Presence: The Art of Portrait Sculpture, published to accompany an exhibition on view at the Holburne Museum through September 2, addresses an eerie quality shared by portraiture from antiquity to the present. What ties these three-dimensional works together is an undeniable presence—a strange, life-like quality beneath their stony (or waxy, or wooden, or bronze) surfaces. In this book, Sturgis manages to capture and articulate the uncanniness behind portrait sculpture. Whatever a portrait sculpture’s style (hyper-realistic or subtractive and archetypal), when we come face-to-face with one, we succumb to an almost uncomfortable sensation as we try to reconcile the sentient presence we feel with our knowledge that the work is, in fact, inanimate. This sense of presence, and fear of it, in inanimate objects has been a subject of great fascination throughout time. From Hoffman’s Olimpia in “The Sandman” to Blade Runner’s replicants, to the wax figures of Madame Tussauds, there are many examples of our obsession with the thin dividing line between animate and inanimate, real and unreal. This quality, this presence, this ambiguity, lies behind the powerful and endlessly captivating power of portrait sculpture, which Sturgis demonstrates in his comprehensive survey of three-dimensional portraits.
Divided into chapters covering various elements and themes of portrait sculpture, Presence draws parallels between the sculpture of the past and present and between mediums—parallels united through the ability to emit a presence. Portrait sculpture maintains strong connections to the past, and it has always been reflective of cultural ideology and perhaps even human psychology. Sturgis discusses the roots of portrait sculpture in antiquity, noting, for example, the paradoxical nature of Greek and Roman portraiture, with their idealistic and “veristic” representations of the human form—a dichotomy that has carried over into contemporary sculpture. There is an undeniable connection between the pristine Westmacott Athlete (1st century CE) and Don Brown’s idealized likeness of his wife, Yoko XXI (2008). Similarly, the unforgiving realism of death masks—plaster casts of the deceased—find contemporary resonance in Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad (1958), his highly realistic silicone sculpture of his dead father. Our oscillation between the worlds of the real and unreal is quite like our oscillation between these extremes of representation—between the perfect and grotesque—a fact that makes these sculptures seem all the more familiar.
Sturgis pays considerable attention to the important ties between portrait sculpture and death. Even more than in the case of a painted portrait, sculpture is expected to outlast its model; in the case of the death mask, it offers a permanent form to a physical being already decaying. Portrait sculpture, with its “eternal” presence, serves as a constant reminder of mortality. Some of the most striking—even frightening—sculptures in this book appear in the chapters “Death mask, life cast” and “Death and the portrait.” Marc Quinn’s Self (1964)— a refrigerated sculpture of his head cast in nine pints of his own blood—is particularly chilling. The casting process has rendered his features so accurately that it looks as though Quinn himself is emerging from a pool of blood. As long as it is kept intact through refrigeration, the sculpture will permanently preserve one man’s features, at one point in time, rendered in the very substance so essential to his life; left to thaw, the blood will melt and the sculpture will dissolve—a reminder of the fragility and temporal limitations of life.
Presence, beautiful, dark, even grotesque at times, is an intriguing investigation of the uncanny presence in portrait sculptures, objects that, in their strange resemblance to the human form, seem to reflect our nature and mortal fears.
Presence: The Art of Portraiture
by Alexander Sturgis
UK: Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd
96 pages, $25 hardcover