Performing the New Face of Modernism: Anti-Mimetic Portraiture and the American Avant-Garde, 1912-1927
Publication or External Link
At the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1912, Alfred Stieglitz received the final proofs for Gertrude Stein's experimental text portraits "Henri Matisse" and "Pablo Picasso" and subsequently published these poems in the journal Camera Work. Soon afterward a number of visual artists working in the United States began grappling with the implications of such hermetic depictions. Entering into a trans-Atlantic conversation, this fledgling modernist community created radical images that bear witness to the evolving nature of subjectivity and to an extensive culture of experimentation in portraying the individual in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
One of the most salient aspects of the modernist worldview was the desire to break with the past. Earlier styles, exhibition standards, subject matter, and teaching methods all came under attack, but none more basic - and symbolic - than the ancient Greek (via the Renaissance) idea of mimesis. Freed from the expectation to replicate reality "impartially," painters and sculptors began instead to emphasize more and more their own subjective experiences through expressive color choices or formal exaggerations. Portraiture, previously so closely linked to flattering transcription and bourgeois values, became the genre par excellence for testing modernist ideals and practices. This doctoral thesis examines the small group of artists working in the United States who advanced an extreme, anti-mimetic approach to portraiture through the dissociation of the sitter from his or her likeness.
Drawing on performance theory, this dissertation re-imagines the portrait as a series of events within a social nexus. It also aims to reaffirm the agency of the United States avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s as its members sought to establish, and then maintain, their status on the American cultural scene specifically through the employment of unconventional portraiture. Through the contextualization of particular objects, the consideration of period poetry, and the incorporation of newly available archival sources, the research presented here illuminates the complex intersections of modernity, representation, and subjectivity, and charts the changes in a specific mode of visual production during the fifteen-year span of 1912 - 1927, thereby demonstrating Charles Demuth's dictum that "In portraiture...likeness is a means not an end."