“What an artist the world loses in me!” Emperor Nero pronounced before stabbing himself in the neck in A.D. 68
Nero ended his life in the same dramatic fashion in which he ruled. The man who is said to have “fiddled” while Rome burned had ambitions to be a poet and artist although his fate, it seemed, was to be a despot. Nero’s identity took another turn, albeit in a much less dramatic fashion, 200 years after his death, when a sculpture of him was recovered from storage and reworked to celebrate a new Roman emperor. At the time, neither artists nor the public were overly concerned with accurate representations of prominent citizens. So, it was perfectly acceptable to simply add a stubbly beard to the cast of Nero’s fleshy face to capture a serviceable likeness of Emperor Gallienus.
The resulting work now stands in the Museum of Art and Archaeology at MU , part of the exhibit “Fashioning Identities: Portraiture through the Ages.” The exhibit includes examples taken from the roots of portraiture in Egyptian times, beginning with the piece “Seated Statue of Idi,” and tracing the development of the art form through the modern period. Representative pieces, including sculptures, textiles, coins, drawings, paintings and prints by a wide range of artists, are on display in three galleries.
“Fashioning Identities” was conceived and organized by curators Benton Kidd, who created the ancient art section of the exhibit, detailing art from the Egyptian roots to approximately the fourth century; and Joan Stack, who created the section on Renaissance through modern portraiture. The curators think the exhibit will give viewers a broader understanding of the portrait, its function and how it has both changed and remained constant throughout history.
“Virtually everyone has had experience with portraiture,” Stack said. “They have made amateur portrait photographs of their friends and family members. They have produced self-portrait drawings in childhood, and they have come into contact with countless portraits in the media and consumer culture. We hope that this exhibit will encourage visitors to think about how these portraits ‘fashion identities’ in their lives.”
Planning began two years ago with a survey of pieces in the museum’s collection. Stack and Kidd then applied for loans from other museums and began shopping for pieces that would fit the various themes the curators planned to explore. Three pieces were added to the museum’s permanent collection: “Head of an Empress” by an unknown artist, “Portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester” by Hendrick Goltzius, and “Susan Seated Before a Row of Trees” by Mary Cassatt. Other pieces were borrowed from the State Historical Society of Missouri and The Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City. The exhibit also features selections from the MU museum’s own collection of nearly 20,000 coins.
The exhibit includes a number of community education events that emphasize the continued relevance of portraiture. One event features local bronze artist Sabra Meyer, whose works include a bust of former Gov. Roger B. Wilson, which sits in front of the Boone County Government Center; a bust of Sen. Kit Bond for MU’s new Life Sciences Building; and a portrait bust of Gen. Odon Guitar, a Civil War veteran and MU graduate, located in Jesse Hall.
“For a sculptor, the human face is very interesting,” Meyer said. “It’s an endless source of fascination for me. The human face contains all of the mass and proportion and form that you could want to have as a subject.”
“Fashioning Identities” is organized chronologically. Visitors begin in the Long Gallery, which traces ancient portraiture from its roots. This is where the remodeled Emperor Gallienus presides, alongside a variety of sculptures, coins, textiles and prints that represent the earliest methods associated with the form.
Visitors then make their way to the Eilenberg Gallery, which houses works from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, including two portraits of Lady Hamilton and an imperious bust of the Missouri temperance leader Clara Hoffman. From the corner of the room, white face contrasting starkly with the brilliant-red wall, the bust of Hoffman illustrates the way in which an artist can shape the meaning of an artwork. The broad shoulders, the severe facial features and expression seem to exemplify a life that was committed to fighting alcohol and defending women’s rights.
The final leg of the exhibit features modern portraiture, including pieces by Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Earl Kerkam, among others. On the far wall is the eye-catching “Harlem Girl I” by Winold Reiss. Created at a time when the popular view of black women were caricatures like Aunt Jemima, this piece and other works of the Harlem Renaissance refashioned the popular concept of African Americans. Her straight posture, beautiful features and hair styled in the fashion of an Egyptian wig, contrast popular conception at the time.
“Portraiture is unique because portrait artists seek to represent individual human beings in his or her artwork,” Stack said. “It is a genre that records a relationship between the sitter, the artist and the viewer.”
A number of separate themes are explored in “Fashioning Identities,” which are explained in six brochures available throughout the gallery. “Harlem Girl I” is part of the larger theme titled “Dressing the Part: Fashion and Hairstyle in Portraiture.” Other themes include portraiture in politics, the profile, gender and sexuality, and the self-portrait.
Before exiting the final gallery, viewers are invited to imagine their own portraits. Two rooms away from the restyled head of Nero is a full-length mirror that challenges the visitor to confront an image more personal than the other pieces in the exhibit.
“We have the mirror to encourage you to think about how you fashion your own identity,” Stack said. “We all do it, in some way. We choose what clothes to wear, what posture we take, all kinds of things. We participate in this constant fashioning of identity, and artists reflect our decisions. But they can also choose to emphasize one thing or the other to create something even more powerful.”