Jonathan Yeo’s calling is loaded with creative stress. This state of angst took root in the early nineteenth century when the artist began evolving from hired brush into self-determinative romantic. Status portraiture, the artistic front line of society, began to find itself bloodied against the buffers of modern thinking.
How could formal works of art, the romantics questioned, for which the client or commissioner is paying and which defer to the subject’s agenda, have integrity? As the art world hurtled towards innovative self-expression by the century’s end, many time-honoured face painters found themselves compromised. And their situation could not be cured with a trip to Montmartre and a few absinthe-soaked nights: painting to order, or to please its subject, had become to many prostitution by default.
In Britain, John Singer Sargent succeeded in cutting a dash by combining the incomparable lessons of Van Dyck and Velázquez with impressionistic bravura, particularly for the new commercial aristocracy. His best works are now multi-million-dollar period pieces.
Augustus John could also occasionally pull off a startling performance, but too much of his commissioned portraiture was inconsistent. There were others, too, who tried to find firm ground against the onslaught of modernism, but broadly speaking formal portraiture in Britain remained the stay-at-home older sibling to an infinitely more cosmopolitan and eye-catching family of new trendsetters.
In the second half of the twentieth century – the half in which Yeo was born – a few artists broke out, or went back to tradition to use status portraiture as an adjunct to more radical work. Graham Sutherland’s commissioned portrait of Winston Churchill – consigned by his wife Clementine to the furnace – together with those of Somerset Maugham and Lord Beaverbrook represented an encouraging precedent for avowed abstract painters to cross over into formal portraiture. David Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1971), which doffed a hat to Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, was also highly influential. But it was really Lucian Freud who gave the medium contemporary respectability. Some of his more formal portraits are remarkable for their conscious desire to evoke a nineteenth-century language of portraiture: Brigadier Parker-Bowles in full medals, or the Queen replete with crown, belong to a tradition better suited to the upper rooms of the National Portrait Gallery.
Although these and other artists set the scene for the subsequent works of Jonathan Yeo, their output was a relative trickle compared with the full flood of other forms of practice, conceptual and otherwise, that have swamped the art world in recent decades. Formal portraiture has remained in artistic peril, and, as Freud and Hockney proved, only artists of genius could give it international cachet. Yeo, however, has added a distinct approach to modern portrait painting – part psychological, part technical – that is helping to ensure its survival. His particular forte is the depiction of achievers: he has been commissioned by them and has actively sought them out.
Yeo’s intelligence and conviviality – a crucial attribute of the successful portraitist, who must quickly establish trust with the sitter – is combined with a shrewd understanding of the paradox of fame: its vulnerabilities, hollowness and absurdities, as well as the genuine talents that brought it about in the first place. The closest analogy is authoriSed biography, with all its privileged advantages, as opposed to the fugitive nature of kiss and tell. Yeo’s portraits are ingenious partnerships, consciously expressing the subject’s selling points in the formal tradition, but modified and interpreted – as with all high-quality biography – by the author’s own insights, perception and imagination.
Thus, Tony Blair’s radiant self-confidence and agility – the things that got him elected – are pricked by the memorial poppy in his buttonhole. Grayson Perry’s transvestism is not inflated or caricatured (that would be too easy), but rendered with an intense seriousness of purpose that invites the viewer to engage more profoundly with his proclivities and motivations. And in his best portrait yet, this time of Damien Hirst, Yeo has created a tour-de-force exemplar of modern status portraiture, graphically linking traditional formulae of fame and achievement with a threatening undercurrent.
Hirst is confrontationally enthroned, utilizing the most unequivocal language of hierarchical portraiture, something that Sutherland used for Churchill, and Bacon employed for his screaming popes, and which reaches graphically back to Renaissance power portraiture. Its formality is tempered by thuggishness. The beautifully painted booted dry chemical suit becomes the regalia of the bad boy; Yeo has cast him in paint as the art world’s tyrant, gloriously earthed by the tools of his trade.
And consider the significance of this engagement. An artist whose international reputation is largely based on the type of art that has represented the antithesis of formal portraiture has chosen, in middle age, to sit for a formal portrait. It is a work arrived at, as the tradition dictates, through dialogue between the artist and sitter, a bartering of ideas, a dual conspiracy to create something historically permanent. It is precisely the unromantic notion of the artist giving ground, the power of conversation, the fusion of intents, the building of trust, that has allowed the performance to work. Yeo has captured one the most prestigious prisoners of war for the tradition in which he excels, and in the centuries-old language of formal portrait painting has produced a defining image for our times.