prix de Print, I was delighted to discover what appeared to be an example of a tronie—and of a quality that could stand comparison with its antecedents.
I was first struck by the power of the portrait: its superb and skillful control of light, its chiaroscuro silhouette. The head’s emphatic baldness and closed, blank eyes reminded me of a sculptural bust of a Roman senator, compact and powerful, or of portraits of Benito Mussolini. The face hidden in shadow, save for the strong profile of the nose, a pronounced chin and the suggestion of thin, pursed lips, gives the portrait a brooding malevolence and pugnaciousness that signals defiance and aggression. Here is a tronie that in the UK might represent the stock character of the lumpenproletariat, as depicted in Martin Amis’ novel Lionel Asbo.
In the entry’s documentation, the subject is identified as Man with Eyes Closed (Walter White). Of course, there cannot be a portrait of Walter White, the fictional chemistry teacher turned crystal-meth dealer in the American TV series Breaking Bad, only a portrait of the actor Bryan Cranston playing Walter White. The humanist model of portraiture, the authentic translation of an individual’s physical or psychological likeness, is perturbed. As the celebrity portraitist Elizabeth Peyton has said: “When cab drivers ask me what I do, I say, ‘I paint people.’ But then I always want to qualify it a bit.” If, as an artist, your subject is the “faction” of celebrity and fame—the distance between reality and the made-up—then the authenticity of a portrait involves a post-modern trope, so why not reinstate the tronie? Here, as depicted by the artist Brian Cohen, is “the image of a bald middle-aged man, lost, isolated and ignored”—a type whose portrayal can be realized effectively through etching. As one of the few people on the planet never to have seen Breaking Bad, I cannot vouch for the portrait’s accuracy, only its truthfulness.
One of the disadvantages of relying on digital images for the judging process is that important qualities of scale and surface are lost. The inability to examine the surface of the print seems a particular loss in this case. The etching appears to have a succulent and velvety texture, both luscious and grainy. As a nonpractitioner, I can only imagine the pitted etching plate, deeply bitten with aquatint, being inked with the utmost care and sensitivity. This level of skill belies the artist’s statement on his website (consulted after the fact):
I stumble upon less technical and more makeshift approaches to etching. I start out broadly, a little uncontrolled, but with a clear geometric underpinning. I don’t really want to know how the image will look beforehand—too many unexpectedly and potentially satisfying things may happen to exclude the accidental or the momentarily inspired ahead of time.
Viewing the print on a computer, one feels it must be life-sized at least, the scale of the death mask it resembles. Yet five-by-five inches is all it measures—more an Elizabethan miniature than an 18th-century mezzotint “swagger” portrait. At this scale the viewer’s relationship with the image becomes altogether more intimate, a talisman meant to be carried around continually as a reminder of human frailty. The face fills the frame, pushes at the boundaries of the plate that barely contain its energy. On his Huffington Post blog, Cohen quotes favorably, I think, Walter White’s last words: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really—I was alive.” Cohen’s print gives form to this powerful epitaph, this humane realization. Man with Eyes Closed (Walter White) is not only a tour de force of printmaking but a haunting portrait that captures a timeless human personality type—to which I can only imagine Rembrandt would also have responded.
- “Face to Face: British Portrait Prints from the Clifford Chance Art Collection,” Sir John Soane Museum, London 10 Oct 2014 – 24 Jan 2015.