Mask or Mirror? A Play of Portraits

October 6, 2002 - January 26, 2003

Act 1
Masculine Masquerade
Act 2
Who is She
Act 3
Family Values
Act 4
No Body
John Wollaston, American (active 1751-1767), Portrait of Ann Gibbes (Mrs. Edward Thomas), 1767, Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches, Museum Purchase, 1946.1
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If Oscar Wilde's saying that you are who you pretend to be is true, can a single portrait ever represent the “real you”? Does a portrait sometimes conceal more than it reveals? And who is the “you” that is looking? These are just some of the questions raised by Mask or Mirror? A Play of Portraits. The cast of characters gathered for the occasion includes celebrated individuals and nameless faces who span over 50 centuries. All have stories to tell but while some reveal intimate details, others conceal aspects of their identities or fantasize the lives they wish to live. Like biographies, portraits are based on varying degrees and kinds of facts but they are also the result of artful storytelling and interpretation—a collaborative process that involves the artist, the subject, and you the viewer.

Julian Opie, Kate, model, detail, 2001, courtesy of the artist, Barbara Krakow Gallery, Boston and Lisson Gallery, London. Salomon Huerta, Untitled Head #11, 2002, oil on canvas, Courtesy Patricia Faure Gallery.
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As you encounter historical works from the Museum's Asian, Egyptian, Roman, European, and American collections alongside contemporary portraits, you are invited to consider how even the most traditional portraits are not always made with the singular goal of likeness but frequently involve elements of performance or role-playing, and degrees of anonymity or abstraction.

Contemporary artists challenge us to see any portrait not as a definitive version of an essential self but as a representation of selected attributes (whether lived or imagined, physical or symbolic) that have been edited and constructed to tell one of many possible stories. Looking at the tradition of portraiture through the lens of contemporary art—seeing it as a kind of masquerade—also reminds us that establishing ones identity is always an ongoing process. We can see, too, in the exhibition's contemporary installations by Julian Opie, Do-Ho Suh, and Sa Schloff how the profound impact of photography over the past century (particularly its accessible, oft-repeated, and informal “snapshot” nature) has shaped our collective sense of how and why we picture ourselves as well as who is pictured. This “play of portraits” is told in four thematic “acts”: “Masculine Masquerade”, “Who is She”?, “Family Values” and “No Body.”

A color catalogue of the exhibition Mask or Mirror? A Play of Portraits is available in the Museum Shop.

This exhibition is sponsored by Fallon Foundation and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation. Additional generous support provided by the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation and David & Marlene Persky. The Contemporary Program is supported by the Don & Mary Melville Contemporary Art Fund. Media sponsor is Telegram & Gazette