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VISUALISING IDENTITY

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I shall explore the ways in which portraiture mediates visual identity. Although I have some reservations about the ways in which the term ‘identity’ is currently used, it is nonetheless extremely useful for thinking about the manner in which portraits have been used for many centuries in at least some societies. They form, I shall argue, a distinctive type of social commentary by a specialised group – artists – who deploy their visual intelligence to interpret what they see and give it tangible form. They thereby occupy a special, privileged role with respect to ‘identity’. In the course of producing portraits, artists also draw upon and mobilise skills that most people use in everyday life – forming judgements on the basis of what they observe in others. Largely without thinking, we not only notice stance and gait, pose and demeanour, facial expression, colouring, dress, make up and hair style, but assume they provide clues of some kind about ‘identity’. In making a careful study of portraiture, historians can use a genre, its associated forms of display and institutions, to think more critically about ‘identity’. Portraits have complex life histories, taking on fresh meanings, testifying to ‘identities’ in ways their makers could hardly have imagined. In the lecture I hope to explore the complexities of visual identity via portraiture, and to do so using examples that will have resonances for a Cambridge audience.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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