9 March 2018

THE FAT LADY SINGS: WHEN PORTRAITS TALK BACK

WALK OF FAME

BY: SERENA YPELAAR

Anyone who knows me knows I spend a lot of time on Harry Potter. Recently, when talking about my favourite book series, fellow Musings writer Sadie MacDonald asked what it might be like if there were art galleries in the Wizarding World.

Mind blown!
My reaction matched Ron's when I considered Museum Studies + Harry Potter at a crossroads! Source.
As readers of the series will know, portraits in the Harry Potter universe can move and talk, albeit within the restrictions of their tangible representation on the wall. What interesting ethical, logistical, and interpretive questions this idea raises! With Sadie's permission (I'm no Gilderoy Lockhart), I'll explore this possibility within the landscape of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London, England.

First, some context, to get everyone on the same page:
Hogwarts portraits are able to talk and move around from picture to picture. They behave like their subjects. However, the degree to which they can interact with the people looking at them depends not on the skill of the painter, but on the power of the witch or wizard painted. - author J.K. Rowling, Pottermore
Some of the talking portraits in the grand staircase at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Source.
How closely would the paintings embody the personalities of their sitters? What would they be able to say to us?

With the above quotation in mind, it definitely intrigues me to imagine all the portraits moving about. At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, portrait subjects can move through the frames to visit one another or go to other portraits of themselves hung elsewhere (like Sirius Black's great-great-grandfather Phineas Nigellus Black).

What would Anne Boleyn have to say if we could
speak with her likeness in the National Portrait
Gallery? Source.
In regard to the visitor experience in the National Portrait Gallery, I can think of a few issues with this.

What happens when a subject visits one of their other portraits off-site? The NPG has free admission, but that isn't an antidote to the inconvenience of not being able to see a specific portrait that is supposed to be on view.

When sitters go and visit a different portrait, how does the coexistence of multiple subjects in one frame damage both artists' respective intent? The fact that these sitters would have a sense of active agency if they could move undermines the painter's vision in "capturing" each sitter in a moment. For instance, King Henry VII was painted to convey majesty and authority under the emerging Tudor regime, but if we see him squabbling with his predecessor Richard III, how does this inter-portrait conflict unseat the dignity of both sitters? What damage can therefore be done to the real-life figures' reputation through this form of exhibitionism?

If a portrait sitter has multiple paintings of them on display, how do those portrayals coexist? Do they all have the same personality? Perhaps we could chart the evolution of a younger Alan Rickman (our Severus Snape, may he rest in peace) into an older, somewhat different-looking Alan Rickman, which is biographically valuable but could also be overwhelming in an institution full of personalities.

Who would interact with who in the gallery? Who would be friends? Enemies? How would the sitters' expressed characteristics affect our viewing experience? 


A portrait subject moving from frame to frame.
Source.
Let's say I've come to the National Portrait Gallery specifically to see and talk to British author Mary Shelley (of Frankenstein fame). I get to her painting, only to notice that ... she's gone! Maybe she's wandered off for a chat with her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, or a lively argument with Lord Byron. What would these movements mean for our access? (On the plus side, it might be good to market the gallery as a guaranteed different visit every time, and a frequently rotating collection...)

Would museum staff be able to maintain any degree of control over the collection? And how would the curatorial staff rotate out the portraits? If someone's likeness was loud, irritating, or unpleasant, would it be taken off display? (Edvard Munch's The Scream isn't in the NPG, but if he could talk I'm sure he'd be very disruptive.)

Would we even need interpretive labels if the portraits could say it all?

What if the portrait sitter is still alive? 

In Harry Potter, most of the portraits Harry encounters are wizards we've either never met in person or ones who have died. If a famous celebrity had an oil-on-canvas doppelgänger spouting off in the gallery, how would that feel? Should the portrait's words even be given credence when it comes to shaping the living person's public identity? 

Gilderoy Lockhart has a painting of himself painting himself. Source.
J.K. Rowling says that Hogwarts headmasters and headmistresses kept their portraits locked away, over time teaching them how to act like themselves so they could live on with their memories after the subject's death (not unlike artificial intelligence learning mechanisms). Since Rowling asserts that the portraits only vaguely embody their sitters' personalities unless taught otherwise, issues of representation are numerous and varied.

The Fat Lady guards the entrance to Gryffindor Tower at Hogwarts. Source
I could keep talking about the pros and cons forever, but I'll stop there. I hear a lot of people voicing the wish that we had moving paintings like in Harry Potter (myself included). On second thought, though, projecting this desire onto art galleries seems like absolute chaos! With a stagnant portrait, the artist retains agency over the image; with an animated, semi-sentient subject, the same cannot be said. Perhaps in our world today, it's for the best that our portrait sitters hold still.  

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