Read this text for an overview of the theme of identity in art.

The art historical record is filled with images of ourselves. Generally, the further back we go, the more anonymous these visages are. For example, the earliest works of art – crudely chiseled stone sculptures – record the human figure in exaggerated forms.

The Venus of Berekhat Ram is dated to around 230,000 years ago. It and other small stone figures from the same period indicate that artistic expression was part of a pre-homo sapiens culture. There is no evidence of an art instinct: a natural inclination for humans to be creative and perceive our surroundings with an aesthetic sense.

The Venus of Willendorf, dated to about 20,000 years ago, is an archetype of early human expression. The sculpture is remarkable for what is included and what is missing. The female figure's arms are draped over enormous breasts, and the enlarged genitalia, short legs, and exaggerated midriff reinforce the idea of a fertility figure. The tightly patterned headpiece indicates either braided hair or a knit cap. Missing from this extraordinary figure is any hint of facial identity: she may represent a solitary female or the collective idea of womanhood.

The Venus of Willendorf, Paleolithic period.

The Venus of Willendorf, Paleolithic period. Collection of the Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria

These faceless and enigmatic figures persist in art for thousands of years. We see them again in figurines from the Aegean Cycladic culture dated to about 3000 BCE (image below). Their form is standardized, with smooth surface texture, triangular heads, and crossed arms. You can even see a resemblance to these figures in certain modern sculptures, particularly by Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi from the early 20th century. His Sleeping Muse from 1909 is an example.

Ancient Jomon cultures of Japan produced extremely stylized earthenware figures, often female and, similar to the Venus figures of Western Europe, with enlarged breasts and hips but disproportionately short arms and legs. Thought to be ritual figures, the earliest examples are faceless and without adornment. Later examples show generic features with curious insect eyes and more elaborate decoration.

We start to see human figures with individual characteristics during the Old Kingdom dynasties of Egypt in about 2,500 BCE. Reserved for royalty and other high-ranking figures, these portrait sculptures, many times containing a man and woman together, include an emotional connection as they stand or stride forward with their arms around each other. In another example below, an Egyptian scribe sits cross-legged with his palette and papyrus scroll and a hairstyle comparatively similar to that of the Venus of Willendorf. Here we get a much stronger sense of identity and form, with a detailed description of the scribe's facial features, subtle but important rendering of musculature, and even individual fingers and toes, all sculpted in correct proportion and scale.

Egyptian, 'Scribe', 5th dynasty (2500 – 2350 BCE), painted limestone. The Louvre, Paris

Scribe, Egyptian 5th dynasty (2500 – 2350 BCE), painted limestone. Louvre, Paris

Greek vase painting
uses figurative and decorative motifs to illustrate mythic narratives or simply depict scenes from everyday life. Many vases show athletic games, social gatherings, or musical entertainment.

The Romans used painted portraits to commemorate the dead. Commonly known as Fayum mummy portraits, they were created with encaustic or tempera paints on wooden panels and placed over the face of the mummified body. The portraits all show the same stylistic characteristics, including large eyes and individual details, and use only one or two colors. The portrait below shows a young man with curly hair and a light beard. There is also a melancholy psychological element as the figure stares back at us.

Roman, 'Faiyum Mummy Portrait', c.1st century CE. State Collections of Antiquities, Munich

Faiyum Mummy Portrait, c.1st century CE. State Collections of Antiquities, Munich

Perhaps the most famous portrait in the Western world is Leonardo Da Vinci's LaGioconda, more commonly known as the Mona Lisa. The painting embodies many attributes we look for in a portrait: realistic form, detailed rendering of the sitter's features, and an intangible projection of their character. These qualities emanate from the genius and skill of the artist. Her gentle gaze and slight smile have endeared the Mona Lisa to viewers around the world for over 500 years.

Portrait of the Mona Lisa.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503-1519, oil on wood. Louvre, Paris

Portraiture and the figure remain important motifs in modern and contemporary art. Pop artist Andy Warhol used photographs of politicians and Hollywood celebrities to create images that supplant traditional painted portraits and reinforce our idea of brand identity. His diptych of Marilyn Monroe from 1963 signifies her place on popular culture's altar as an icon of beauty and sexuality while alluding to her tragic suicide in 1962. The print's bright colors and rapid-fire images on the left hold our attention, while on the right, we see her fading away into obscurity in black and white. With this staccato image format, Warhol presents us with conflicting alternatives: the ubiquitous nature of celebrity and the fleeting nature of life.

Bruce Nauman's neon sculpture Human/Need/Desire uses words that uncover "fundamental elements of human experience." The pulsating neon sculpture has a trance-like effect as the viewer watches the words change in front of them. The work provides a collective meaning because we can all identify with its message.

The painter Alice Neel's portraits are exceptional as they capture a sitter's likeness and character but with an expressionist edge. She preferred informal poses and used harsh colors and an unerring sense of design in portraits of family, friends, fellow artists, and political personalities.

Finally, in an artistic gesture that redefines what portraiture and self-identity can be, Spanish-born artist Inigo Manglano-Ovalle does away with the figure. His three-panel chromogenic print Glen, Dario, and Tyrone presents the DNA signature of each individual. This work blurs the line between art, science, and technology. Now a portrait is manifest as blobs of color, and its integrity is established by the fact that each series of blobs is genuinely different than any other. This creative idea has even migrated to the marketplace: You can order your own (or someone else's) DNA portrait for the home or office.

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Source: Christopher Gildow,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Last modified: Wednesday, February 14, 2024, 4:12 PM