Thursday, 9 February 2017

Playing cards and portraits

Teaching my undergraduate class on Tuesday I used a new method to help students think about the work that portraits do. I've found that when students discuss portraits in a gallery setting they often refer to the way the sitter is represented, and how the portraitist has tried to make the subject (for example Elizabeth I, below) appear majestic, powerful, and so on.

Elizabeth I (1533–1603)
British school, Elizabeth I, c.1590, oil on panel, 119 x 91cm. National Maritime Museum BHC2680.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn't help us understand the work that portraits do, and the effects they may have. It relies too much on reconstructing intentions, which are difficult to establish at the best of times, with any clarity. So I tried a method that I first encountered in a class on public speaking, and which a friend assures me is widely used in acting schools.

I gave all the students a playing card which they held on their foreheads. They couldn't see whether the card was a Queen, or a three, or an Ace (etc), but everyone else could. Then I asked them to walk round the room - a large room in Queen's House Greenwich, newly re-opened and with a fantastic display. As they walked past each other they were to behave in response to the card that they saw the other person had: if someone had a low number (a two or three, for example) you could look down your nose at them or turn away. But if someone had a high number, such as a Queen, you would defer to them, bowing or acting in an appropriately reverential manner.

It took some courage for the students to start walking round and bowing, nodding, or snubbing, but they gradually got into it, and we all had two or three minutes of fun.

The key question that followed was this: based on other people's reactions, what do you think is the value of the card on your forehead? This opened some interesting (and fun) discussion but everyone guessed fairly accurately.

Then  the really important question followed: returning to our portrait of Elizabeth I, what card - in a purely notional sense - do you think you're wearing when you look at the portrait? A pretty low number, was the consensus. And so to the important point: when we consider portraits, we do need to look at how the sitter is represented, but we also need to consider how the portrait represents us, the viewer, and how it manages to do this.

We followed this up by each finding a portrait in the room that was appropriate to our card number: one student with a two of clubs stood in front of Philip II, whereas someone with a seven could maybe stand in front of Anne of Denmark or the youthful Edward VI. (This helps raise questions about gender and age, as well as rank).

Philip II of Spain (1527–1598)
Netherlandish school, Philip II,  17th century, oil on canvas, 107 x 71cm, National Maritime Museum BHC2951.
It took some courage for me to do this but I think it worked well and would like to do it again, and at a suitable point, find out what the students thought of it all.

No comments:

Post a Comment