Aristotle argued that Art would not replicate the physical outwardness of things but rather reveal their inner significance. Portraiture and the practice of portrait painting since then have accomplished myriad techniques and perspectives that reveal histories of identity, gender, politics and conceptual practice.
“What Is It?” was the traveling photo studio of Mathew Brady, a traveling photographer. Brady covered the American Civil War and took photos of Abraham Lincoln, becoming a prolific photographer who advertised his services and ran a gallery that ran exhibitions based on his photographs of iconic battles for the sons of parents who wanted to see them in action before they perished to their destinies. Doing so he founded the genre of photojournalism. Raja Ravi Varma – considered the father of Modern Indian Art – taught himself to make portraits initially of his kin who constituted the Travancore Royal Family of Kerala and later lent faces through his study of Western practices of Anatomical drawing to posters that depicted mythical scenes from Hindu Epics thus establishing a face for Indian Gods and Goddesses. MF Hussain has been constantly deemed as the iconoclast but he was a man who possessed extreme reverence to how Indians saw themselves in progressive fortitude. He established the norm of an artist by creating a presence in fashion, behavior and outspokenness that is now epical and folklorish in the memory of those who knew him. His was a choreographed life much akin to the epics he often illustrated with great integrity.
“What Is It?” much akin to the questions people ask when encountering art in an exhibition. Through portraiture we thus embark on answering certain facets of how aesthetics, history, material and politics have shaped our understanding of art.