Portrait of Gustav Pongratz (1893)
Painting a group portrait is often very problematic. There is a challenge in compositionally organizing multiple figures on a canvas in such a way as to define a believable space while maintaining each subject's likeness, and to do so without introducing a hierarchy to the importance of the sitters (unless, of course, that hierarchy is necessary to the understanding of the group). When the company to be painted is large enough, it becomes difficult to create a picture which is more than just a sea of faces, with the subjects in the farthest reaches of the scene being, unfortunately, less substantial than the figures more prominently place within the tableau.
One artist who developed an interesting and disturbing solution to the problem of composing group portraits was the talented Croatian artist, Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922). To remove the challenge of fitting many bodies into a limited space, Bukovac simply decapitated his sitters - figuratively, thank goodness.
In 1906, Bukovac painted two group portraits featuring the severed heads of his sitters. Fantasy, a portrait of the artist and his family, featured the heads of his children strung up and hung from a wall in his house, with the heads of himself and his wife gazing up from a tray on a tabletop below the gruesome display. The Cabinet of Future Fame, once owned by Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria and now presumed lost, showed the heads of Bukovac and his students in the studio, wedged in and around a cabinet or hanging from the walls amidst palettes and mahl sticks.
Certainly, such portraits would not appeal to most clients; Bukovac limited this motif to persons with whom he obviously had a close bond (and to those who probably had a decent sense of dark humor). This solution, however, also said much about Bukovac, and his state of mind at the time. Bukovac, whose mother had died in 1905, had fallen ill shortly thereafter, suffering from a stomach ulcer, dramatically failing eyesight, and psychological disturbances which almost cost him his life.¹ His health gradually improved in 1906, but it is quite possible that his illness and thoughts about mortality had a temporary morbid influence on his work.
|Fantasy (Heads of the Family) (1906)|
|The Cabinet of Future Fame aka The Closet of the Future Glory (1906)|
Bukovac painted his own likeness in profile, third head from the left in the bottom row, wearing a cap.
|The death mask of Vlaho Bukovac, Prague, July 1922|