One Hundred Portraits: Artists, Architects, Writers, Composers, and Friends by Barry Moser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Easily our greatest living illustrator, it's easy to forget just what a dark and curious art it is that Barry Moser practices. Really, it's not until one has the opportunity to see his work out of other people's books, picture after picture, all the shadows stacked, as it were, one atop the other, that one may appreciate just how thick the gathering dim. It's a technique, of course, and to do with the tools employed, but is just as clearly the artist's somewhat unforgiving vision. "Warts and all" in the phrase supposedly from Cromwell to his portrait painter, does not begin to describe Moser's brutally lined, deflated James Joyce here, or his all but coal-black profile of Twain. And neither is Moser's black meant to invariably suggest some dark night of the soul for each of his subjects. One of the beautiful and striking pictures in this book, for instance, is of Chopin -- reproduced here, one suspects at an enhanced size from the original, though perhaps not. Chopin hardly qualifies as a specially tortured soul. Here, barely rising from the surrounding black, Moser's famous lines thicker and and more obviously artful, the composer's face seems to just drift briefly into focus, like a message in a magic eightball. It's a remarkably beautiful if far from pretty picture.
More typically, Moser's mastery of his form seems best suited to the care-worn, the weathered, battered and blown, so that the faces most familiar from photography, and in at least middle-age, seem the most authentic likenesses. Dreiser, Borges, Cocteau in old age, and more cheerfully, if that's an applicable word, Jim Harrison and Eric Carle are all celebrated in the full dishevelment and decay. Perhaps the single most horrifying image might be Jonathan Swift, imagined in his toothless dotage, in a gargoyle's profile, not so much as a thought suggested in his head.
Which is not to say that Moser hasn't a lighter hand when called for. His Washington Irving, for example, reproduced as well as part of the dustjacket, conveys a wry amusement, as does Moser's Whistler. The picture of the Rev. Martin Luther king Jr, is notable for its optimism as well; no shadow of tragedy, but rather a bright and curving light that seems to run through the round and healthy face.
Special note might be made of all Moser's portraits of African American subjects here. From Sojourner Truth to Richard Wright, there's a restrained and respectful fidelity, and no hint of caricature.
Perhaps the single most faithful and affectionate portrait in the book, at least of the famous faces, may well be Hemingway. I don't know anything of Moser's literary preferences beyond his obvious interest in illustrating books by Melville and Lewis Carol, etc. It seems obvious to me at least that his Hemingway is not just beautifully detailed, but well nigh heroic. I don't mean any disrespect in suggesting that it's the kind of head that deserves a stamp.
Perhaps Moser's least successful portraits are those faces we know not from photographs but only from one or two paintings or a bust; Keats for example, or Dr. Johnson, neither of which really registered for me as recognizable likenesses of either writer (though a case can be made for having nothing but unalike pictures of Keats to which we might compare this one.)
My own favorite pictures here would tend to correspond to my own preferences among the writers depicted, but honestly, the drawings I've found myself studying most closely have actually all been of the least familiar faces: Moser's own, mostly, but also his family and friends. If my absolute favorite, more typically, is his drawing taken from Blake's remarkable death-mask, every bit as fine, in their way, are Moser's affectionate portraits of his parents on facing pages. There's enormous vitality in all three drawing, ironically only in the case of Blake.
With a rambling, quite charming introduction by novelist Ann Patchett and excellent production values throughout the book, this is a treasury well worth keeping, hard-by. I should think I will want Barry Moser's perspective whenever I might set to thinking about any of the writers included here. Nearly as easy to get lost in these drawings as in the minds of the artists depicted.
What an extraordinary record of a remarkable talent!
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