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Frank Schroder’s Theater of Portraiture

“All that I desire to point out is the general principle that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.”
-Oscar Wilde

In walking through midtown one evening you pass elegant buildings of old New York and Deco hotels like the Waldorf Astoria. Well-dressed matrons pass tourists and businesspeople on the sidewalks and the thoroughfares are bustling with traffic. Suddenly you notice the Roger Smith Gallery, a street level establishment with glass walls on the busy corner of 47th and Lexington. Track lighting floods the white walls of the gallery, but the space is practically empty, markedly distinguishing it from the world outside.

Frank Schroder, Obsession of the Other, January 2002, dimensions variable, courtesy Roger Smith Gallery and American Fine Arts.

Inside there is a single painting on the wall; the portrait of a pensive young woman in her late twenties with brown hair, wearing a slate blue dress. Facing the painting, seated on a gallery bench, is a young woman, who views the portrait on the wall. She too wears a blue dress, and her dark hair mirrors the coiffure of the artist’s subject on the wall. Is this indeed the sitter, of whom the portrait on the wall was once painted?

Gladys Rockmore Davis

Gladys Rockmore Davis painted this portrait in the1940s, and it was acquired by artist Frank Schroder as part of his project The Women. Was the sitter a patron, friend, or lover? All that we know about her is in front of us. She gazes out from an ornate carved window with the same melancholy she must have shared with Rockmore Davis in the artist’s studio many years ago. She is very beautiful, this unknown woman, but in no way idealized by Rockmore Davis. She dreamily reflects on something beyond our knowing, but she nonetheless captivates us.

Schroder, Hitchcock, and Mimesis

Frank Schroder’s tableau vivant at the Roger Smith Gallery calls to mind some of the most compelling scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo. In Vertigo, a private detective named Scotty is engaged to follow Madeleine Elster a shipping magnate’s wife who may be possessed by the spirit her great grandmother Carlotta Valdes. Scotty follows Madeleine as she drives to Carlotta’s former home and to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, an art gallery, where she sits quietly before a 19th century painting of Carlotta Valdes. Scotty observes (in subjective camera) that the bouquet of flowers sitting beside Madeleine is identical to that held by Carlotta Valdes in the portrait. Similarly, there is a distinctive curl in Carlotta’s hair is that echoed in the hairstyle of Madeleine.

Film still from Vertigo starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore and Henry Jones, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, USA, 126 minutes.

Frank Schroder orchestrates a similar discovery for the viewer. One of the most curious aspects of Hitchcock’s scene are complex veils of perception as the viewer watches Scotty watch Madeleine who watches herself (in the guise of Carlotta Valdes). Hitchcock also plays on the taboo of voyeurism and a titilating sense of danger because Scotty shouldn’t be following Madeleine, and the relationship between Madeleine and Carlotta may by supernatural.

Frank Schroder’s project is rich in allusions and associations but lacks any direct narrative. Schroder’s Roger Smith project grew out of a series of video portraits that the artist realized in France between 1999 and 2001. Schroder began to make portraits of women subjects with traditional media but was struck by the way his subjects’ expressions would change over time and his inability to render these changes in a static medium. As a result, Schroder began a series of half hour black and white video portraits, in which he would document the subject’s head and shoulders in a static pose. Already Schroder was loosely inspired by the experimental filmaking of Andy Warhol and particularly Empire, an eight-hour portrait of the Empire State Building from dusk to dawn.

By extending the video portrait into the relationship between painting and subject, Schroder creates a non-verbal dialogue between the actress subject and Rockmore Davis portrait. The expression frozen in paint on canvas conditions emotional responses of the actress in subtle ways. The painting becomes her locus of attention, at times mirroring her thoughts and concerns and at times sending them moving in new directions. Sympathy, empathy, understanding, and plethora of other emotions be they positive or negative arise from this gesture.

Publicity photograph from Vertigo starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore and Henry Jones, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, USA, 126 minutes.

Artist Subject

Unless it was a self-portrait, the unknown subject was not privy to the development of her portrait as she was sitting. She would have been facing the artist, and seen only the back of the canvas. She would have observed the artist as Rockmore Davis mixed her colors, moved her palette knife, and applied paint to canvas with brushes. A pleasant odor of linseed oil would have filled the studio and perhaps artist and subject talked about common friends, travel, food, or other matters. The subject’s inability to see herself, as she was seen by the artist, afforded a relaxed, natural sitting. In Schroder’s piece, however, the model contemplates the painting as a reflection of how this woman was seen by the world. In Schroder’s piece the actress becomes both artist and subject, seeking clues in the painting by which she can distil the psyche of this woman who lived in another time and place.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2002.

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