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Boy portraits. Paula Coston puts boys in the frame – but herself, really

January 18, 2014
Smiling boy in Cambodia. Photo by Nisa, 2010, at blog called cookiesound.

Smiling boy in Cambodia. Photo by Nisa, 2010, at blog called cookiesound.

It’s all in the eye of the beholder: not just beauty, everything visual. Scientists may have proved it and countless art critics said it, but to me it’s self-evident anyway that we bring our own experiences, emotions, desires to what we see. It’s all a construct. Take this smiling boy.

His expression of happy mischief gives me pleasure – but disappointingly, then the feelings drop away. He seems to be all right, after all; so beyond curiosity about him, my responses aren’t prompted further.

'And when did you last see your father?' by W. F. Eames, mid-nineteenth century.

‘And when did you last see your father?’ by W. F. Eames, mid-19th century.

When I mulled over the idea of looking at boys in art and photography this week, the first painting I thought of – maybe some of you would have done the same – was this one. The rich little English Royalist boy, his weeping sister held back behind him, isolated in a pool of light as he’s interrogated by his Parliamentarian captors and invaders of his home. It’s not a portrait as such, but his lonesome dignity has a more profound effect on me than the close-up photo, old sentimentalist that I am: pity; even, in some frustrated sense, a desire, pointless across time and space and another plane of reality, to help.

Son of a Taliban suspect being interrogated by two soldiers in Afghanistan. 'They asked him for his father's aliases, but he just replied, weeping, that he only knew him as 'Dad'. Photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum for the 'New York Times', 2009.

Son of a Taliban suspect being interrogated by two soldiers in Afghanistan. ‘They asked him for his father’s aliases, but he just replied, sobbing, that he only knew him as “Dad”‘. Photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum for the ‘New York Times’, 2009.

You can find this image on the internet under the same title as Eames’s painting. I love this photo, but confess it’s a bit of a cheat including it, as with this, for me, it wasn’t just a question of viewing: I read the backstory first (see caption), so couldn’t help but be affected. The Eames title is apt though, as for me, even without that knowledge, it would have much of the same mood: the subject is a boy framed and distant, unreachable in his state of human siege. And again, I want to put out a hand and help him.

On to other boys, other times and places.

Unknown boy, by the 16th century Florentine painter Agnolo Bronzino.

Unknown boy, by the 16th-century Florentine painter Agnolo Bronzino.

The boy above, gazing slightly downwards and askance, is thoughtful, at the least; but I find myself superimposing sadness on him too, if not sullenness and rebellion. I like to imagine that he was grudging, reluctant to be captured in paint. I self-examine: why? The conclusion I draw is that if I see him as sad, I can imagine offering succour; and that if I see him as churlish, I can imagine engaging with him somehow, if only in lively argument. We should find grounds to interact.

'The Guitarist' by Norbert Goeneutte, late 19th century.

‘The Guitarist’ by Norbert Goeneutte, late 19th century.

I notice that it’s not any conventional, modern-day notion of beauty or handsomeness that attracts me. I don’t find The Guitarist good-looking: his lips are too plump and his eyes a bit bug-rounded for my tastes. And yet he does attract me. I think, as with the boys above, that it’s partly the air of separateness that goads me. He’s turned away, preoccupied with his music, remote and unconcerned with me, the viewer. And there’s another dimension that provokes me, his sense of ‘other’ – not sexually, but definitely in gender. Despite his looks, which we might consider feminine today, something about his face alone clearly says ‘boy’ not ‘girl’. I want, in some way that an other-worldly spectator – female at that – can of course never achieve, to make him turn, stop what he’s doing, maybe succumb to a smile.

Early 20th-century photo of boy in dress.

Early 20th-century photo of boy in dress.

With this boy, my urge to help or rescue returns to me with a vengeance. Despite his almost stern, patrician look – if a child can look patrician – I feel so strongly that he’s posed, and – with a 21st-century viewer’s prejudices – dressed in the ‘wrong’ fashions for a boy – that I turn him into a victim, maybe without any justification. I’ve got to do something about him: have a stern word with his parents or the photographer, at the least.

Double portrait of boy boxer before and after a fight, by Nicolai Howalt, courtesy of Gallery Edel Assanti.

Double portrait of boy boxer before and after a fight, by Nicolai Howalt, courtesy of Gallery Edel Assanti.

Of these twin images, the one that arouses the most intense feelings is the ‘before’. Knowing the context as I do, so again, slightly cheating, I can see that this boy was already damaged before he fought his fight. There’s a subtler reaction, too. If I examine him objectively, his face seems neutral, wiped of all emotion. But I want him to feel the force of what he’s doing to himself; I’m angry or something that – to my eye – he seems not to feel anything. These could be passport photos; he doesn’t seem to recognise his own self-exposure; he doesn’t seem to care how he appears. I want to rescue him not just from boxing but from himself.

Boy in the streets of Gazi Baba, Skopje, Macedonia, by Dan Uneken, 2011.

Boy in the streets of Gazi Baba, Skopje, Macedonia, by Dan Uneken, 2011.

As for Dan Uneken’s fantastic close-up, above, how could a boy with those limpid, haunting eyes not actually be feeling haunted? Again, something in me needs to see him as victim, whether he is or not.

'The Crying Boy': mass-produced print of a portrait by Bruno Amadio ('Bragolin')(1911-1981), one of many such images of crying boys - and, less commonly, girls - that became popular in English homes from the 1950s onwards.

‘The Crying Boy’: mass-produced print of a portrait by Bruno Amadio (‘Bragolin’)(1911-1981), one of many such images of crying boys – and, less commonly, girls – that became popular in English homes from the 1950s onwards.

What intrigues me about my responses to all these pictures – maybe with the exception of the first – is how I not only weave my own stories around their subjects but also yearn to change their outcomes. I want to be somehow involved. I’m building my own myths of myself-as-woman-and-boy.

And I’m not alone. Viewers of images do this. The image above has a whole host of ‘folk belief’ round it. Interestingly, this particular print was popular with women owners.

The stories about it started in 1985, when a fire in a council house in Rotherham engulfed everything except one of these framed images. Then the Sun newspaper began to report fires in other homes where this same boy was displayed – again, with no damage to the print. Somehow, as the rumours gained momentum, the boy’s survival turned from a feature into the cause of the blazes in the first place. He became unlucky: a curse. Although firemen speculated that the reason he didn’t burn was because he was printed on high-density hardboard, which has a high ignition point, the press began to report that nonetheless members of the Fire Service were reluctant to take charge of these copies.

Legends accreted around the Crying Boy over the years. One ran that those who were ‘kind’ to the print would get good luck; another that placing a print of a crying girl next to this would neutralise the danger (a theory with subtle connotations about attitudes to gender). A third hypothesis suggested that the spirit of the boy was trapped inside the picture, and was starting fires in an attempt to free himself. A fourth, which gained increasing currency, was that the original model had been badly treated by the artist.

Writer Tom Slemen claims to have researched this theory further in his book Haunted Liverpool (2000). According to him, the boy was a sorrowful, mute street urchin called Don Bonillo, found in Madrid, who was claimed to have run away from home after seeing his parents die in a fire. Despite warnings from a priest, Bragolin adopted the boy, but then his studio went up in flames and the boy, distraught, ran away. Various locations in Spain began to report unexplained blazes, maybe caused by the boy ‘Diablo’; then one day in 1976, a car exploded on the outskirts of Barcelona, and the charred remains identified from a driving licence as Don Bonillo. A decade later, the myths resurfaced in England.

More of this disconcerting tendency of the collective psyche to myth-make at http://drdavidclarke.co.uk/urban-legendary/the-curse-of-the-crying-boy. When it comes to pictures of sad children, it seems that people, including me, just can’t help but interpose themselves.

As I said earlier, there’s science behind my reactions to all these portraits. Christina M. Leclerc and Elizabeth A. Kensinger (both women, notice) explain it in their paper ‘Age-related differences in medial prefrontal activation in response to emotional images’, Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, 2008, 8(2), pp.153-164. Apparently, women tend to react more than men to ’emotive’ visual images. Apparently too, there are dual dimensions to our responses: ‘valence’ (whether we perceive a visual experience as positive or negative, and how much) and ‘arousal’ (whether we are excited/agitated by that experience, or more soothed and subdued). By their lights it would seem that, when viewing portraits of ‘sad’ boy children, I’m towards the high end of the calibration towards arousal. I want to act or react more, not less.

But that’s just ‘the science bit’.

'Francis'. Egg tempera on panel by Benita Stoney. Reproduced by permission Benita Stoney.

‘Francis’. Egg tempera on panel by Benita Stoney. Reproduced by permission Benita Stoney.

One thing I know for myself and by myself is, I love the nuanced work of this female artist based in the west of Ireland. Egg tempera is a wonderfully sensitive medium anyway, redolent of centuries of great art; but, compounding all that, she tells me that ‘Francis’ is a cousin, and I sense that aspect powerfully: her affection. To me he’s happy and wistful and thoughtful, all at once. As a mature female viewer, I experience gladness at his contentment, but if I could, I’d like to cherish him as much.

This post is dedicated to Benita Stoney, whose award-winning work, to commission and on spec, deserves a long, self-scrutinising, appreciative look at http://www.benitastoney.com.

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