In 2016, it was reported that roughly one million selfies are taken every day and that the average millennial is expected to take 25,700 selfies in his or her lifetime. As abstract and headline-grabbing as these figures sound, they do attest to a seemingly irrefutable truth: as a global culture, we are obsessed with capturing, sharing and studying images of ourselves and each other. Yet whilst this vast proliferation of ephemeral snapshots is a relatively recent phenomenon, portraiture and the desire to record a person’s likeness has existed for thousands of years, stretching back to Ancient Egyptian times, and has long prevailed as one of the most popular and enduring of artistic genres. Indeed, contemporary portraiture is well and truly ‘back in fashion’ with the art world.
Why such fascination? Though the answer is far from simple, the underlying motivations of status, power, achievement and the ongoing human struggle against the annihilating passage of time are all contributing factors, as relevant today (if perhaps in a reformulated guise) as when the form first emerged 5,000 years ago. Indeed, the portrait has both a timeless and a time-bound quality; telling us plenty about the specific values of the age and culture in which a likeness was made and the unique relationship between the sitter and subject, whilst also tapping into a wider set of universal human impulses.
Embracing the rich complexity of the subject, Heads Roll at Graves Gallery in Sheffield draws together works by over 60 internationally renowned artists, spanning 400 years, in an effort to re-examine our relationship with portraiture; exploring the form through ideas of resemblance, abstraction, fiction and authenticity. The exhibition is curated by Sheffield-based artist Paul Morrison and will include works as diverse as Judith with the Head of Holfernes (1610-1620), after Carlo Saraceni, which depicts the biblical story of Judith’s beheading of the general about to destroy her home; through to contemporary challenges to the very convention itself, such as Jessica Diamond’s affecting wall-based text work, Untitled (O Small Small Head…) (1989/1991), describing the anticipation of a baby’s first words.
Featuring artists such as Glenn Brown, Gwen John, Klara Kristalova, Michael Craig-Martin, Ben Nicholson, Julian Opie, Rembrandt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Walter Sickert, Heads Roll should provide a fascinating (head-spinning?) journey through the landscape of one of humanity’s most time-honoured art forms.