WKND Special: 'Portrait is anti-selfie,' says royalty's go-to artist Ralph Heimans
His iconic portraits of the British royal family has catapulted him to stardom in the art world. Ralph Heimans on why human connection in art will continue to remain important even after we emerge from the pandemic
It is easy, perhaps even natural, to find oneself overwhelmed in company of royals. But when you’re a royal portrait artist, you don’t enjoy the privilege of being awestruck. Ralph Heimans would know. In 2017, the British-Australian artist was commissioned a portrait of Prince Philip right after he announced retirement from public duties. The portrait that Heimans ultimately produced captured the late Duke of Edinburgh glancing at the grand corridor of Windsor Castle. “In many ways, that corridor represented his life span. The light and shade that come through the windows depict the highs and lows of his life,” he says.
Heimans remembers being completely preoccupied with setting up of equipment when his subject arrived unannounced. “Which one of you is the artist?” he asked. Heimans remembers Prince Philip breaking the ice effortlessly. “Throughout the sitting, he would gently tease me. He was full of life at 95. It was challenging but I had a very direct approach with him,” he remembers.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth commissioned on the occasion of her diamond jubilee
In April this year, shortly after his death, the iconic portrait of Prince Philip was doing the rounds of the Internet. The farewell portrait resonated as it managed to capture the essence of his journey through life and the crown. When we think of royal portraiture, we tend to assume it will represent the subjects with all their might and glory. That is partly owing to the origins of royal portraiture in Greek and Roman empires where the royalty and nobility would be painted in light of their power. The Renaissance portraiture began to dig deeper. Today, in the modern world, royalty has had to redefine itself and its relationship with the public, which obviously means that royal portraiture has had to relook the way such subjects can be projected. One of the striking aspects of Heimans’ work is his ability to humanise royalty and capture them at the intersection of their public and private lives.
Portrait of Prince Charles
This incisive analysis of a person, their history and heritage is what drew him to royal portraiture in the first place. And while he admits that we are living in an age of selfies, he is also quick to point out that a portrait is anti-selfie. “We are flooded by imagery and many of us capture moments that say something about little fragments of our lives. But the portrait is the opposite; it is anti-selfie. It has to say something in one image that is permanent and timeless. That’s the challenge I love to take on with every new portrait, and capturing something about their general frame of mind. It requires a lot of discussion with the person and understanding who they really are.”
We meet Heimans at art collector Sleem Hasan’s residence in Dubai, where his work adorns the walls. These aren’t conventional portraits, but it is clear that the idea of human connection is central to his work. Where there is a person, there is a mind to be explored too. Heimans acknowledges that the dissection of the mind is the toughest aspect of the job. He says he trusts his intuition when he meets people, talks about the spaces that have had a particular significance to the subjects, reads voraciously on them. “There is that magical tension that happens between the subject and the artist when they meet, there is a silent agreement where the subject allows the portrait artist to scrutinise them psychologically. That is magic of the portraiture.”
That psychological scrutiny is not always possible with the royalty. Heimans admits that there is a barrier. “That is the ultimate challenge for an artist to say something about the royal subject, their personal character and how they have interpreted their role,” he says. “I also want to bring an emotional dimension. So, it’s important to be able to see behind the mask and paint the person and the crown. That is fascinating.”
Heimans may just have managed to do so in a portrait he drew of Queen Elizabeth II that was commissioned on the occasion of her diamond jubilee. He remembers it being an “extraordinary experience” because while you can prepare yourself to meet the Queen, you never really know how you would react in that very moment. “She was wearing the robe of the state, which requires four people to carry it,” remembers Heimans. “I placed her at the Westminster Abbey on the spot where she was crowned. It invited the viewer to get a sense of what she may have been feeling at the time. Through the darkness of the Abbey, she is surrounded by empty, vast space. It was my way of communicating the isolation and singularity of her role. I thought if I were to take her to the spot where she was crowned, it would obviously carry all that weight of history; for the past 900 years, every monarch has been crowned in that spot. It was the day when she took oath and she has carried that sense of duty remarkably. I was encouraged when the dean of Westminster Abbey came to see the painting and remarked, ‘I have seen that expression on the face of the Queen when she has been alone in prayers at the abbey.’”
Portrait of the late Duke of Edinburgh
Deep diving into the mind of subject can take an artist to various spaces, some of which are very grey. Heimans says that while he likes to see the good, he is not hesitant to delve into the grey. “My art is also dominated by strong light. But without shadow, you will have no light. You have to show a subject in all their complexity. In terms of my royal portraits, with Prince Charles, there were so many stories to tell that it was complex to choose one. In the end, that portrait has been about his pursuits in the real world. He wrote a book called Harmony, which reflects on his love for sacred geometry and interaction between natural world and art. These were complex ideas and I wanted to bring them out in the portrait. I spent almost 18 months on the painting.”
For a genre of art that demands human connection, the pandemic has posed quite a challenge to portrait artists. Heimans says he spent the lockdown in London and used the time to work on a number of commissions. But aren’t artists always in lockdown? “Yes, but human connection is important too.” He says that meeting citizens and creating new portraits wasn’t possible during this period, which, in turn, made him realise the importance of human connection. “It is irreplaceable for a portrait artist. You cannot produce art if you are not meeting people because every aspect of the person should be communicated through the art, not only how they look or move but how they interact, how they sound, how they speak. The soul of the person has to come through. You look at the silences between sentences to read a person. You cannot get that through a webcam.”
Princess Mary of Denmark
However, he acknowledges that the world of art will not be the same. “The most obvious sign of that is the explosion of NFTs, which is an outcome of people being deprived of physically seeing art in museums. Within that void, the desire to see art has led to this explosion of digital art. It’s just the beginning and is here to stay. Obviously, coming out of the pandemic, as we are, it is immensely enjoyable to reconnect with physical art. There will be an explosion of interest in art as we emerge out of the pandemic. But, the remnants of this time might be the presence of digital art which will prevail in some form or the other.”
In this part of the world, however, Heimans sees a hope with art being promoted as part of the ethos of Emirati culture. “The UAE seems poised to become one of the global capitals of art very soon,” he says. He adds that the emphasis on interfaith dialogue and tolerance will further lead to evolution of art in the region. Will portraiture continue to thrive? Heimans is hopeful because it’s basic human instinct to explore other human beings. “Portraiture will always remain contemporary and fresh because people remain contemporary and fresh, and they are truly fascinating.”