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The person behind the face: The balance between Walter Benjamin’s exhibition value and cult value within two different forms of portraiture; photography and the tronie.

By Nathalie Schram

liefs-pappa-Nathalie-Schram-Liefs-pappa-nr-2.-2015.-512x691.jpg© Schram, Nathalie. Liefs Pappa. 2015.

You have probably heard of the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Yet in the field of narratology, there is still some debate on whether a picture can actually tell a story. Furthermore, there are even differences in the way photographs tell their stories as opposed to paintings and drawings. In this essay, the focus is on the tronie, a form of portraiture in which the identity of the sitter is unimportant. I will compare photographic portraits to painted tronies to create a better understanding of the differences between the two media. To do so, I will apply Walter Benjamin’s theory on cult value and exhibition value to portrait photography and the tronie, as the distribution of these values is oftentimes highly different between the two. The difference in value across the two media, as well as its cause, are further investigated by paying attention to the overlapping format of the photographic tronie. This case study will show how photography is able to fit within the description of the tronie, while also expanding its boundaries with new forms of the tronie that would not be possible to create through paintings or drawings. 

Born in 1892, Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish scholar and member of the Frankfurt School. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’, is arguably his best-known work. In this work, Benjamin discusses how the function of the work of art has changed, now that most artworks can easily be reproduced (by means of film, photography, printing press, etc.). The accelerated potential of technological reproduction did not only influence the balance between the different values of art, but also their perception, potential use, and perhaps even the definition of what art is (Benjamin, 23-25, 28, 33).

These reproductions, according to Benjamin, lack some important aspects of the original artwork: the here and now, the unique existence of the art object in time and space, is lacking; the reproduction does not have history or authenticity, it therefore also lacks the original’s Aura. Although the loss of aura is not necessarily positive, technological reproductions do allow for two positive things: the reproduction, especially if it is photographic or filmic, has the potential to bring out aspects of the original that the human eye could otherwise not see; and it “can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain” (Benjamin, 21-22). The copy can “meet the recipient halfway”, allowing them to see a work that is in another part of the world without having to travel so far (21). Today, the internet allows almost anyone to look up any artwork from wherever they happen to be. This would be an extreme version of what Benjamin calls “exhibition value” (25).
Exhibition value is one of the two poles within the artwork - cult value being the other. According to Benjamin, “Art history might be seen as the working out of a tension between [these] two polarities within the artwork itself, its course determined by shifts in the balance between the two” (25). In the very first artworks made by humans, the cult value in the form of ritual or magic was most important. Spirits or Gods were the intended audience, not humans. The invention of reproduction processes like photography and film allowed the artworks to emancipate from the service of ritual (25). This also increased their exhibition value as the works were no longer fixed to their places of worship. Technological reproduction thus caused a shift from the emphasis of the cult value of a work of art to its exhibition value, as well as a shift in the function of art because of this change of values (25).

One medium that is mentioned throughout Benjamin’s text, for its momentous acceleration and revolutionary means of the process of pictorial reproduction, is photography (Benjamin, 20, 24). In photography, “exhibition value begins to drive back cult value on all fronts” (27). However, within portrait photography something interesting happens, herein the emphasis is still on cult value, namely in the form of remembrance. Through its depiction of the human face, portrait photography allows one to remember “dead or absent loved ones” (14). It is this melancholy that provides the medium known for its reproducibility with an aura (27).
Schermafbeelding 2022-03-18 om 16.43.25.png
© Van Empel, Ruud. World#7. 2005.

The tronie, a form of portraiture most often found in paintings from the 16th and 17th century from Belgium and The Netherlands, is almost opposite to the photographic portrait in its distribution of value. Keizer defines the tronie as a portrait study of an anonymous person. Anonymity, in this case, can be understood in the broadest sense; Apart from the exact identity of the sitter, the period in which they lived was often also made ambiguous as models were portrayed in fashion that could not be placed at one point in time. Painters like Vermeer made their works “timeless” so they would not be outdated before they were even finished as the painting process was time-consuming and fashion was ever-changing (Keizer).

Tronies, especially those from the 17th century, often incorporated typical elements, which could include “the half-length or bust, costumes, a reduced range of colors, and a vivid brushstroke. In contrast to a true portrait, they only convey an idea or fiction of resemblance” (Huguenin, 642). Furthermore, in tronies certain facial features are often exaggerated and “do not need to follow the rules of decorum”, therefore these features might look like “caricatural or ugly features” (Huguenin, 642). This exaggeration was used to better reflect “the character of the person in the painting” and would “kindle […] curiosity in the spectator” (Van Gemert, 25). Tronies were thus not meant to portray an identifiable person, rather, they emphasized the features and behaviour of the person in the image (Van Gemert, 28).

One might wonder what their value and function could be if this form of portraiture did not portray an identifiable person and was therefore not meant for remembrance. Instead of representing one specific identifiable person, tronies were often used to represent a character or a kind of person (Van Gemert, 30-31). The exaggerated features of the people in tronies are thus not meant to represent appearances, but inner qualities. By doing so, the tronie was able to convey a moral message to its spectators (Van Gemert, 37). As the appearance was linked to the behaviour and social attitude of the portrayed, an appearance could reflect “either virtuous or reprehensible behaviour”, therefore tronies could be used to either “stimulate imitation of desirable conduct or avoidance of undesirable ways of life” (Van Gemert, 37).
The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens was one of several painters who used tronies as a way to control the work of his assistants. The painter would sketch out the composition he had in mind and instruct the assistant to put a specific kind of face in there. He would carry around panels with him which showed painted faces to use as examples for these works. Because of this, several similar-looking characters can be found in the work of Rubens, almost as if they were copy-pasted (Black, 65). Although small adaptations were made to these faces “to fit them to particular subjects, […] their expressions certainly can be described as generalised or idealised” (Black, 67). Rubens used these tronies in his work to represent a specific character or role (Black, 67).

The exact function of the tronie can thus differ as it is in some cases used to convey a moral message, but not always. For instance, Vermeer’s famous ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ is an example of a tronie that lacks a moral message. The common function of the tronie is then to portray a kind of person, a character, without trying to represent an identifiable individual. This aspect of the tronie excludes any cult value in the form of remembrance. However, painted tronies do have the potential to possess other forms of cult value, for instance because works like those of Rubens often showed religious scenes and could be commissioned by the church.
Although the tronie is traditionally painted, scholars have researched tronies in other mediums. For instance, Lia van Gemert researched tronies in Dutch literature. As photography and painting share their form of representation, both being visual mediums, they are more comparable than painted and written tronies. However, painting is based on testimony, meaning that it is a representation of how the maker sees the subject and thus allows the maker more freedom, whereas photography is a medium based on traces, it copies reality, which makes it “more difficult to go beyond the visible” (Speidel, 48, 56). Nonetheless, going beyond the visual is not impossible in photography thanks to editing programmes like Adobe Photoshop. Through these means, the photographer is able to create an image of a person without representing an identifiable individual. This allows a photographic work to be considered a tronie. Photographers like Ruud van Empel and Loretta Lux take this to the extreme, creating characters by combining the facial features of a multitude of existing people. These portraits can be highly realistic - enough to make people believe they are pictures of actual persons. However, as the people in the picture do not correspond to any particular individual, they cannot be said to generate remembrance and would therefore not have access to this form of cult value.

© Lux, Loretta. Girl with Crossed Arms. 2001.

The person depicted does not always have to be non-existent as in the above-mentioned works. The famous ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ is speculated to have been either a relative or an acquaintance of the painter Johannes Vermeer. However, these paintings were not meant as portraits as the sitters represented something other than themselves (De Vries, 197). As the identity of the sitter is not important and is also not known in this work, it is still considered a tronie (Huguenin, 642, Keizer). A photographic example of such a portrait would be the work ‘Afghan Girl’. The picture was taken in 1984 and became famous as a cover of National Geographic. However, the identity of the sitter remained unknown until 2002. Even now, viewers might still decide not to discover the identity of the woman therefore it still functions as a tronie. For those that do not know the sitter, it contains no cult value in the form of remembrance, but to her family, this is a picture of Sharbat Gula and does allow for remembrance. This demonstrates that the same photograph may or may not be imbued with cult value and remembrance depending on the relationship between the viewer and the person portrayed.

© McCurry, Steve. Afghan Girl. 1984.
Another important aspect of the tronie, besides the unknown identity of the sitter, is that it represents a specific kind of person, a character. This is exactly what photographers Ellie Uyttenbroek and Ari Versluis explored in their series ‘Exactitudes’. On their own, these portraits could be used for remembrance and would therefore be high in cult value, but by presenting them all together, the sitters lose their individuality and become almost a caricature or a stereotype. This shows that the presentation of a portrait can influence its cult value and potential for remembrance as well as its status as either tronie or portrait. It thus becomes clear that the status and value of a work depend on the presentation or context as well as on the spectator. This is confirmed by Lyckle de Vries who describes that the nature of the artwork (either portrait or tronie) should not be decided based on the image alone, but also on the context in which and for which it was made and the intended audience (198). This would explain how the images in the ‘Exactitudes’ series as well as the ‘Afghan Girl’ can be considered a tronie even though they show identifiable individuals.

© Versluis, Ari and Uyttenbroek, Ellie. 154. United Americans. 2014.
As the context and intended audience of a picture influence the values that apply to it, it becomes clear that when these factors change, the applied values and the status of a picture as either tronie or portrait can also change. Ask anyone on earth about World War II and they will probably mention Anne Frank. In all my other examples, the exhibition value and cult value seemed to be interdependent, when one is high the other is low and vice versa. However, the famous portrait of Anne Frank undeniably has extreme exhibition value because of how widespread it is, yet, it also has high cult value as Anne Frank has become a symbol of the deaths during the war. The image is used for remembrance of the dead; Not only her death, but the deaths of every Jewish person at the hands of Nazi Germany are remebered through this image. Images like these have become symbols of important events in history and are therefore invested with both high cult and exhibition value. Other examples could be the ‘Napalm Girl’ that aids remembrance of the Vietnam war, or the more recent image of the body of a three year old Syrian boy that washed ashore, which has become a symbol of the refugee crisis.

To conclude, by combining theories of the tronie and the cult and exhibition value of photography, we found some interesting aspects. In theory, the tronie should not allow for cult value as these portraits are supposedly anonymous. But my last examples prove that some of these portraits have become symbols of something larger than the sitter, thereby becoming a tronie like the genre paintings of Rembrandt. As a symbol of these events, these pictures stimulate the act of remembrance of the events, an act that Benjamin highlighted as the main source of cult value within portrait photography (Benjamin, 27). Furthermore, as symbols, these pictures have gained a lot of exhibition value, thereby disturbing the supposed balance between cult value and exhibition value (Benjamin, 25).
 anne frank.jpg
                                    Anne Frank. N.d.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, 1936, edited by Michael W. Jennings et al. Translated by Edmund Jephcott et al. Belknap Press, 2008. pp. 19-55.

Black, Peter. “A Rubens Tronie of an «Old Man with Curly Beard» in Glasgow. The Life and Afterlife of a Head Study Painting”. Tronies. Das Gesicht in der Frühen Neuzeit. Edited by Dagmar Hirschfelder & León Krempel. Gebr. Mann Verlag, Berlin, 2014. pp. 65-79.

De Vries, Lyckle. “Tronies and Other Single Figured Netherlandish Paintings,” Leids Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 1990. pp. 185-202.

Huguenin, Fabienne. Untitled review. Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 641–643. JSTOR, Accessed 31 Jan. 2021.

Keizer, Joost. “Image Cycles”. Theories and Analysis, 4 December 2020, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. Guest Lecture.

Speidel, Klaus. “Realistic distortions, subject specific style and the relative representational range of drawing and photography Oskar Kokoschka on Karl Kraus (and vice versa).”

Van Gemert, Lia. “The Stamp of Your Face. Tronies in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Literature”. Tronies. Das Gesicht in der Frühen Neuzeit. Edited by Dagmar Hirschfelder & León Krempel. Gebr. Mann Verlag, Berlin, 2014. pp. 25-38.

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