How do we express our emotions through objects? The giving of gifts is an ancient, highly ritualised and pan-cultural phenomena amongst the human race. While some gifts might simply express obligation, courtesy, or more calculated aims, for the most part, the act of giving is something inexorably linked to intimate interpersonal and familial relations, acting as a means of simultaneously securing and expressing love to another.The gift acts as both symbol and guarantor of affection; the fact that it has been given is testament to the depth of feeling. The more intimate the relationship, the more intimate the gift itself. Throughout history, artists have been pressed into service to create objects which express and manifest the depth of human feeling. While often the glimmer of gold or shimmer of silk might suffice, artists have often allowed givers to go a step further, and to transform themselves from giving subject to gifted object. Despite the apparent insignificance of these objects, the small-scale portrait – in all its guises – frequently comes to embody rebellion and non-compliance to the regimen of sexual propaganda.
Let’s start simply, with portrait miniatures. Five hundred years ago, the portrait miniature became one of the most popular luxury goods available within wealthy European courts. Developing from the artists who honed their skills decorating illuminated manuscripts, these full colour works depicted sitter’s in exactly the same way as a full-sized portrait, and they fulfilled a similar function within the high-society world in which they were created. For example, whereas previous generations had exchanged life-size portraits prior to a marriage or during courtship – as with Han’s Memling’s depiction of Maria Portinari- the mid-sixteenth century saw the miniature become the preferred mode of exchange. While the guarantee of their realism was no more secure (with Henry VIII famously marrying Anne of Cleves on the basis on Holbein’s tiny likeness of her, but divorcing the “Flanders’ mare” on sight of the real thing) they nonetheless became a standard symbol of devotion and commemoration. While likenesses of blood relatives, particularly children, were common – becoming the early modern equivalent of the photo in the wallet – portrait miniatures in particular came to gain cultural capital as tokens of intense eros.
This is not really surprising. Despite their small size, they epitomised the decadence of aristocratic gifting. Their small scale – most being less than 8 or 9cm in diameter – meant that more expensive pigments and materials could be used in their creation; while a patron might not be able to stretch to a life-size likeness of him or herself in ultramarine, the small of amount needed to colour a miniature resulted in a particular zeal for the use of lapis in this medium. Likewise gold and jewels could be easily incorporated to increase value, where they could not be stitched into canvas or glued onto a bust. Most of all however, the sheer symbolic resonance of handing over your entire person, to be worn thrillingly close to the rarely seen skin of your beloved – with ladies wearing them within their bodices, and men inside a jacket – seems to have had intense psychological currency. In 1575, the Earl of Leicester Robert Dudley made one last legendary (perhaps mythical) bid for the heart of the Queen of England. The pair of miniatures he had created by former goldsmith Hilliard survive to this day, testament to the strength of Robert’s feeling, and to the opposing resolve of the Virgin Queen.
As time went by, the content of miniatures came to focus less on their representation of the sitter/giver, as they rather became a truncated fragment of the whole. Nineteenth century saw well-to-do gifters turning their backs on the body as a whole, and embracing instead detached parts which acted as coded reductions of it. These short-hand likenesses were most often in the form of ‘lover’s eyes’ realistic, full colour and usually near life-size renditions of the beloved’s eye. These objects reduce and concentrate the effect of conversation-like exchange generated by a portrait. Rather than squinting at an inches-high face of your lover in a quiet moment, the real act of eye-to-eye contact, the clash of gazes is replicated in these objects. The focus of the view and the realistic scale increases the feeling of intimacy, as it suggests a proximity close enough to reveal these details; looking at these objects, the supposedly sex-starved and passionless Victorians recreated the act of standing nose to nose, lips to lips with their absent loved ones, only to stow them back under their clothes when the looking was done.
The act of hiding seems crucial to the usability of these objects, particularly in this festishised form. One of the key features of the miniature is, of course, their small-size, easily stowed and concealed from prying eyes. By focussing on a part of a person rather than a full likeness, this effect is increased, as it introduces an anonymity surmounted only by the strength of intimacy between giver and receiver. Just as the extra-marital affair between Dudley and Elizabeth called for secret miniatures, so did other unconventional relationships demand these new, doubly-discreet mementos. On the occasion of their secret (illegal, unprecedented and unconstitutional) marriage, George IV and widowed, Catholic commoner Maria Fitzherbert exchanged a pair of eye miniatures. Their intimacy was compounded by their propensity for their illicit, making them the perfect gift to express, not just a depth of devotion, but the immeasurable secrecy even the most powerful matches required.
Aside from hiding, these miniatures also masquerade as something much less powerful than they truly are. Within Western culture, we’re inclined to equate ‘small’ as ‘insignificant.’ Even today with our full wealth of scientific knowledge, it seems a fair approximation to suppose that more people are scared of dying in an accident, or from an attack by a visible enemy, than they are of the potential of pandemic caused by microscopic germs. Such is the power of a miniature. Not only are they small, but their pairing within jewels and pearls, their containment in lockets and their suspension from ribbons makes them seem undeniably frivolous. Apparently harmless and secreted, they act as carriers of a host of dangerous feelings, navigating taboos to articulate unconventional understandings of sex and love. All this, and they can remain utterly secret. There’s nothing very secret, though, about a face. The face is one of the most potent symbols of the human condition, acting as a giver a receiver of codes and social interaction with a potency unparalleled by any other body part. The human brain is hard-wired to recognise faces, even where there are none (that’s why there are so many ghosts at the back of blurry photos, and so many messiahs in slightly burnt toast). With some cultural exceptions, everyone you ever meet will see your face. For the more taboo-defying relationships, a less conventional kind of miniature is needed.
What was more scandalous to nineteenth century America than an extra-marital affair? The extra martial affair of a statesman? Perhaps. A decades-long dalliance between said statesman and a female painter. Fetch the smelling salts. This was exactly what Boston would have had on its hands in the early 1800s, had it eyes to see it. For a relationship this piquant, however, devotion was articulated through the most secret of gifts. After falling from his horse in 1852, the deceased politician Daniel Webster was found to have in his possession a miniature now known as Beauty Revealed. Even today, the piece spends most of its time hidden in the stores of the Metropolitan Museum, because it’s a miniature like no-other. The likeness that artist Sarah Goodrich chose to present to her politician lover was, quite simply, a realistic self-portrait of her own bare breasts.
Even today, it’s a shocking image, if only because of the vulnerability and delicacy of the subject. Like Hilliard and countless others before her, Goodrich makes use of her impeccable technique with the finest materials available. Beauty Revealed is painted on a disc of ivory so thin that it is transparent in the light, with the entire image measuring only a few centimetres across. It is a tour de force of artistic skill, a crescendo in a corset rather than a storm in a teacup. Above that, it is an utterly unbelievable object. To imagine such an object not only given, but created by a woman in nineteenth century Boston, when even male art academies outlawed drawing from nude models, is a revelation. While two centuries before, Stuart ladies might have thought nothing of a heaving breast or exposed nipple, either in full-size or miniature, the creation of such a work as a life-size portrait by Goodrich would certainly have been found out, and she would certainly have been ruined. Again, the specific nature of the miniature demonstrably allowed both giver and receiver to break the rules, with Goodrich’s example adding the role of artist to this rebellious triumvirate.
How, then, is convention defying love manifested today? What do today’s scandalous lovers’ put a ribbon on? In many cases, it could be seen that we’ve made a return to the large. Like a solution in decadence Cluedo, Kanye West’s proposal in several foot high lights, in a stadium, with a 50 carat diamond ring, suggests that we’ve forgotten (again) that size doesn’t matter. On the other hand, maybe we’ve downsized completely, to the point of no material at all. Perhaps the choice is to display your love with the promise of being seen (a stadium, even if its empty, is still a stadium; to Kim, Kanye can promise to fill the seats), or with the converse, by making it so intangible that, with the help of a little encryption, they won’t even be able to find it in your jacket when you fall from your Bugatti. Is there still space, in our culture, to give the self as a touchable gift, to wear and hold the likeness of a loved one like a jewel in the hand?
Well, yes, because you can find any present in the world on the internet. But we’ve moved on a little from lover’s eyes (unless you’re feeling Freudian), and even from secret pearlescent bosoms. If you want to give a little of yourself away, artist Colin Christian has a new solution. Despite being a sculptor who works predominantly in the artificial medium of plastic, Christian’s J’adore pieces are blushingly real. Currently, a range of three skin tones is available, but the artist says he plans to make at least six colours as standard. For something a little more luxurious, a personal portrait can be commissioned, “featuring piercing, hair etc. […] [and] a few more labia shapes”. While being life-size, his framed vaginas are still the size of a compact mirror – in fact due to the range of skin tones available, there has been a little comment-section confusion as to whether they are in fact pressed foundation powders. What could be more frivolous than a heart-shaped, glitter framed, little present that looks just like make-up, and what could be more culturally volatile than a portable vagina?
As with the miniatures of old, the power of J’adore is compounded by its lack of practicality. Miniatures are, by definition, decorative. Making something purely decorative and then hiding it away is, in itself, subversive. A flurry of comments on Christian’s Instagram show users querying: “Is this is a toy or art?” and “Is this a fleshlight?”. Creating a sex organ which has no function as a subject object creates the same dichotomy. While Christian sees functioning as gifts like traditional miniatures, these are not works which are intended to hidden. Intended to showcase “the beauty of female anatomy”, Christian hopes the pieces will be visibly displayed in the home: “no shame”. These are artworks specifically designed to offer a challenge to the cultural and religious prohibition of the depiction of female genitalia – it’s not surprising that Christian has already found a client in headline queen, Miley Cyrus. Here the rebellious potential of the small-scale portrait, facial or otherwise, is purposefully activated by the artist, harnessed to present a tangible gift of the self, for the self and for another which even in our seen it all, pics or it didn’t happen culture would still raise a few eyebrows and drop a few jaws.
The act of giving then, even today, remains a highly loaded and culturally significant act – particularly between lovers. Yet, despite the vast amount of new luxuries available and the multitude of emergent modes of giving and receiving, it seems that the taboos of sex, love and bodily intimacy are still approached via the medium of the portrait miniature – and that they remain as potentially challenging and powerful as they have ever been. Now all you need to find is a heart shaped box.