Plaque portrait

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Plaque of CharlesⅠ,[From Robinson, A Portrait Plaque of Charles Ⅰ, The British Museum Quarterly, 17(1), 1952, p. 10.]

Definition: Plaque[1]


  • 1. A thin, flat plate or tablet of metal, porcelain, etc., intended for ornament, as on a wall, or set in a piece of furniture.
  • 2. An inscribed commemorative tablet, usually of metal placed on a building, monument, or the like.
  • 3. A platelike brooch or ornament, esp. one worn as the badge of an honorary order.

(Cited, plaque. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved December 04, 2010)

The Aesthetic of Portrait

From, Kinney and Cutler, A Late Antique Ivory Plaque and Modern Response, American Journal of Archaeology, 98(3), 1994, p.459
From the perspective of psychoanalysis, Lacan’s theory takes a place on the most far-reaching theories: “The mirror stage.” Before beginning with the brief illustration of Lacan’s theory, it's important to understand how people construct themselves in cognition and how to illustrate ‘the self’ and ‘the other’, to be specific, the subjectivity and objectivity. The most far-reaching theory in psychoanalysis – which is the mirror stage – is about formation: “the forming of and I, of an identity.” (Gallop, 1983:119)

According to Gallop (1983), “the mirror stage is a turning point. After the subject’s relation to himself is always mediated through a totalizing, unified concept – a division between an inside and an outside – there is no ‘self’ before the mirror stage.”(120-121) In this note, Gallop asserts “It is a turning point in chronology of a self, but it is also the origin, the moment of constitution of that self.” (121)

In addition, the moment of formation itself is one of the constituent foundations to build up the development of a portrait. Moreover, the mirror stage would be the first moment to realize self and the other and promotes the first historical sketch on the portrait.

Iconography and disjuncture: Between the portrait and photography

As the moment of formation of self,iconography illustrates either being seen, or seeing in various ways. Before photography, the portrait has the authority not only to encode figurative images but also to exist as an archive. “Hence Iconography, as a term approximately parallel to bibliography, means the gathering of images or representations which show some stated subject or person or place or symbol, so that the subject may be studied in the light of various ways in which it has been recorded by artist and photographers.” (Vanderbilt, 1958:107)From the point of the iconographical view, the image would be a homogeneous character between the photography and the portrait. On the other hand, the encoding process for photography is quite different. First of all, Richter reasserts Adorno’s definition of the self-portrait below: “While Adorno’s self-portrait is, in both versions, also about the very process of being looked at -caught – in the act of self-portraiture, the second version makes the dimension of spectatorship more explicit.” (Richter, 2002: 5) If so, the characteristics of the photograph would be briefly defined as below: “The Photograph is “the advent of me and as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity,” then the “madness of photography” can be said to have “transformed subject into object, and even, one might say, into a museum object.”(Richter, 2002:-3) How do we recognize ourselves? And also how can we trace the method of representation? What is the beginning of iconography of the portrait as the way of representation? Derrida asserts “the portrait captures the eyes, meaning the gaze, meaning that far which, among other things, photography exists. We assume of the gaze that it is what the subject itself cannot see in its life. If you look at yourself in a mirror, you see yourself either seeing or being seen, but never both at once.” (Richter, 2002:3) As mentioned above, the portrait is considered an archive of representation. Moreover, the portrait may emphasize any point of view from the subject that is being seen; and then the portrait has its own authenticity, which is not to simply duplicate as many portraits as possible. In this sense, here is the most outstanding feature of the portrait. “It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography (my emphasis). The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty.” (Benjamin, 1935: 226) Among, the discourses about the portrait, the questions of authority and authenticity arise.

Questions of Authenticity

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Plaque Portrait of George Washington

The plaque is “A thin, flat plate or tablet of metal, porcelain to commemorate or intended for ornament.”Definition: PlaqueIn general,almost any material can be used to creat a portrait, for example paper, wood, stone, walls, etc…But the plaque portrait has limited accessibility and owns an authenticity since the materials for a plaque portrait are not common. “Among the most original manifestations of German art the carvings in box, lime, pear, and other finely grained woods which particularly characterize the sixteenth century. While other countries worked in precious woods, no country showed a greater predilection for these materials than did Germany; and in one charming bypath, the realm of portrait plaque and medallion…” (M.M, 1928:155) The origin of the plaque is described here: “The Original inventory description of the plaque dating from 1861, as published by Raftery (1941:106), gives the materials of the plaque as “thin sheet iron covered with pellicle of copper and gilt.” More than forty years ago, Raftery (1941:106) stated that “it is made of then iron covered with bronze. The latter was gilt, but the gilding is now nearly all gone.” In his most recent comments, Raftery (1980:34) states, however, that it is of bronze, and in addition says that “the features are raised from the back, where there are traces of an iron background to which the mount adhered originally.” The back of the plaque, of which a photograph is published here.”(Harbison,1984:1)In this sense, the plaque can only be created be a specialized group of people. Hence, the artwork made from the plaque has unique features.

The lexicon of space and illusion

Encoding figurative images onto the Plaque

From, Strong, A Bronze plaque in the Rosenheim collection, Papers of the British School at Rome, 9(8), 1920, p. 216)
The plaque portrait is usually used as a monument of those who have achivement. As we can see in the example of the plaque portrait of George Washington, the plaque portrait is considered to be an efficient way to represent figures. In addition, “An illustration of the plaque is taken from the same photograph as the present plate.” (Strong, 1920:214) Hence, we can see another example of the plaque portrait below: “This Plaque is 32 cm. high and nearly 19cm broad rounded at the top and pierced with holes for suspension or attachment. The philosopher is represented in profile, facing right, with long hair…” (Strong: 1920: 217) “A Monumental Plaque designed by Bernini was placed on the interior façade of S. Maria in Aracoeli; a magnificent temporary catafalque also designed by Bernini was erected in the same church for the obsequies that were held there on 3 August.” (Lavin, 1983: 6)

However, the plaque portrait is in that it can only represent the figurative image since it is based on two dimension. Even if there are many ways to represent something in two dimensional space on paper, the walls and, of course,plaques, it is not sufficient for representing figurative images. Moreover, the plaque portrait does not address what are huge heterogeneous features between two dimensional and three dimensional art work. That said,two dimensional art work still has value and exists today. Then, the qustion is, why has the existence of the plaque portrait faded over time? What makes the plaque portrait a less significant way of representation?

Breakdown of the plaque portrait

From, Strong, A Bronze plaque in the Rosenheim collection, Papers of the British School at Rome, 9(8), 1920, p. 216

Fade out the Aura in the informational production era

As technological change has always affected art, the portrait has been influenced by technological aids. In this sense the uniqueness and the Aura of the plaque portrait has slowly disappeared over time. Moreover, the quality of the portrait in a photography is not compatible with other forms of portraiture. According to Benjamin, “’The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility’ professes the displacement of the authentic object under new conditions of mass reproduction under new conditions of mass reproduction. In technically reproduced art – that is, object whose very basis is technological – there can no longer be a significant notion of originality that is valued for its inviolate authenticity. The reproduction of an object on celluloid stands as a copy of itself, and no longer a unique representation.” (Benjamin, 1988:9) Benjamin’s argument was widely spread by the early seventies, and then it introduced the relationship between art and technology. Furthermore, unique artwork or portraits don't exist anymore. He asserted that these changes based on technological conditions, of course, affect the whole art of work in the cultural breakthrough. “One primary way in which photography modernized our way of seeing was to provide for the first time a means of mechanically forming an image of the world, creating an authoritative “truthful” realism.” (Lovejoy, 1990:257) Furthermore, it is a quite reasonable statement that technological advancement brings controversial issues. On the one hand, technological advacement alters the way of seeing, even though it gradually decrese the presence of the Aura in much artwork. On the other hand, it could not avoid the responsibility to bring a question of authenticity.


The Mediated Semiotic Meaning: From nostalgic

From, Lavin, Bernini’s Memorial Plaque for Carlo Barberini, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 42(1), 1983,p.6.
The plaque as a material to encode a figurative image hardly exists in the portrait,-yet it is too early to say that it is useless today. The plaque is still used in buildings to memorialize special ones who are contributed to some effort. The mediated meaning of the plaque is to honor a special event and in the memory of a person. However, the plaque is not the only way to mark a special event. As we already discussed above, advanced technologies expand the scheme of art work including the portrait. In this sense, there is no one who sticks to the plaque portrait. Even though the symbolic meaning is transferred to the advanced technological portrait, the Aura in the plaque portrait is not proceeding to new forms portrait. Anyone can create a portrait themselves using any technical machines. In other words, anyone can be an artist and celebrate their art work. It seems like there is no barrier to entering the art world. Even if everything related with art work was open to public, there are those who want to dwell on the formal ways of representing themselves or represent important events. According to Benjamin,

“Mass production is aided especially by the reproduction of masses…This process, whose significance need not be stressed, is intimately connected with the development of the techniques of reproduction and photography.” (Benjamin, 1969:251) Nowadays,we hardly see the plaque portrait used as a way to memorialize a person or event.However, because plaque portraits still exist and function as memorials in soceity, we can still experience them.

In this sense, the plaque portrait may no longer serve a useful function in the current media ecology, but there are many ways to represent figurative images such as instant photography and editable images produced by digital cameras. Hence, the functional foundation is not popular anymore but the symbolic meaning of the portrait is still common in the public. The reason why people create portraits is to differentiate the other in the cognition.In other words, there is no way to make extinct the creation of representation.

Works Cited

  • Benjamin,Walter.The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,Illumination,1969.
  • Gallop,Jane. Lacan's Mirror Stage:Where to Being,Substance,11(4),1982,pp.118-128.
  • Harbison,Peter. The Bronze Crucifixion Plaque Said to be from St.John's(Rinnagan),near Athlone,The Journal of Irish Archaeology,2,1984,pp.1-17.
  • Hinks,Roger. A Symbolic Portrait of Descartes,Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes,3(1/2),1993-1940.p.156.
  • Kinney,Dale and Culter,Anthony. A Late Antique Ivory Plaque and Modern Response, American Journal of Archaeology, 98(3),1994, p.457-480.
  • Knipe,Penley. Paper Profiles:American Portrait Silhouettes,Journal of the American Institute for Conservation,41(3),2002,pp.203-223.
  • Lavin,Irving. Bernini's Memorial Plaque for Carlo Barberini,Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 42(1), 1983,p.6-10.
  • Leslie,Esther. Walter Benjamin:Traces of Craft,Journal of Design History,11(1),1998,pp.5-13.
  • Lovejoy,Margot. Art,Technology,and Postmodernism:Paradigms,Parallels,and Paradoxes,Art Journal,49(3),1990,pp.257-265.
  • M,M.W. German Portrait Plaques of the Sixteenth Century,The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art,15(7),1928,pp.154-157.
  • Richter,Gerhard. A Portrait of Non-Identity.Monatshefte,94(1),2002,pp.1-9.
  • Robinson,E.S.G. A Portrait Plaque of Charles 1, The british Museum Quarterly,17(1),1952,pp.11.
  • Strong,Arthur. A Bronze Plaque in the Rosenheim Collection,Papers of the British School at Rome,9(8),1920,pp.214-224.
  • Vanderbilt,Paul. Iconography:A Definition and Interpretation,The Wisconsin Magazine of History,41(2),1957-1958,pp.107-112.
  • Willoughby,Harold.R. The Religious Import of the Tushingham Plaque,Vigiliae Christianae,11(2),1957,pp.57-92.