Ghent exhibition breathes new life into portrait art


The museum for contemporary art, Smak, showcases nine international artists whose work acts as a metaphor for human existence in a complex world

Take a second look

In a world of ubiquitous digital photography, Instagram and Photoshop, portrait art is often thought of as a thing of the past. The days in which artists invited curious characters into their studios and spent days trying to depict their living subject’s inner gaze seem long gone.

Ghent’s museum for contemporary art, Smak, asks us to reconsider. Introducing us to nine international artists whose work has never been shown on Belgian soil, its exhibition These Strangers... Painting and People attempts to show how portrait art never disappeared but instead took on a new form, in which the human subject depicted is not to be seen as an individual but as a metaphor for human existence in a complex world.

American artist Nicole Eisenman might be the best illustration. In the portrait “Day’s End” she paints a man alone on a bed in an empty dark room, staring at the ceiling while his smartphone recharges, while through the window the new One World Tower soars above New York.

Also from New York, the late American painter Alice Neel might have been the last prominent painter to have used living models, handpicked by the artist herself. Her depictions of people subliminally tackle a multitude of social and political themes like racial and sexual discrimination.

Other highlights include Romanian Victor Man’s portraits in which he mingles references from literature with elements from art history and folklore from Romania. African-American Henry Taylor lifts the taboos on the inner world of patients in the psychiatric centre where he worked as a young man, and East Berlin-born Katharina Wulff depicts cultural confusion in her new home, Marrakech.

Smak convincingly shows how an art form that purportedly went missing still exists and actually offers a pertinent insight in the state of the world.

Until 8 January, Smak, Jan Hoetplein 1, Ghent

Photo: Alice Neel’s “Richard in the Era of Corporation”
© Estate of Alice Neel