The Entomology of Portraits - An Interview with Hernán Cortés Moreno

Isabel Hernandez-Gil Crespo

“I need to be constantly surrounded by people who look at me.” Hernán explains to me once he has done a tour of the house, filled with portraits of friends, family, and some of the eminent figures who have modelled for him. These include multiple Norman Foster, Felipe González, and a number of Spanish writers, kings, and politicians: “I don’t really like mentioning my portrait of the King. People love kings, whatever they say. But I’ve painted so many others – you must have noticed, a good deal of them are writers.” In the prelude to the interview we talk about literature, and he tells me that he particularly enjoys reading aphorisms. He speaks fondly of Lichtenberg, and I know from his speech when he joined the Royal Academy of Fine Artsthat he is also influenced by Wilde.

After a while, we remember that this time it is his turn to model, and mine to take the lead in the dialogue that will allow me to study my subject with care. I begin by asking him whether artists have a responsibility to convey a message or at least a certain societies they live in through the individuals they convey. I am thinking of the artists he admires: Velázquez and Goya and their touching depictions of the common Spanish people, the vulnerable and the social outcasts, displayed in the Prado amid those of the nobility. But I realise that for Hernán the social role of portrait painting is a consequence of a more primary commitment to being in contact with reality: “Portrait painting is the art form through which one man recognises another. The artist must function as an entomologist. As soon as you let yourself be carried away by philias and phobias; by an excess of admiration, you are no longer painting a portrait.” For Hernán – whose Wildean influence is beginning to show – the world is somewhat like a stage, and portraits add a second layer of representation. If our personality is a partly deliberate representation of ourselves, then “it is the role of the portrait painter to depict both this self-representation for others and the human frailty underneath.”

To capture the difference between photography and painting, he explains how he once had to paint a portrait of a writer sitting on a wicker chair. He was stuck for days until it occurred to him to closely study how the wickerwork was made with a pencil and a piece of graph paper: “I imitated with the direction of the brush the way that the wickerwork had been crafted. The main difference between photography and painting is that to paint something you need to know what it's made of. If you want to paint a face, you need to be acquainted with the muscles and the skeleton beneath it.” Next to a wall of his studio where the paintings of his wife and children, there’s a more conventional collection of family photographs, also looking at us from a different reality. I ask Hernán whether photography can claim to have anything that painting lacks, “whereas photography is better at immediacy, painting aims at a certain atemporality. The latter has an added difficulty: before you begin to paint you need to deeply analyse what you are going to paint. Not everyone has what it takes to do this. To distance oneself from the work and then to plunge into the process.”

“Have you ever doubted that you have what it takes to be a good portrait painter?” I continue. “No, I don’t think so”, Hernán answers as he lets out a cheeky snort. “It might sound pretentious, but I haven’t. Of course many times paintings don’t eventually follow through. In fact, most of the time they don’t. You’ll know this if you are a poet. Creation is a constant battle with form and you need to pay attention to the positive things that come from that battle... And often you let yourself be carried away by pessimism. If that’s what you mean, then of course I have had doubts. But to think profoundly that I’m not well-suited?” He shakes his head. “No, never.”

I feel almost ashamed of myself when I ask him my last question: whether if he were commissioned a portrait for someone he considered truly noxious for society he’d try to get that thought through in his painting; try to capture that flicker of mischief, insanity or inhumanity that so many times comes across someone’s expression – if one looks at it from the appropriate perspective. I know that Hernán is not that shallow. All of the complexities of human character would rise up to the surface; even if one captured evil deliberately, a good portrait painter like Hernán would never make his pallette monochrome. Nonetheless, Hernán admits limits to his capacity for neutrality “If I have ever considered someone truly noxious I have always come up with an excuse to reject the commission. I wouldn’t be a good portrait artist if I had accepted it, because I wouldn’t have been successful in capturing that person’s contradictions. I remember when I was sixteen my older sister used to constantly go on about whom she liked and whom she didn’t like, she was always making judgements. And even then I thought: why would you ever judge people? Why not just observe them closely and get on with your own life? Even then, I was already a portrait painter. When you ask yourself whether you like someone, you are really asking: ‘Is this person a continuation of myself?’ And painting portraits requires you to look more closely those who are not. You learn most from people you don’t like.”

As I had expected it, Hernán’s sincere approach to portrait transcended even what might be thought of – maybe wrongly – as social and political engagement. For it must be admitted that human affairs, just like photography, require immediacy: manicheism is pragmatic; judgement is required; and the purity of understanding can be lost along our way to action. Today, however, Hernán asks me to adopt a narrative format for my interview; I must learn from portraits for my interpretive role. As I retrace our steps along Hernán’s long, cluttered corridors, I think I can find in all the glaring faces the same mark of craftsmanship I had long missed in aphorisms: a step back into what somecall superficiality, forming a thick coat of contradictions around our identical, vulnerable core.

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