DELADIER ALMEIDA, by Edward Lucie-Smith
The following essay was written for the catalog of "New Portraits",
exhibited at the John Natsoulas Gallery in December of 2006.
John Singer Sargent, one of the most successful portrait painters of all time, one defined his situation thus: “A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.” In this one hears the weary impatience of a man forced to deal with the caprices of the very rich. Towards the end of his career he rebelled, and vowed to do no more portrait paintings, only drawings. He was by no means the first to regard portrait painting as a kind of slave labor, a reluctant tribute to the vanity of the great. At the same time, however, some of the greatest names in the history of art defined themselves through their activity as portraitists – the list includes Velazquez, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Frans Hals in the 17th century, and Ingres at the beginning of the 19th. All of the painters had to pay fairly strict attention to the wishes of their patrons – almost the only exceptions being those occasions when their subject matter was themselves, or members of their immediate family.
The painter who seems to have marked a decisive turning point in the history of portrait painting was Vincent Van Gogh. In Van Gogh’s celebrated series of self-portraits the desire to create a convincing likeness is overtaken, and overpowered, by the wish to make a completely convincing work of art – a statement not simply about one man, but about the human condition.
This line of development was followed by a number of important early 20th century Modernists, among them the Expressionist artists of Die Brücke and the twin stars of the Vienna Secession, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. A portrait by Klimt recently became the most expensive painting ever sold.
Successors to these artists exist today. Sitters flock to Lucian Freud, no matter how dismal he makes them look. The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, member of a family that has bought work from Freud almost throughout his career, used to tell a story about a visitor mistaking a likeness of her then comparatively youthful self for a likeness of her mother. What counts here is a cult of celebrity – to be painted by Freud is a validation of a new kind. It suggests that the sitter is – almost – as famous as the artist. What does it matter if the Queen of England is shown with a face like a prune, or if she is in fact recognizable chiefly thanks her tiara, which is much more faithful to the facts than the depiction of her face? The painting is an authentic Freud, and that, in the circumstances, is enough. Its creator, validated by much publicity as a genius, counts for more than the monarch.
Yet, while it is considered an honor to be painted by Freud, no matter how dismal the likeness, the art of the painted portrait nevertheless seems to have begun a long side into oblivion. One reason for this is obvious – the triumph of photography. The photograph has now replaced the painting as the standard way of making and preserving a likeness – a situation slyly acknowledged in Andy Warhol’s long series of celebrity portraits made using Polaroid and photo-booth images as templates from which the finished work could be produced with the aid of stencils – often, too, as one understands it from his biographers, with the aid of a small army of helpers.
Given how things are, Deladier Almeida’s passion for making painted portraits not only by purely traditional methods but also with traditional intentions must seem a little quixotic. Almeida’s portraits are not contributions to his own autobiographical record, as the portraits made by the great Modernists, and by successors such as Freud almost invariably are. In creating them, he is clearly more interested in the personality of the sitter, than in the condition of his own psyche. How is his activity to be justified, in the terms of our own time?
A great British collector, the late Sir Robert Sainsbury, famous for his array of works by Francis Bacon and by Giacometti, once said to me that having one’s portrait painted could become addictive – more addictive, he claimed, than one-on-one sessions with a psychoanalyst. I have no experience of psychoanalysis, but plenty of having my portrait painted, drawn or sculpted, and I have to concur. The experience of being looked again, again and again, by an artist fully committed to creating a likeness, is one of the most intense personal interchanges I know.
Essentially the portraits shown here are about looking, and then attempting to translate what has been seen directly into paint. Sometimes Almeida includes scene-setting elements – a good example is the likeness of Clayton Bailey, accompanied by his own robot-like sculptures, and sometimes the subject is shown against a plain background. In neither case is there any pretence that paint is anything other than paint – you can always see the brush-marks clearly, and trace their rhythm and direction. As a spectator you thus participate in the actual formation of the image. One cannot be surprised that so many of the sitters are other artists, the people most likely to appreciate the difficulty and subtlety of this process.
It is interesting that the portraits are accompanied by a few other paintings grouped under the collective title Grand Tour. Their theme is the inability of the contemporary audience to see anything directly and simply for its own sake – without the help of a museum brochure or a camera, most of all a camera. None of the tourists standing outside Buckingham Palace in London is content simply to see it – their experience of being there has to be mediated through some form of digital contraption. Prize [this is the title of the painting I have just described] can be read as despairing. It can also be read as triumphant, as a demonstration of the things that remain outside the realm of photography.
Deladier Almeida is a sort of antii-Canute – where the King Canute of legend wanted to demonstrate to his sycophantic courtiers that the forces of nature could not be held back by a display of royal power, Almeida is recklessly determined to prove that he can triumph over the social and technological forces that have subverted the traditional art of portraiture, and turned it into something that is now chiefly a vehicle for the examination of the artist’s own psyche, and a display of his triumphant ego. Oddly enough, the one person he does not depict naturalistically is himself.
London, November 2006
(Mr. Lucie-Smith's text reproduced here in its entirety with links added.)