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The National Portrait Gallery in London has an exhibition of film portraits by Tacita Dean. It runs until 28 May 2018.

The first one you see is the trademark profile of David Hockney with his trademark circular glasses, and an even more recognizable trademark – a cigarette smoked without inhibition or self-consciousness. Love him, love his cigarette. There are a few edits of this sixteen-minute film so that we also get some idea of his studio in Los Angeles where he was preparing a selection of painted portraits for an exhibition in London. The screen hangs in the middle of a dark spatial cube with the film projected from a corner and the beam angled at 90 degrees by a mirror onto a backlit screen. This effect was terrific.

Sixteen minutes. When did I last spend sixteen minutes at one time looking at a painted portrait? The answer is that I never have. To see this exhibition you need to give at least an hour and a half to watching all the films one after the other – assuming of course that is what you do, which is not what I saw the trickle of visitors doing.

So what is the right length for a film portrait? Too long and the experience just becomes tedious; too short and it fails to become immersive. In the latter case why not have a series of photos? For example Mario Merz (2002), one of Dean’s first portraits, is 8½ minutes long. We start by being teased by a shot of Merz’s face in shadow, but in due course our wish to see the face properly is granted, and at the end we see him shuffling in his garden, poignantly enough since the film was made a year before he died. His prop was a pine cone because he was fascinated by the Fibonacci Series (Google it). Would it have been the same if we had seen four photographs: face in shadow, face in sunlight, garden, pine cone? At least the film draws us into spending time in his presence provided we are patient, whereas a few photographs would be viewed in a minute or so, and leave a different impression. A photograph gives a likeness; a film portrait can give a likeness but also an atmosphere.

Another relatively early work is Michael Hamburger (2007) made in the author’s Suffolk cottage, a film that comes closest to a conventional film portrait, except that its capturing of the atmosphere of the house and garden as much as of Hamburger himself breaks out from these conventions. Hamburger was a poet and translator, but the film particularly focuses on his interest in the different varieties of apples he grows and the orchard belonging to the house. So weather is important in the film and it ends with a shot of a rainbow over the house, a sacralizing event.

There are disappointments. Providence (2017) is shot on anamorphic film (which produces a wide-screen ratio of 1 (height) to 2.35 (width), effective enough in the case of Michael Hamburger) so that Dean can juxtapose the actor David Warner in profile, filmed in the UK, with hummingbirds filmed in Los Angeles. If you wonder about this juxtaposition (and there is no obligation to do so – just accept it) you have to be told in the caption that Warner loves hummingbirds. This is at the same time banal (who would not love watching hummingbirds?) and annoying (why do you have to read a caption to learn this? Could this information not be incorporated in the film in some way?). I had my own private disappointment with the film, which is not Dean’s fault. I have still a vivid memory of Warner as Henry VI in The Wars of the Roses at Stratford in the early sixties, and as Hamlet at Stratford in 1965, playing him as a disaffected student and thus chiming with the mood of the times. Seeing this low-key film of him somehow felt flat: I wanted him to launch into Shakespeare. Still, there is an interest in seeing an actor onscreen trying not to act. Was Warner deliberately trying to avoid performance? This is an interesting point about all film portraiture. Perhaps even with painted portraiture it could be said that Titian’s subjects (for example) could all be said to be performing. Photographic portraiture on the other hand is just as good when it captures the subject off-guard, a technique that Degas and Lautrec, for example, tried to make use of in the nineteenth century.

Nor could I be bothered with Manhattan Mouse Museum showing Claes Oldenburg arranging objects in his studio. My indifference may have had more to do with observation fatigue on my part as much as a lack of interest in the subject, which I concede might be very revealing to Oldenburg fans.

That fatigue was partially caused by trying to take an interest in the 29-minute film portrait of Cy Twombly (Edwin Parker, 2011), made in Twombly’s studio in Lexington, Virginia but being hardly familiar with his painting I somehow could not rouse any great enthusiasm. The film certainly had a characteristic gentleness and respect for its subject and the glimpses of his studio made him feel elusive, which is probably the point. Similarly elusive was the visit he makes with two friends to a restaurant in Lexington which was a desultory affair reinforced by their inaudibility as they made conversation. Dean also shows in the exhibition fifty or so underwhelming photographs taken in Twombly’s studio, especially disappointing.

The best in fact came last. A large space, which I measured as roughly 35m long by 13m wide is given over to a six-screen installation of a film portrait of Merce Cunningham (Merce Cunningham performs Stillness, 2008). Here is a rough sketch of these six screens and the projectors to show how the spectator could wander around the space:

Tac Dean installation of Merce C portrait

The film loop is relatively short because it is of Cunningham ‘listening’ to the composer John Cage’s piece ‘4 minutes 33 seconds’, a silent composition except that it is not silent because it makes you listen to ambient sound, which in this case is coming up from the New York street below, emphatically ambient you might say. With the six soundtracks going in one space, plus the sound of six projectors, the effect is positively raucous. Between them these six projected films of Cunningham make up something of a hologram, a definite virtual presence in a way the other portraits are not, and by far the most immersive work of all.

In the end I realized I was fatigued by watching all these elderly men, since of the eight works shown only GDGDA (2011) is of the relatively young female artist Julie Mehretu.

I should not be telling Dean nor the NPG about their business but I did want more variety of portraiture: more people, not just celebrated elderly male artists. And I wanted shorter, sharper, wittier films. I was disappointed too by the number of technicians involved for each film. For example, I counted eight for the Hockney film portrait plus a number of laboratories involved, which made the film seem overdetermined. Surely these film portraits can be made with someone operating the camera, someone doing the sound, and Dean making it all happen in the way she wants?