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The Art of Making Portraits

by Theodore Zeldin

An excerpt from the Oxford Muse's latest book 'Guide to an Unknown City'

Thoughts that do not need to be secret

The world is filled with polite, shy, inscrutable, unintelligible, tight-lipped, superficial, dishonest and also honest people who for one reason or another do not say what they think. The search for freedom of speech has barely begun. Many do not reveal their thoughts because they are not sure what they think. Many would be braver in their speech if they were more certain of a sympathetic hearing. Many, particularly in places where success depends on conformity, are schooled to be hypocrites. The hidden thoughts in other people's heads are the great darkness that surrounds us.

Illuminating that darkness could be the great adventure of our new century, both through brain and cognitive science which have recently made enormous strides in unravelling the processes of thought, and through changes in our habits. Our attitude to free communication is still shaped by the Enlightenment, which believed that superstition and prejudice were the main obstacles to clear thinking and that education and legislation were enough to liberate it. But understanding the implications and motivations of what others say is still a challenge. We need a second Enlightenment to penetrate the many darknesses that remain.

There are many thoughts that are still-born because the mind is not sufficiently stimulated to bring them fully into being. The pressures of ordinary life are so preoccupying that the more fundamental problems of the art of living are avoided in normal conversation, and what is most important is often least discussed. Politics has been a long struggle against censorship, but self-censorship is more insidious than the silences imposed by the powerful. From the beginning of time, people have been unwittingly using some form of contraceptive against thought.

If thoughts are left to themselves, they remain lonely and limp. They become meaningful to others only when they are fertilised by interaction. Throughout history the focus has been on instilling conventional ideas into supposedly empty heads, failing to realise that making ideas is like making love, as opposed to mere impregnation. Every individual has sensitivities and memories that shape what they absorb. And until ideas have met many different kinds of ideas, they cannot know their own value. We need new ways of bringing thinking people together.

How to find the thoughts that the world hides in its head? They are only very superficially glimpsed in votes and polls. Only a tiny minority have even a portion of their ideas published in the media or in books. Confession in religion and psychiatry is strictly private. The study of the habits and mentalities of nations, classes and groups does not necessarily reveal what goes on in the mind of individuals, many of whom feel misunderstood or insufficiently appreciated.

The right to privacy is a necessary protection. But private thoughts are among humanity's most important assets, containing the essence of its experiences. What is recorded in history is only the tip of the iceberg. A larger portion of human experience can be beneficially shared with others, provided care is taken not to harm anybody in the process. That is possible if people learn how to draw out the lessons of their experience in general terms, and make them relevant to others. Too many people never really get to know their own parents, or never pass on their intimate thoughts to their children, and regret it. Too many people accumulate wisdom in their work that gets thrown into the dustbin when they retire. Governments have traditionally set an example of secretiveness, claiming that chaos would follow if their motives or their incompetence were revealed; but freedom of information has not brought chaos, quite the reverse. Secrecy is the child of fear. We do not need to live in a world held together by lies.

A new kind of portrait gallery

Whenever people develop new aspirations, they need a new kind of portrait. In the middle ages, when they were more concerned with a person's ancestors and property than individual talent, it was enough to have a coat of arms rather than the likeness of a face. The flattering portrait, making one look as rich and beautiful as possible, was invented to satisfy the search for higher status and the hunger for admiration. A longing for immortality produces the impassive boardroom portraits which are like tombstones made to be hung on a wall. But when every individual is perceived as a psychological enigma, the artist becomes an interpreter of the mystery, and is glorified even more than the subject. The instant photographic snapshot coincides with the belief that everyone can be interesting, but also that everything is relative and disposable.

Today, the rejection of role-playing and deception in relationships, the discrediting of political and business heroes who lie, the condemnation of racism and discrimination, mean that appearances count for much less than they used to. A portrait has to say much more when transparency and honesty become supreme values, and when there is a growing awareness that humans are infinitely complicated, that they are not entirely what they appear to be.

So the Muse is trying to develop a new kind of portraiture. We want to go beyond just capturing a mood or hinting at a character. We invite everyone to participate actively in the process, so that instead of meekly agreeing to be judged or categorised, they put forward their own interpretation of themselves. Our goal is to reveal as many sides as possible of an individual, the doubts, dreams, affections, and everything that shapes their understanding of life. We envisage a new kind of heraldry, which allows the representation of all that is most important to a person, the objects, places and people they love, the experiences they treasure, and not least the hopes they cultivate.

Our aim, eventually, when we have the resources, is to create an international multi-media portrait gallery, using text, film, photography and sculpture, but always enabling the individual to say: 'I am not what I appear to be'. Universities are built around libraries. We hope the Muse will one day be built around a new kind of art gallery.

What we have discovered about Oxford that is important to every other place as well

Portraits of individuals have the potential to make the city they inhabit more vibrant, more friendly and more interesting. Oxford is our first example. Its reputation does not accord with reality. By getting as many of its inhabitants as possible to speak their minds and to reflect on their experience, we find a very different picture of it emerging. The University of Oxford is not what either outsiders imagine it to be or what its own members would like it to be. 'Town' (in which an amazing variety of creative activities flourish) and 'Gown' have very limited contacts. That is also true of the many different communities, interest groups and informal networks. Within each there is a huge diversity of attitudes and histories. Tourists are shown ancient monuments and rituals that give little idea of the emotions hidden within them.

These portraits are an attempt to remedy our mutual ignorance. When neighbours who hardly ever exchange words harbour strange misconceptions about one another, when even within families it is sometimes difficult to speak one's thoughts, when colleagues at work hesitate to reveal anything that might damage their reputation, when the old and the young are segregated in separate institutions, then something new is needed to enable people to discover the richness of qualities and talents that surround them.

This is obviously only the beginning of a Portrait of Oxford. Many more voices are waiting to be heard. But we want this also to be a model that other cities can follow. It is a first step towards making a Portrait of the People of England, and of other places too. It took Nikolaus Pevsner 32 years (1951-83) to publish his 46 volumes describing the Buildings of England. We hope we can move faster. Those who have written a self-portrait frequently become interested in making portraits of others, in being a muse who can inspire others to broaden their vision of themselves and their potential, and the process grows organically. Creating portraits is not an activity for experts only.

We have tested our method in several other countries. We have done portraits of a business, a school, a profession. In each case we have been surprised by the amazing range of experiments in the art of life silently in progress behind the fa├žade. Now that virtually every place on the globe has a name, and the molecules out of which matter is made have been identified, and the 100,000 genes in the human genome have been mapped, it is time for us to discover what each individual feels and thinks, and not be content with passports and identity cards that say nothing important about the sort of human beings we are.

How these portraits are made

There are three kinds of portrait here. Some are self-portraits written by an individual, after a period of thought which could sometimes last for weeks or even months. Some are portraits in which a person had a conversation (or several) with a muse, which was then transcribed; together, they modified and edited the text, and produced the final version when they were satisfied with it. A few, exceptionally, are written in the third person, after a conversation, though we prefer to let people speak in their own voice. Often the subjects are people with whom one has had a distant acquaintance, and it is a revelation to discover how much is concealed by superficial contact.

All the portraits have two features in common. They are all based on conversation, or are the outcome of conversation. We discuss the art of portraiture with both the writers and the subjects. It resembles the art of making friends, because it involves self-revelation, reciprocity and the building of trust. Secondly, to encourage participants to look at themselves from different angles, we give them the "Muse Template" containing many questions on 24 different aspects of life - like ambition, friendship, solitude, curiosity, fear, love, compassion, destiny - based on the themes treated in An Intimate History of Humanity. This is only a stimulus; they are free to ignore all or any of these topics, and to give any shape they please to what is a work of their own making. The portraits are, of course, not meant to be full biographies. Different kinds of conversations, with different people, would very likely produce different results.

We want to enable people from every walk of life to say what they would like the world to know about them. Nobody needs to discuss anything they consider too private, but they can draw the lessons of their experience in general terms, without naming any names. They can help diminish the misunderstandings which plague the world and at the same time clarify where their life is leading, or could lead in the future. Portraits do not have to be exercises in narcissism. They can be a search for truth, an attempt to counter impersonality and superficiality in human relations.

Most of the portraits in this book were made by volunteers, many of them university students or recent graduates. They have valued the chance to learn from the experience of other generations and other social groups, in a process that enhances self-confidence and gives a sense of being useful. Sometimes, writing a self-portrait produces a sense of surprise: 'Is this me?' And others may say: 'That is not really you, not the person I know.' The result is to make one rethink the view of oneself that one has carried about. Some people have rewritten their portraits after having such reactions; or even produced several versions as a way of clarifying their idea of themselves. We also include two self-portraits by the same person - one in a taped conversation and one written with more time for reflection - which illustrate how different perspectives and contexts reveal different aspects of a life.

We plan not only to expand our portrait gallery of Oxford but to put the portraits on a website that will facilitate many more encounters. We shall be encouraging the elaboration of the portraits in different artistic forms, getting schoolchildren to participate, and organising conversation banquets that bring the city's inhabitants together in new ways. This collection is only a first sample.