From pharaoh to Facebook: Jay Bloom’s latest art history class examines the importance of portraiture
With the advent of the “selfie” and its subsequent domination of social media and popular culture, it is easy to see that portraiture — a form as seemingly frivolous as the “selfie” — is alive and well. Centre College Assistant Professor of Art History Jay Bloom is exploring the intricacies of the portrait (self-made or otherwise) with his latest class, titled The Portrait from Pharoah to Facebook.
“Portraits seems so straightforward, so uncomplicated,” Bloom explains. “People tend to think they are the most transparent of artistic genres—they’re just representations of what people look like. But, in fact, portraiture is a surprisingly subtle and complex concept, and the more you try to pin it down, the more elusive any comprehensive definition becomes.”
Bloom gives the example of late medieval portraiture, in which actual physiognomic likeness often had little to do with a “good” portrait of a person; heraldic coats of arms or even a length of wax candle reproducing a person’s exact height were often thought of as more accurate portraits than a reproduction of someone’s facial features.
For Bloom, the class has important implications that extend beyond the study of art history.
“Portraiture raises fundamental questions about representation, identity and visual literacy,” he says. “My hope is that this class will challenge students to look more deeply into how identity is constructed in a world so densely mediated by visual technologies.”
In light of the widely differing understandings of portraiture, the course explored the various and unique ways that individuals and groups have used visual forms to construct representations of their identities. Moreover, the ubiquity of portraiture in modern life gives students the opportunity to apply these ideas outside the classroom.
The class visited Old Centre, where President John Roush offered an account of how his daily experience is shaped by the many portraits that frame his place of work. In fact, the conversation with the president inspired a late improvisation on the plans for the course’s final project: students created a digital gallery of the portraits in Old Centre, narrating the history of the College through the images of some of Centre’s most celebrated figures. The online gallery will be accessible to the public at the end of the spring semester.
by Mariel Smith