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One face, many facets

Plausible Portraits of James Lord: With Commentary by the Model, James Lord, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 228 pp., $25

August 31, 2003|Don Bachardy | Don Bachardy is the author, most recently, of "Stars in My Eyes." His drawings and paintings are in major art museums, including the Metropolitan in New York and London's National Portrait Gallery.

This book is like no other I know. It is a collection of portraits of one person, the writer and art critic James Lord, by 24 artists, several world famous and several unknown to me. The portraits -- mostly drawings or paintings, some photographs and one sculpted head -- are accompanied by Lord's account of the sittings themselves and the circumstances that led up to them. I have often imagined what delights there could be in a book written by a portrait artist -- such as Sargent, Whistler, Velazquez, Goya, Hals or Klimt -- that described his sittings with a selection of his subjects, whether famous or not, young or old, cooperative or difficult. Whereas there are many artists who might have written about their sittings with various subjects but didn't, there are far fewer people who, like Lord, have sat for many artists -- besides some royal figures, perhaps the only contenders are Lady Ottoline Morrell and Edith Sitwell -- and relatively few nowadays who have sat for any artist at all, since most portraitists today work from photographs.

I am often asked by someone coming to sit for the first time: "What will be expected of me and how can I prepare for the experience?" This book would be the ideal primer for a prospective sitter. And it would supply him or her with an ample sense of the magnitude of the occasion, something I would be reluctant even to imply. Though I rejoice in the significance Lord still finds in portraiture, I would certainly be embarrassed to tell a prospective sitter that what we will be doing together "deals in the lovely illusion of deathless duration." And I am sure my sitter would be scared off altogether by Lord's idea that the subject of a portrait "gazes outward in the hope of getting out, so to speak, alive." "But he never will," Lord continues, "having relinquished his identity to the whim of the artist, who is also a prisoner of the creation, for as his hand has worked to capture the presence of the model a vital part of the substance of his own life has flowed away from him forever into his work." That last idea frightens even me, though I will support it and am also willing to believe that it's true. To the charge of being "a prisoner of the creation," I plead guilty.

In recounting his experiences with each of his portraitists -- the sittings range over close to 60 years of his life -- Lord provides himself with an effective structure for an oblique but deft memoir in which he reveals much about his own personality and his unusual life. It has been largely devoted to art and artists -- to meeting them and inspecting their work and writing books about both, along with art reviews and essays for art catalogs. ("A Giacometti Portrait," Lord's small volume about being painted by Alberto Giacometti, is a day-by-day account of the many sittings the artist required before he was satisfied with the result.) Lord's privileged background is implied rather than stated, but however acquired, a quality education and a lack of financial worries are distinct advantages in the pursuit of a career dedicated to art, whether making it, collecting it or writing about it.

Lord's interest in art began with a visit to the Picasso retrospective mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in 1939. Five years later, when, as a serviceman in World War II, he was on leave in Paris, he had the temerity to knock on Picasso's door without an introduction. Belying the artist's dauntingly forceful and sometimes fierce public image, Picasso not only received him kindly but granted his request for a portrait. An indifferent pencil drawing on which Picasso spent only a few minutes, it nevertheless has the master's signature as well as an inscription to Lord, who took the drawing away with him. On Lord's second visit to Paris a few months later, Picasso received him again and at his request did a second and better drawing of him, this time deigning to achieve a likeness. Lord took this drawing away with him too. (Since he makes no mention of money changing hands, I assume both portraits were gifts.)

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