These Strangers… Painting and People presents the human figure in the Western painting of the last forty years. The exhibition is not a survey, but explores the oeuvres of nine artists who so far have had little or no work shown in Belgian museums. Each of these artists, who are of different generations, starts out from the tradition of the portrait and goes in great depth into viewing the model and into the look he or she returns. This results in portraits that are embedded in the personal, societal, political and cultural environment and the period in which the artists live and work.
The title of the exhibition is taken from These Strangers in a Foreign World, a poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-86), and accentuates the relationship with the Other:
These Strangers, in a Foreign World, Protection asked of me – Befriend them, lest Yourself in Heaven Be found a Refugee –
In the course of art history, painting has evolved from the application of paint to a support as a subjective act into a complex and many-branched domain where the personal and the mass produced meet. Nowadays, painters combine handwork with industrial techniques and supplement pure imagination with images appropriated from the media and art.
The painted portrait has developed in a comparable way. It was originally intended to give a true-to-life portrayal of the subject, but it later played a crucial part in the rise of individualism and its expression. A traditional portrait shows a specific person whom the artist has actually met. It is a rendering of someone’s outward appearance, but it also says something about what the person is like and how the artist saw him or her. Portraits enable us to look at and get a sense of others, but our own ideas are reflected too. Portraits express something deep and fundamental that transcends the ordinary and momentary.
In the present network culture, where the self-image is moulded and shaped through the views of others, the internet and social media, portraits are not necessarily the result of real encounters. Artists now have unlimited access to the abundant archives of art history and the visual media on which they can draw and then, to their heart’s content, manipulate, recombine and set these images in new contexts. They no longer sketch the human figure as an individual, but as a metaphor for human existence in our complex globalised world. At the same time, they ask pertinent questions about such concepts as originality, identity, gender, subjectivity and consciousness (of the self).