What is Resemblance?

This brief exploration stems from a conversation I had with an art history professor earlier this year. “Well, what is resemblance?” he mused. Ever since he asked, I’ve had it nipping at the back of my brain, waiting to be at the least explored and at the best, powerfully and philosophically answered. I cannot explore it as in depth as I would like – I lack the time and resources to give it justice – but nevertheless, I wanted to try to scratch the tiniest surface of this question.

What is resemblance?

We are caught, when asking this question, in the never-ending “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” paradox.

Da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine (c. 1489-1490)

The pipe pictured is in form a pipe, but it is merely a depiction. As a painting, not a material object, the pipe lacks function. Does the painted pipe resemble a real pipe? It resembles a pipe in its form and shape, and yet, in functionality, dimension, and physicality, it does not. This begs the question whether pipes are only pipes if they are tangible objects. For instance, in Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine (Ferret), we call her ferret such, but using Magritte’s logic, the ferret is not a ferret at all – it is a series of brush strokes on canvas. The same can be said of any object or thing depicted in art: this is the maddening dilemma that the question of resemblance raises.

The question, I think, becomes more complex when its focus it turned to humans. Do paintings and photographs truly resemble their subjects? Resemblance is tied to representation, which David Summers describes as consisting of three parts: “a thing, its actual image, and a mental image. … So we say that paintings correspond not so much to things as to sensations, perceptions, and conceptions; or that they are, in equally mental terms, ‘fantastic’ or ‘ideal.’” Art represents its subjects in the best, neutral, or worst light based on the skills of the artist, ideologies, and styles of the time. This is especially true of paintings whose subjects were status figures – represent Patron X in the most moral, beautiful (powerful, handsome) manner, in such a way that all who look at this painting will understand that Patron X contains these moral, outward, and/or elite qualities. Exterior representation evidences the inward state of the pictured subject. As Alain de Botton discusses in The Architecture of Happiness:

“The purpose of [the idealising artists’] art and … buildings was not to remind us of what life was typically like, but rather to keep before our eyes how it might optimally be, so as to move us fractionally closer to fulfillment and virtue.”

De Botton believes the opposite is true in the modern day, even as we look retrospectively at works of past centuries:

“We reward works of art precisely insofar as they leave roseate ideals behind and faithfully attune themselves to the facts of our condition. We honour these works for revealing to us who we are, rather than who would like to be.”

I agree with regards to modern day photography – we want truth from our photographs, which freeze events and speak of the truths, be they horrid or joyful, of the world around us – and perhaps some street artists. There is a yearning for naturalism/realism today: ‘honest’ images have become the ideal. However, idealism in the traditional sense doesn’t necessarily constitute physical or, to borrow from De Botton, moral resemblance to a real person, place or thing: ideal art portrays only the best qualities of its subject based on the morals, artistic styles, fashions and aesthetic guidelines of the time.

Limbourg Brothers, Saint Paul the Hermit Witnessing a Christian Tempted, The Belles Heures of Jean de France, early 1400s.

Forgive me if I use some of art history’s classics (and not-so classics) in the following image comparisons. Pictures say more than words, sometimes, especially in the complex question of resemblance. I do believe that resemblance depends on the skill of the artist, which, as we’ll see from the following images, isn’t necessarily developed in a way that we might say is “realistic” by today’s standards until at least the (High) Renaissance. Although, of course, during the time in which they were produced, it could be said that such artworks did indeed resemble their models or subjects: artistic skills and/or devices to suggest otherwise (such as skill in realism or use of camera obscura) hadn’t been discovered yet or were not in popular use. In painting, resemblance also hinges on the space the artist is given (large scale work vs. small scale), their skill-level working within that space, their materials, and most prominently, the ideals of beauty and artistic aesthetics that surround an artwork’s creation.

Duccio: Madonna & Child, c. 1333; Simone Martini, The Annunciation (detail), c. 1245-1300; Parmigianino, Madonna with the Long Neck, c. 1535

Perspective was still being developed at the time of Duccio and Martini. In the Madonna with the Long Neck (and other art in the same period), art was approaching figural representations much more realistically, although there were still some points of exaggeration, as you can see in the Madonna’s long neck. Parmigianino was part of the Mannerist movement, which elongated and exaggerated humans.

L: Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Caravaggio, c. 1620; R: Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (Detail), c. 1610

These two portraits were painted in the 1600s. Perspective and modeling (shading of figures/objects) were now roughly two centuries in the making and had been wonderfully developed in that time. With the push for realistic art from the Baroque movement, we see here two examples of the face of the same man: the master of surprise, drama, and emotion, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. On the left is a portrait of him by Ottavio Leoni, painted ten years after his untimely death. On the right, a self-portrait of Caravaggio, self-cast in the character of a freshly decapitated Goliath. These portraits present two different versions of Caravaggio. The Ottavio portrait displays him as arguably healthy, distinguished, and “normal” in appearance and countenance. The Goliath self-portrait yields a much more sorrowful representation: a dead man, still aware, as John Varriano masterfully discusses, of its awful situation. The painting was made at a desperate time for Caravaggio. This will not be discussed here except to observe that mood, circumstance, style, angle, and light are all factors that distinguish appearance and thus, resemblance.

Resemblance can also be a choice made by the artist, for instance, to make a statement, as is the case with the Goliath self-portrait and the following images by Willem De Kooning, who painted wild, fascinating, and I daresay erratic paintings all his career, and Pablo Picasso, whose artistic skills were diverse, and whose ‘symbolism’ or ‘messages’ and Eastern influences were often prevalent.

De Kooning, Marilyn Monroe (1954); Photo: Marilyn Monroe; Picasso: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), Mme. Soler (1905)

De Kooning reduces Marilyn Monroe to a series of brush strokes signifying her hair, lips, eyes, and body. In other words, she isn’t represented in an easily recognizable manner, especially to the untrained eye, as Marilyn Monroe. Rather, his painting resembles more merely a series of strokes on canvas than a person. But this was De Koonings style – Abstract Expressionism – and within the limits and guidelines of this style, perhaps his painting of Marilyn can be considered a resemblance of the real woman. Picasso, on the other hand, had variegated style periods. As you can see from his Mme. Soler (1905), he was capable of painting what we might call a “normal” looking woman. However, Picasso was heavily influenced by new discoveries and new fascination with the Eastern world, and this is evident in his art, as you can see in Demoiselles d’Avignon, which was painted two years later. Modern art historians read into Demoiselles and discuss it in terms of Picasso’s perspective on the psychological state of women: they’re wild, unpredictable, even vile; and yet, he is fascinated with them, and the strangeness of it – the masked women depicted in graphic, obscurely cubist poses – nearly demands that we be fascinated with them, too, because they do not outwardly resemble any woman we would encounter in the world.

I hope this brief discussion and the above images have given you some perspective on the question of resemblance. I will be returning to the question of resemblance with regards to photography in another post. To close with these perfectly fitting words from Pablo Picasso:

Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?

What do you think, dear reader? Feel free to let me know. I am definitely interested in exploring the question of resemblance further, and would love to hear your thoughts and start a dialogue.