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About A Short History of Portraiture

It bears noting at the outset that A Short History of Portraiture is the first part of a much larger project that is modeled upon the idea of a contemporary Canterbury Tales. That the History is an archive of sorts, and therefore theoretically unfinishable, doesn't affect its status within this larger scheme. Part Two of the Tales will concern a man whose professional life was spent in the sewers in Queens, New York. His dedication to his profession will, by the end of his life, have made him one of its great experts. His name is "Saul" and his history is a conflation of an uncle of mine, who was in actuality a plumber. That work, entitled The Book of Saul, is presently being researched, and will include a history of the labyrinthine world of sewer construction, as well as of labyrinths in general. A Short History of Portraiture, seen in the light of The Book of Saul, is thus a kind of Tale of the Collector, whose lineaments can be read between the lines, as it were, of his gathered horde. ["Saul" actually puts in an appearance in the History--the hand holding the cigar is his in the portrait of the Boy with Deformity and Cigar.]

About the Short History itself, of which the display currently on view represents a small, selected version, I believe it can best be approached by emphasizing the two primary activities that bear most upon its production. The first of these is of course the activity of the Collector himself, an activity, in the words of Maurice Rheims, that "is like a game played with utter passion." This particular Collector is of a pedantic nature, and devoted not only to his collection of portraits of the famous and the not so famous, and to the myriad forms by which they have been represented, but also to books of divers sorts. His catalogues and files, the somewhat odd and endless Sections into which he divides his History, his shuffling of figures across innumerable conceptual categories, must represent a psychology that has learned the psychoanalytical game of substitution to near perfection. However, if we are to take his History at all seriously, we must also give its author his due. Thus it can be said, at least preliminarily, that he appears to be a conflation of the American poet Susan Howe's "library cormorant" figure, which is composed in equal parts of the Amherst recluse, Emily Dickinson, and the great divine, Jonathan Edwards, and Walter Benjamin's figure of the collector, who is best approached through the essays "Unpacking My Library" and "Edward Fuchs: Collector and Historian," as well as in his final uncompleted masterwork, The Arcades Project. This is to say, then, that in the History the figure of the Collector is at the bottom of the work as its semi-fictional author--a scholar among heavy tomes as closet lyric poet. I take therefore his crabbed melancholic hand as the work's primary emblem.

The second activity to be addressed defines procedure, and comes to me by way of, if we permit the pun, Alexander Marshack's groundbreaking work, The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation. In this book, Marshack, a professor of Paleolithic Archaeology at Harvard University's Peabody Museum, defines, by looking at Paleolithic cave paintings and Cro-Magnon bone inscriptions, a system of writing based on the employment of previous marks to generate, on the same object, secondary and tertiary markings. Marshack calls this multilayered writing system "the concept of variable image use and reuse." This concept holds a key to the Short History, and should be examined in some depth in relation to it. Images therein have been taken as texts, and added to. The act consists of a form of overwriting, like a type of Hebrew Midrash or creative interpretation. Perhaps another way of saying this is that, within the portraits, history is space, and lyricism the dynamic machinery.

Of the pictures themselves, they are meant as thoughts made, in the sense that they express an interest not in experience per se, but in the thinking that the visual image can contain. That it feels like a form of literature goes without saying. As a history (Ezra Pound's definition of the epic is "a long poem including history"), and also as an extended meditation on the literary theme of the Double, the work is intended to be read. In that sense, the individual pictures should be like Baroque emblems in their density.

There is, finally, an interesting phenomenon built into the History--the production of apparently random verbal equations created by the combinatory aesthetic of the portraits and their titles. In one portrait not included in the present selection, the equation "onion = compass = photographer" is produced. For people interested in this type of thing, I leave it to them to develop what possible lexical equations may be derived from the portraits at hand.

Robert E. Seydel


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