University Of Tasmania
149989 - Performative portraiture.pdf (297.49 kB)

Using Michael Fried's theories of tableau and morceau to shift portraiture’s informative function to a performative function

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-21, 07:32 authored by Anthony CurranAnthony Curran

Portraits can be assessed through their descriptive or didactic potential with regard to their subject. When their subject matter is anonymous, portraits can be disregarded as inconsequential. This limitation contributes to the long-standing perception that portraiture is a ‘lesser’ form of art.

This paper proposes an alternative to judging the success of a portrait through aesthetic and narrative principles and in doing so, extinguish the need to ‘identify’ the subject. It assesses the internal dynamics of portraits as a finished pieces of fine art, rather than descriptive summations of individuals as a historical document. The enduring value of a portrait, as a work of art, comes from the artist’s focus on the internal formal and narrative relationships of the work in order to transcend mere description.

Determinations about the convincingness of a work of art are found in 18th and 19th century French notions of tableau and morceau as outlined by art critic and historian Michael Fried. These concepts have enduring significance in contemporary aesthetics despite shifts towards the blurring of art and life in the twentieth century. They also influence the critical reception of portraits, anonymous or otherwise.

Fried’s concepts were tested in a series of artist residencies undertaken by the author. The studio development shows that by focusing on performative potentials within the work, rather than looking at the informative potentials, portraiture can build a distinctive sense of intrigue and subsequently possess a stronger position within the discipline of fine art.


Publication title

Fusion Journal








School of Creative Arts and Media


Charles Sturt University

Place of publication


Rights statement

Copyright 2016 The Author(s) Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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  • Open

Socio-economic Objectives

The creative arts

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