Saturday, September 29, 2012

On Silhouettes

As followers of this blog will be aware, I’ve recently begun experimenting with silhouette forms. Here are three more examples. Like those posted previously, they are on a small scale, although I’m working concurrently on a relatively large-scale silhouette, a linocut for Corporeal, a project curated by artist Rona Green. (More of this in the near future.)

In the meantime, I’m finding it fascinating to research the origins of the silhouette. Its varied and distinguished lineage can be directly traced to the legend of the first portrait. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (circa 77-79 AD) wrote of Dibutade, a Corinthian girl who traced her lover’s candlelit shadow on a wall before he set off on a long journey. Silhouettes have also been aligned with the black-figure vases of ancient Greece and the art of Chinese paper cutting.

Silhouettes became extremely popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Because they were relatively quick, simple and inexpensive to make, many amateur artists, including women, enthusiastically took up silhouette portraiture.

By the 19th century professional artists had patented several silhouette-tracing machines. The principal behind them was little different to the method employed by Dibutade centuries before. But the drawing now served as the artist’s cartoon, which was then reduced in size using an instrument called a Pantograph or ‘Stork’s Beak’.

Even though professional silhouette artists were patronized by the rich and famous, their clients were equally immigrants who, in the days before the invention of photography, recognized a quick and economical way of commissioning a likeness to send to loved-ones in their homelands.

Recently I acquired a DVD copy of Vincente Minnelli's movie The Pirate (1948) a film I've long admired. Minnelli is an extraordinary colourist with an incredible eye for detail, for example the brief sequence where Judy Garland as Manuela sits for a silhouette portrait prior to her wedding. 

Silhouettes were originally referred to as ‘l’art d’ombre’ (shadow art) in France and ‘shades’ or ‘profiles’ in Britain. The art was re-named for Étienne de Silhouette, a French Economist, who, as Finance Minister during the Seven Years War (1756-63) imposed severe economic measures on the populace – particularly the wealthy. Consequently his name was applied derogatively to practically anything that was done on the cheap. In this instance, the name has stuck, but fortunately its original negative connotation hasn’t.

From top: 

Palmae, 2012
Cervidae, 2012
Omnivore, 2012
All acrylic on canvas, 9 x 7 cm. Photographs by Tim Gresham.

Invention of the Art of Drawing, 1793, by Joseph Benoit Suvee

Silhouette tracing machine

Drawing pantograph 

Judy Garland in The Pirate, 1948. D. Vincente Minnelli