On Representation: The Frailty of Images

On Representation: The Frailty of Images

Portraiture is a notoriously difficult art form. The portraitist is charged with luring us into perceiving, within the It of paint and canvas, of stone or plaster or wood, a majestic You. Though this alone is the drive of any artist, to winnow down all possible forms until only the alluring It remains, an It that beguiles us over and over again into finding something like a You within it.

The essential deed of art determines the process whereby form becomes work. That which confronts me is fulfilled through the encounter through which it enters into the world of things in order to remain incessantly effective, incessantly It—but also infinitely able to become again a You, enchanting and inspiring. It becomes “incarnate”: out of the flood of spaceless and timeless presence it rises to the shore of continued existence. (Buber, 1996,p. 65-66)

The portraitist must carve out a space for a You that vibrates in tandem with, that echoes something of the style of, a You already resolved and thrumming along. The true portrait is thus an empty space, an intimate kingdom awaiting the return of its monarch – in nothingness we find You.

A portrait need not tell us anything about the person it represents. If we seek to learn about a person, gazing at a portrait will tell us very little, save that there once stood a person who, in some moment, resonated in time with this image. We should remember, though, that, just like all art, the portrait is contrived, and intended to serve a purpose. Consider the famed Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth the First, wherein the monarch is not only depicted much younger than her age at the time of painting, but also clutching a rainbow, and adorned in a robe embroidered with eyes and ears. The Rainbow Portrait is full up with symbolism for those who would read it, and it serves a political function. Yet, despite that, in all of its contrivance, allusion, and propagandizing, the Rainbow Portrait still presents us with the image of a woman gazing out upon us.

The setting, dress, and symbology may all speak to us if we understand their language, those elements may all answer some of our questions. Indeed, they may tell us a good deal about the position of the sitter in society, their rank, their importance, their economic status. A portrait may tell us something about the daily life of the sitter, of their most basic relation to the world around them, and yet… What the portrait truly does is ask a question, is always asking, “How am I?” Falling into the You within the It, we live the answer. While all of art beguiles in some similar fashion, with the portrait we are constantly reminded that here, in this case, a being was, not simply imagined, or deduced as some theoretical potential, but present. The better the portrait, the more forcefully the question is asked, the more intensely the confrontation between the incessant It and the enchanting You is realized through our gaze.

Touch pencil to paper; record the image of a tree. Now gaze upon your transcription. What have you recorded in your image? “I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground,” (Buber, 1996, p. 58). Something of the manner of the form is revealed to our gaze, a simple assemblage of form and light.

 I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law—those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate. (Buber, 1996, p. 57-58)

The tree becomes an image, a series of shapes, the expression of natural laws. It falls into representation and remains fixed there. “Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition,” (Buber, 1996, p. 58).

Yet, of course, it is possible for something else to occur: “it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me,” (Buber, 1996, p. 58). Through the It, we have apprehended, suddenly, a You. “The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I deal with it—only differently” (Buber, 1996, p. 58). Has any of that fallen into the paper you have before you? Have your lines drawn forth a confrontation?

 Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself. (Buber, 1996, p. 58-59)

Have you produced an encounter? Have you transcribed it into lines on paper? Such is the portrait.

The portraitist is charged with representing the unrepresentable, for nothing of the You can be captured through the It, though the world of It is the gateway. “The It is the chrysalis, the You the butterfly. Only it is not always as if these states took turns so nearly; often it is an intricately entangled series of events that is tortuously dual,” (Buber, 1996, p. 69). The image, the portrait, oscillates before us and must always fall back into the world of It. Yet, if there is in it something of an encounter, a You may flicker through, and we will find ourselves again in relation. “All actual life is encounter,” (Buber, 1996, p. 62). The portrait presents us over and over again with an encounter, a very precise and incisive encounter.

Consider John Singer Sargent’s famous Madame X. The composition is simple, a central figure in a dark dress looks over her left shoulder. Her right hand grips the edge of a table, in her left hand she holds a fan and gathers a few folds of her dress. Her expression is vague, almost neutral, save for a slight tightness of her lips and the curve of her brow. Pause a moment, though, and examine her more thoroughly, notice the sinews of her neck, just sharp enough to cast a pale shadow, then return again to her right hand and notice its position, and the twist of the arm. Stand up and replicate the pose. Place your hand upon the surface of a table and turn your arm to match hers. Look over your left shoulder. That moment, preserved in the portrait, of seeming repose, is transformed in your flesh. Tension arcs through your chest, coiling up your arm and through your throat. Look again at the portrait. Notice the flush of red in the figure’s ear. What are we looking at in this image? What has Sargent transcribed to canvas in this portrait?

Do we glimpse something of this woman, something of her manner? What has happened out of frame that has caused her to ripple with quiet tension? The cool, pale, serene expanse of her breast slides into the sudden blackness of her dress. In Madame X we encounter something hidden, something that slips from view, and lingers somewhere beyond the edge of the frame. Yet, the portrait is cavernous. It draws us in and we strain to fill it. How clever of Sargent to present us with an image so perfectly vacant, hollow. How can we help but take up residence, fill it out with all of our muscularity? Out of the confrontation with an undeniable It, we burst forth with an effulgent You.

In 1500, Albrecht Durer completed his Self Portrait at the Age of 28. Again, the composition is quite simple. The figure is centrally placed, he stares straight ahead at the viewer , his shoulders squared. His right hand gently holds the fur collar of his coat closed, his left arm indicated by the edge of his sleeve just peaking over the bottom of the frame. The painting relies heavily on chiaroscuro, the figure emerges from a dark ground and is indicated in planes of light carving out a narrow, angular face with large, widely spaced sloe eyes under arcing brows. His lips are full and dark, and framed by a carefully styled mustache and beard. A birthmark or blemish sits on his right cheek, under the corner of his eye. The face is not entirely attractive, an effect which is compounded by the odd rendering of his tightly curled hair. Yet, even though the expression is impassive, meeting the gaze of the portrait (if it is sensible to speak of a thing of paint and cloth and wood as having a gaze) it is near impossible not to see something twinkling within it. The rendering of the eyes, with all of their precise highlights, certainly pushes us toward seeing something profound within the image yet we can cannot deny that however beguiling, the portrait remains an It.

Again, this is a painting of an encounter. The viewer enters into a relation by gazing at the portrait, and comes to encounter a You, however briefly, flashing from within an interminable It. Perhaps this portrait no longer looks audacious to us, as it would have when it was painted. The figure meets our gaze, which in the time and place that it was painted, was an act reserved only for images of Christ. Notice, too, the awkwardly positioned right hand: Durer has, in that odd pose, echoed the gesture of benediction. Durer created a self-portrait that was designed to challenge the viewer, and assert that by gazing upon his own face, one was gazing upon a figure as important as Christ’s. It is a prideful image. Do we see that pride today? Do those arcing brows and angular planes tell us of the self-assurance of the man who drew them forth into being?

Even if it remains vague, there is an immediate sense of understanding when we allow ourselves to enter into an encounter. Sargent’s Madame X and Durer’s Self Portrait of the Artist as the Age of 28 may tell us very little about the actual beings after whom they are patterned, yet, if we encounter them, and fall into them, and find within them a hidden You, we have in ourselves some kind of knowing. We come away with a knowledge, however unstructured, of a being, or a way of being, that we encountered. We establish a relation through encounter, a positioning of ourselves in correspondence with something else.

Within the basic representation of the portrait lurks a fundamental abstraction: the You can never be represented, nor the encounter, nor the relation. The You, and everything that it entails, can only be given abstractly, obliquely, vaguely. We, through encounter and relation, transform the abstraction and recognize something like an interior life. Opening ourselves up to encounter, we move through the simple It of representation, into the exclusivity of the You. We orient ourselves toward the apprehension of the You, we go in search of it, and it is an act both of will and submission to find it. For though we must both seek out the You and acknowledge it, we, in turn, submit ourselves to the You we encounter and transform under its gaze.

The being of the You can never be represented. It defies the logic of representation, that would equate and exchange the simulacra for the original object. Representation only functions as an extension of the It-world: it serves as a deliberately contrived point of entry into encounter, but it itself can never equate or exchange itself with the encounter, or with the You that drifts behind it. The encounter remains outside of representation, and the immersion into the You is beyond its reach. The You cannot enter into a system of exchange or equivalence because it remains always exclusive, outside of the realm of value. Attempts to commodify any you are the product of the failure to recognize the You, and force it back into the It-world.

As the successful portrait demonstrates, the You stands outside of the reach of representation, it stands instead within pure presentation. We apprehend the You fully in its majesty without any mediation: it is an act of relation, one to one. “Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons” (Buber, 1996, p. 112), we appear under the gaze of the other, as the other appears under ours. The act of relation defies representation, and can only emerge through pure presentation itself.

 Whoever stands in relation, participates in actuality; that is, in a being that is neither merely a part of him nor merely outside him. All actuality is an activity in which I participate without being able to appropriate it. Where there is no participation, there is no actuality. (Buber, 1996, p. 113)

Form itself, shape and image and light, is the mere assemblage of objects. By entering into relation, we move beyond form and participate in actuality, in the reality of being. Representation may present us with the image, but it can never present us with the relationship. We ourselves must recognize the You and enter into relationship with it: only then do we know.



Buber, M. (1996). I and Thou. (W. Kaufman, trans.) New York: Touchstone. (Original work published 1970)


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  1. Forgive me for asking an obvious question, but: how does this relate to images of divine beings? Because such images are especially important in my own cultus, this is an essential question…

    I’m also reminded of what I’ve heard in relation to darshan of a particularly important murti in HIndu tradition: one goes on a pilgrimage not so that one can see the image of the deity, but instead so that the image of the deity can see the person who went on pilgrimage. This relocation of agency in the image rather than in the pilgrim has some really profound implications for animist and polytheist frameworks, I think…and yet, all too often, we see the images not as ensouled or inhabited by the eyes and ears and receiving mouths of our deities, but instead as mere “its.”

    • julianbetkowski

      Well, I get in to that in the second essay, which will be appearing next week… I think that there is a bit of a tension between the idea of the icon as a means of encounter with the God, and the idea of the icon as constituting the body of the God. An icon functions more richly than a portrait, but the general logic, I assert, remains the same. The icon, like the portrait, points us toward a particular being. In the case of the icon, there is the potential for the God to look back at us, as well, as you mention.

    • Julian

      I have been feeling like I owe you a better response than I initially offered, and in truth, since I wrote the second article in this series, which follows pretty closely upon the logic of this first one, my thoughts have shifted a bit. I still stand by the piece that I wrote, due to appear soon, but I want to spend some time here exploring some of the difficulties that icons and divine representations present.

      I have essentially laid out an argument suggesting the the true being of the person represented in a portrait is beyond the representational powers of the portrait; that the portrait is at best a gateway to encounter. I hold by this statement when it is transposed onto the idea of icons. The icon can never represent the God toward which it points in any robust way. The icon is necessarily a mean representation. Both aniconic and naturalistic representations of the Gods fall quite short (and so, from my own position, I would tend to prefer aniconic representations of the Gods because I feel that they are more honest regarding the actual abilities of representation – not because they are more honest representations of the Gods). In as much as the Gods can be represented at all, the icon serves as a point of encounter. However, that point of encounter is not necessarily an icon.

      An element of the natural world, which has no contrived role as a facilitator of divine encounter, can serve as a gateway. A comic book, a TV show, a movie, et. al, can each serve as gateways to encounter even if, contrived as they are, they are not deliberately constructed with the intent of directing us to divine encounter. The power of the icon that truly sets it apart from these, for lack of a better term, accidental gateways, is that it is contextualized by a larger religious framework. The icon’s power to induce encounter is reinforced and heightened by its greater religious context and utilization.

      The portrait, of course, has its own context, which can be vital for us to interpret it, and in this way, it serves as an analogy again for the icon, the use and interpretation of which is understood through its religious context. I think that problems begin to emerge, though, when the point of encounter is conflated with the encounter itself. I am concerned with the problem of the substitution error, when the sunset, or the painting, or the movie is ascribed the full presence and powers of the Gods that we encounter through them. This is why I think that context is absolutely vital, and that part of what makes a religion, and what makes it sensible to speak of religion, is community and history, as well as an orientation toward the future.