Maria Loh ‘examines the subgenre of artist portraiture’ in the 16th and 17th centuries, and defines portraits as ‘the arena in which flesh and fantasy, memory and history, death and desire, battle one another for control’. Though portraits can clearly survive while their subjects are still alive, she maintains that the ‘mortal body must let go so that its image can survive’.

Since the chapters are arranged by themes rather than by artists, Loh tends to jump around from subject to subject and lose focus. She emphasizes minor drawings and engravings rather than major paintings, and devotes an extended discussion and sixteen illustrations to Federico Zuccaro’s drawings of the hardships of his brother Taddeo. She analyzes Albrecht Dürer’s drawings of Six Pillows and Design for a Shoe, but ignores his supreme self-portraits in oil.

Loh’s style is original but weird. Attempting to jazz up her book, she wavers between a dry academic and trendy contemporary style, between popular and arcane quotations. She throws in slang: foodie, wannabe, sound bite, control freak, ripped off and what a mug; Yiddish: kvetch and schmuck; and obscenities: dickface, bullshit and prick (though she’s wrong about coglioni, which means ‘balls’). This low diction clashes with ‘bodily processes in artisanal epistemology,’ and with the macaronic jumble of ‘ostentatio vulnerum in the noeme of portraiture’ and ‘sketches of canephori for the Steccata, an even more alien imitatio canis’.

Loh also exhibits an abject, de rigueur deference to the joy-killing French theorists who, after leading Anglophone scholars to an obfuscating dead end, still continue to reign. She summons up the whole Hermeneutic Mafia: Bataille, Lacan, Barthes, de Man, Foucault, Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy. But her dutiful quotations from these theorists never advance her argument or illuminate her text. Worst of all is the portentous and erroneous quotation from the film director and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini: ‘Death is not the inability to communicate, but the inability to be understood any more’. In fact, scores of modern artists and writers – from Picasso and Modigliani to Joyce and Kafka – were far better understood after their deaths. Loh would have done well to heed the capitalized maxim she quotes twice and concentrate on ‘DOING not THEORIZING’.

Loh also indulges in a distracting ‘sympathetic montage . . . new ways of seeing that result from the juxtaposition of unexpected sympathies’. But her ‘anachronistic digressions’ and forced analogies fail to hit the mark. She includes a full-page photograph of the surgical scars of Andy Warhol, whom she calls (ignoring Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud) the ‘genius’ and ‘consummate maestro of twentieth-century portraiture’. It would have been far more effective if she had used these more apposite comparisons: her discussion of ‘the body in pain’ with Francisco Goya’s Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta (1820) and Vincent Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Band- aged Ear (1889); Nicolas Poussin’s Plague of Ashdod with Jean-Antoine Gros’ Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims in Jaffa (1804); group portraits of ‘the academy as a collective individual’ with the group portraits in Gustave Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio (1855) and Frédéric Bazille’s The Artist’s Studio (1870); Bartolomeo Passerotti’s Anatomy Lesson with the ultimate still life, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1631); Rodolfo Morgari’s Rafael on His Deathbed with its prototype Jean- Baptiste Greuze’s The Punished Son (1778).

Renaissance portraits freed painters from the restrictions of mythological and religious subjects, and elevated them from cameo appearances in the corners of huge pictures to major roles as the central subject. Michelangelo, who emphasized the male body rather than the human face, never painted or posed for a portrait, but was often portrayed by others. Loh states that ‘facial likeness was not something Michelangelo seemed to prize. He did not have a very high opinion of portraiture in general’. But she does not quote the dismissive remark that placed him in direct opposition to the northern painters. He condemned the precise realism of Flemish art that ‘will appeal to women, especially to the very old and the very young, and also to monks and nuns and to certain noblemen who have no sense of true harmony. In Flanders they paint with a view to external exactness’. By contrast, the brilliant realist Hans Holbein inscribed on his portrait of the handsome German merchant Derich Born (1533), ‘add but the voice and you have his whole self, that you may doubt whether the painter or the father has made him’.

Loh can be perceptive when concentrating on a single work. The expressive engraving of Jacopo da Pontormo in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects appears ‘as a subject marked by signs of utter exhaustion and despair, from the broken, uneven lines that dangle across his forehead to the pendulous bags sagging under his vacant, unfocussed eyes. His hair seems to hang off his skull in messy clumps; the lethargic, vertical strokes on the cheeks and on the tuft of hair beneath the chin invoke a sense of the heaviness of his existence’.

She’s also acute when contrasting Michelangelo’s ‘shadows of a self-portrait in the rough, unfinished surface of Nicodemus’ in his Pietà (in the Duomo of Florence) to the ‘unflinching direct gaze’ of Baccio Bandinelli’s self-portrayal in his Pietà (in the Pazzi Chapel in Florence) that ‘stands in stark contrast to Michelangelo’s self-effacing humility’. But Michelangelo might well ‘have been awestruck by the artwork that resulted from that very same hubris. After all, to successfully make and install an actual-size, sculpted, marble self-portrait around the middle of the sixteenth century was simply unheard of and conceptually mind-boggling’.

Loh does not do justice to the most intriguing portrait in her book: Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), painted in 1524 when he was only twenty-one years old. Vasari recorded that the painter ‘had a ball of wood made, and cutting it out to make it of the same size and shape as the mirror, he set to work to copy everything he saw there, including his own likeness, in the most natural manner imaginable. As things near the mirror appear large while they diminish as they recede he made a hand with wonderful realism, somewhat large, as the mirror showed it. Being a handsome man, with the face of an angel rather than a man, his re ection in this ball appeared divine. He was most successful with the lustre of his glass, the re ections, shadows and lights, in fact human ingenuity could go no farther’.

Both realistic and distorted – like Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) – Parmigianino’s portrait is painted is on curved wood and surrounded by a gilded circular frame. The huge globe or eyeball places the young man near the convex mirror and rounds out the severely curved leaded window and coloured panelled ceiling just above his head. He has reddish neck-length hair parted in the middle, pale rose-tinted cheeks, widely spaced heavy-lidded grey eyes, light glinting off his bold straight nose, pursed cupid-bow lips, rm chin, curly white-silk collar, outsize sleeve ruff, and brown fur-trimmed coat. Decorated by a coral ring, his elongated ngers – a sign of artistic proficiency – spread across the foreground in a mysterious gesture that both invites and excludes the viewer. In this chest-length, full-face portrait, the angelic artist looks slightly to the right at his own reflection and has a soft, gentle, innocent, dreamy, androgynous appearance. Delicate and elegant, the picture evokes surprise and astonishment. In his book on Parmigianino, David Ekserdjian notes that ‘the gold-framed form to the painter’s extreme left . . . is the portrait the viewer is admiring set up on the artist’s easel’.

John Ashbery begins his long ambitious poem of 1972, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ with a precise description: ‘As Parmigianino did it, the right hand / Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer / And swerving easily away, as though to protect / What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams, / Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together / In a movement supporting the face, which swims / Toward and away like the hand / Except that it is in repose’. Ashbery calls it ‘the rst mirror portrait’, though it was actually preceded by Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434).

Parmigianino’s ‘virtuoso, precious, playful artistry . . . the light and gentle ow of his line, his sensuous delicacy of draftsmanship and voluptuousness of form, his feminine sensibility and erotic subtlety’. In his 1964 review of Parmigianino’s drawings, Ashbery praised ‘the almost supernatural refinement . . . the sense of mystery behind physical appearances’. The beauty of the narcissistic young man re ected the poet’s ideal self. At a dinner party in Boulder, Colorado, in February 1982, Ashbery told me he chose this painting because he ‘thought the subject was cute’.

Loh’s title, Still Lives, could also mean ‘continuing to live’. She forcefully concludes that ‘the portrait is the materialization of the time-bound artist’s aching desire to hang on when all else is lost; it is the trace of the mortal body that has become an exquisite, undying still life’. Despite the weaknesses in her structure, style and method, her handsome, well illustrated book is intelligent, learned and original.

Still Lives: Death, Desire, and the Portrait of the Old MasterMaria Loh, Princeton University Press, 2015, 304 pp, £34.95 (hardback)

By Jeffrey Meyers

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.