Portraits: Yuri Katz, Zvi Lachman and Assaf Romano

(A Course on the Genre of Portrait Painting)

Prof. Haim Maor


How does an artist look at his or her other's face while painting or photographing it?

Portrait representation is one of the primary genres in art history. It ranges from figurative-realistic depiction to schematic-conceptual portrayal, which using a few lines leaves it to the viewer to fill in the gaps by him- or herself.

Among art media, schematic drawing is considered the lesser credible, lesser compatible with the real physiognomy of the person portrayed. A figurative painting is conceived as more realistic, as a better likeness of the portraitee. Nevertheless, we perceive even a faded blurry passport photo as more "real" than the most realistic painting, since we believe that, unlike a painter's brush, the documenting camera does not lie, beautify, enhance, or impart subjective meanings to the portrait.

In his book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes: "what I see has been here, […] has been absolutely, irrefutably present […] no painted portrait, supposing it seemed 'true' to me, could compel me to believe its referent had really existed."[1]

He asserts that "every photograph is a certificate of presence,"[2] but also goes on to say that "in front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am […]."[3] Were he alive today, in the age of Photoshopped digital photography, he would very likely be aware of the fictive and simulative aspects of the medium and change his mind concerning the photo as a "certificate of presence." Be it as it may, our identity cards still carry portrait photos rather than paintings or drawings.

By giving his portraitee a "makeover" and a desired – albeit somewhat fictive – image, Tudor court painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) could portray Henry VIII in a way befitting the marketing of contemporary presidents and prime ministers. The king's body language, countenance, look, outfit and accessories as well as the position of his hands and the background color partake in the making of this effective, idealized, representational portrait.

The art of physiognomy, scientific and pseudo-scientific theories and the will to project animal and human attributes onto the one and the other urge artists to make expressive portraits, which deal with the surface as well as reveal the character of the portraitee, by linking together, superimposing, or juxtaposing human and animal faces. Sometimes, painted or photographed portraits are presented as a series, which features individuals belonging to or representing a subgroup in society (intellectuals, youth, soldiers, men of means, women, migrant workers, felons, family members, etc.).

Some portraits betray stylistic and designing elements inspired by another culture. African influence, for example, is clearly discernible in some of Pablo Picasso's self-portraits: the African mask has become his face mask with all its connotations.

Human face can serve as a surface projecting visual or verbal information. Man is not only molded by the landscape of his homeland. Sometimes, the landscape or the map of his homeland is etched in his face attesting his origin, culture, beliefs, and so on. In this case, his road map, the ways of his life or his childhood's landscape are drawn, tattooed, or engraved on his portrait. Some artists write meaningful texts or draw their family tree on their face. Their family heritage is etched or tattooed, as it were, on the skin. However, the complex self-portrait genre merits a separate discussion that is beyond the scope of this essay.

At this point, I wish to return to my opening query: how does an artist look at his or her other? What does this looking at entail? Does it describe a simple act of peeping fleetingly at the face of the other? Or perhaps it has to do with special inspection, focused, contemplative and pensive, that brings forth a deep understanding of the person at the face of whose one looks?

What is a face? Is it only an envelope, a wrapping, an outer shell of the human skull, or maybe it also stands for man's inner content, his character and consciousness? 

What does the act of "looking at" the face of someone else mean? Is it enough to look straight forward at the outward appearance of the person sitting or standing motionless and quietly in front of one? Or maybe one has to look at the face, but also close one's eyes and envision the face of the other elsewhere as he or she moves, speaks, smiles, reflects, or reminiscences?

Who is this other? Is "otherness" a one- or two-way street?

How does a painter think and act while looking at his or her other? At the beginning of the process, he or she sees the face of the person sitting for a portrait as that of a mere model. In this stage, the artist is still entrapped within the perimeters of visuality, namely: seeking to discover visual facts about the model's features in order to depict him or her as he or she is. Only later, will the artist search for knowledge, trying to discover and unveil the model's nature, and interact with him or her. At this moment, the proceeding becomes either more emotional or more rational-conceptual. Thereafter, the issue of the one-dimensional outer resemblance to the model would no longer trouble the painter. He or she would prefer to delve into the multi-dimensional inner world of the model which would become the kernel of the work. In addition, the artist's world view is, perforce, externalized and projected by the work.

Looking at the face of the other also means really understanding that different is not synonymous with weird and that every individual is special and unique. In a real dialog between an artist and a model, the former has to look affectionately at the latter and – fully accepting his or her presence, rather than seeing him or her as a "transparent" object or thing (a still life) – respect, take heed of and not patronize the other's identity and culture.

In his book The Ethics of Visuality, Prof. Hagi Kenaan argues that "the face is testimony to the Other's absolute alterity."[4] Elsewhere, discussing Emmanuel Levinas's thematization of the other's humanism, he writes: "Why is it the face, for Levinas, that which reveals the radical alterity of the Other? […] Isn’t the human face precisely that which necessarily appears to the consciousness of a specific viewer […]? […] To begin with, the answer is a resounding 'yes'; the face of the Other always appears within a social-cultural-political context, within certain conventions and taxonomic systems that are often tied to domination, the abuse of power, discrimination and injustice. […] This […] is precisely where Levinas’s critique begins. […] According to Levinas, the possibility of encountering the […] otherness of the Other […] demands a radical transformation of central aspects of the self […], in particular, a transformation in our characteristic ways of looking and seeing, of listening and hearing. […] Levinas writes that 'This presence consists of in coming towards us, in making an entrance.'"[5]

Prof. Kenaan proposes to think about Levinas's "face" as a sort of an event or occurrence deriving from the words face and facing: "The face’s unique presence does not derive, therefore, from its visual characteristic, but rather from its act of facing. The essence of the face lies, according to Levinas, in the very event of facing or addressing. Addressing whom? An 'I', an ego, a self."[6]

The contemporary artist is not satisfied with the role of faithful observer who tries to convey "objectively" some sort of neutral reality. Instead, he or she opts to be an active and assertive onlooker who perceives a certain reality and interprets it according to his or her specific cognitive materials.

In her book Strangers to Ourselves (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), Julia Kristeva argues against the assimilation of the stranger, namely: the other. Instead, she advocates respecting the other's desire to remain a different being, a desire rooted in our right for particularity – the most sublime product of human rights and obligations.

The word portrait suggests faithful forwarding of traits. But does this mean that a photographed or painted portrait or self-portrait amount to nothing more than faithful forwarding of traits? I contend that this faithful forwarding should transpire on the axis of form – in-formation – deformation: form refers to idealistic portraiture; in-formation to realistic-expressive portraiture; deformation to expressive-grotesque portraiture. In this axis, artists consciously choose to explore either the outer surface of the model, or his or her inner human personality. Either way, the interior attests to the exterior and vice versa, and the artist's choice of the object of his or her gaze attests to his or her inner world and not only to that of the model. As a matter of fact, artists are required to make a set of meaningful choices in the process of painting (or photographing) a portrait: working with a live model or from a photograph, or invoking the portraitee image from memory; a single, intensive (or fleeting, cursory) short sitting or several longer, mentally and painterly in depth intimate sittings; presenting the portrayed person as a significant individual or as an anonymous, archetypical or "generic" human being, as "everyman," and so on.

The exhibition presents portrait drawings and paintings by three Israeli artists. Their works demonstrate and implement the three approaches to looking at and representing human portraits: form – in-formation – deformation. This somewhat didactic, schematic, tripartite division is used in this essay for analytic reasons. In reality, the artistic boundaries are rather fluid and blurry, and a work of art might consist of diverse blends of components and emphases borrowed from either or all of the said approaches.

Zvi Lachman's drawings include a portrait of his father and portraits of intellectuals and men of letters he holds in high esteem (Franz Kafka, Reuven Rubin, Avoth Yeshurun, Yehuda Amichai, Shimon Adaf, Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohen, and others). Sometimes, the looking at is direct, focused on a live model, and sometimes its object is a photograph. In the latter case, the reading of the photograph "conjures up"[7] the model in an attempt to "revive" him or her, or retrieve from memory the insights imprinted in his or her face. Lachman says about himself that he is not interested in the "envelope of a face," in the land cover of the face, or in man's outer mask. The portraitee has to be an intellectual, a creator, a man of vision, to whom the artist surrenders himself and identifies with. Just as the artist looks at the portraitee and fathoms his or her secrets, he or she looks back at him. At times, the portrait's features resemble those of the artist himself or of his kinsmen; poet Avoth Yeshurun resembles Zvi Lachman and Justice Haim Cohen looks like the artist's father.

Zvi Lachman: "What is a portrait? A human and spiritual identity imprinted upon a face. A presence whose existence cannot be reduced to its tactile contours. More than any other object, it is the portrait that compels me to question this 'presence.' […] Each portrait is not only an object of observation – it also looks at me. […] I am an object within someone else's field of vision."

Similarly to the drawings of Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), in Lachman's works, a phantom figure emerges from a tight network of lines. In the case of Giacometti, the lines are a testimony, or traces of the long, albeit futile, multi-layered Sisyphean search for the "right line" that would contain and define the figure. In the case of Lachman, the network of angular lines is a construction, the structural skeleton of the figure and the virtual three-dimensional space surrounding it. In any event, Lachman's portraits are first and foremost the lines, the grains of charcoal and the dried up pastel flakes laid down on paper by the artist's hand in order to set the viewers' imagination in motion and bring to life the shaded figures portrayed.

Assaf Romano chooses his models from the environs of his home in Har Halutz in the Galilee: neighbors, acquaintances and relatives. "These people," he says, "are practically available and essentially interesting. One can relate to and communicate with them. They are capable of real commitment based on keen and focused human intimacy: looking at one person in the course of 30 four-hour sittings."[8] Romano explains: "the encounter is a long, respectful, and qualitative one. Its nature is dictated by the bond forged between the portraitee and me. As far as I am concerned, potentially it's an encounter in which the human quality could be expressed as I understand it: a quiet, prolonged, one-on-one encounter."

Assaf Romano is aware of the three components of the painting: "the person/model and the attempt to remain true to his or her portrait; painting as a means and the capability to use it to the best effect; the painter and the way he or she sees the portrayed person. Into this situation the worlds of both infiltrate along with the visual resemblance."

 Most of Assaf Romano's paintings feature a portrait/bust against a grayish blue background, in line with the tradition of European silhouette portraiture. The portraits look like paper cuts separated and protected from the surrounding world by their backdrop. The faces of the people portrayed are furrowed like plowed land, etched with the wrinkles of time and the dregs of life. Sometimes, the skin of the face resembles crumpled paper. Associatively, I think of Lucian Freud (1922-2011) who treated the face of his models as a pile of rags or saggy chunks of meat. In the case of Romano, the events of life are inscribed in the face and crush it creating lit mounds and mountains and shaded ravines.

In Romano's portraits, like those of Zvi Lachman, the features of some of the portraitees resemble those of the portraitist. In the portrait of his grandfather Natan-Nika Germant this resemblance is an obvious given. However it is also discernible in the faces of men not related to the artist. He is aware of this and, implying that "their 'outsiderness' is a reflection of me," says that he prefers to paint people who look the world straight in the eye, but are also introverted. As they sit for him, these people are absorbed in their inner world, reading a book, playing an instrument, or listening to their earphones. The cut image does not allow us to see the object they are holding in their hand. With their bent heads and closed eyes, they seem to be asleep. In two of the portraits – that of his grandfather and that of his aunt – death is present. Romano uses old photographs to resurrect them from the dead in the form of "mourning portraits."

The figures painted by Yuri Katz are a figment of his imagination. Katz shies away from the personal-specific in favor of archetypical grotesque figures that, nevertheless, seem familiar. Resembling elongated marionettes with thin, fragile limbs, his figures are playing the game of their life and fate in minimal settings (an armchair, a bed, a hoop). They are doomed to solitude and desolation, sorrow and loss. Like the clueless, agonized and distorted figures of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Egon Schiele (1890-1918), and Francis Bacon (1909-1992), or the heart-wrenching protagonists of Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin (1943-1999), they are the last to acknowledge their predicament. Katz's dynamic and expressive brush strokes convey the figures' inner conflicts as well as his own emotional world as he looks at them with compassionate understanding and identifies with their suffering or misfortune. The soothing mask of the pastel coloration fails to hide the fact that "woe is you and woe is me, so bespeak the eyes" (Avraham Halfi, "Tzaar Lach"). Yuri Katz's paintings are vignettes, small touching images containing an entire reality that seems to burst out of the canvas. Their grotesque aspect is not translated into sarcastic-brutal expression, but rather offers a direct glare at the wretched of the world, with a modicum of existential grief. Their presence on the canvas moves along a strange spectrum, from withered former pin-up girls to displaced restless immigrants. Like a director or a critic, the artist's invisible hand creates for them costumes and scenery.

Three artists, three artistic styles and three modi operandi of looking at the face of the other shown in one excellent exhibition.


Biographical Notes:

Yuri Katz

1974 – born in Kiev, Ukraine; 1990 – immigrated to Israel with his family; 1993-1997 – studied for his BFA at Haifa University; since 1999 – teaches at Manor-Cabri High School, Kibbutz Cabri; 2005-2007  – studies for his MFA at Haifa University. Lives and works in Kibbutz Adamit.


Zvi Lachman

1950 – born in Tel Aviv; 1972 – graduated from the Department of Civil Engineering, the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa; 1980 – received his MFA from Parsons School of Design, New York; 1980-1982 – studied sculpture and drawing at the New York Studio School. Lives and works in Tel Aviv.


Assaf Romano

1964 – born in Haifa; 1992 – graduated from Bezalel Academy of Arts and design, Jerusalem. Lives and works in Har Halutz communal settlement, Central Galilee.



[1]  Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), p. 77.

[2] Ibid, p. 87.

[3] Ibid, p. 13.

[4] Hagi Kenaan, The Ethics of Visuality: Levinas and the Contemporary Gaze, London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 2013, p. 10.

[5] Hagi Kenaan, "Facing Klone: The Address of a Voice in Tel-Aviv’s Street Art," in: http://www.maarav.org.il/english/2009/07/facing-klone-the-address-of-a-voice-in-tel-avivs-street-art/.

[6]  Ibid.

[7] All quotes from the artist are taken from Zvi Lachman, Poets / Portraits, trans. by Gabriel Levin and Lilach Lachman, Tel Aviv: Rubin Museum, 2007, pp. 118-116.

[8]  All quotes from the artist are taken from an interview I held with him in Har Halutz on September 1, 2014.