Portraying chairs

They are seen in profusion in the Encantes or in any old market. They are bought easily and at a good price over the Internet. They are postcards (cartes-de-visite) or portraits for family albums that respond to formats that have been propagated since the mid-nineteenth century, although they are more abundant at the beginning of the 20th century. A good number of these images have a peculiarity that should draw our attention. They are portraits of the entire body of the subjects sitting or leaning on a chair.

The chair constitutes a set resource for the staging. It is what survives from the photographs of illustrious men with whom the genre began. In those there are columns, curtains and plants. They were directly related to pictorial prototypes of Baroque descent. However, the popularization of the photographic portrait and the widening of its base of clients to the middle classes made it ridiculous, pretentious, so bombastic. The chair is, then, a vestige for "appliance portraits" of little importance. The bourgeois resource for a mesocratic visual universe. A subterfuge of excellence adapted to the broadening of the customer base of the portrait, to the expansion of the business of camera professionals and to the proliferation of photographic establishments.



The chair, on the other hand, concurs with other conventions. In the portraits of couples of the time, the woman often confirms her passive sitting role. While the male affirms his dominant standing position. In individual portraits this sitting / standing scheme is often reproduced. The universe of bourgeois values is transmitted throughout corporeality -in the placement, the posture, the gesture, the plant, the expression-, in addition to the attire and accessories. The chair is an unbeatable complement to corporality: it allows both support and abundance in firmness, as it helps decorum and protects modesty. Likewise, it allows you to get out of the norm with a point of occasional mischief or extravagance. On the other hand, the chair combines its status as a common object of domesticity with its ability to reveal a social hierarchy based on the chosen model.

But let's just leave the social gaze and ask ourselves what we see today in these images. They were and are individual portraits, but to what extent? They are concrete people, without a doubt. If we attend to our capacities to discern about images and empathize with strangers, we will recognize unique humanities and imaginatively reconstruct lived events. It happens, however, that our eyes also register that they are the result of a visual standardization and an industrial proliferation of images. The temporal distance and the recycling to which these portraits have been subjected has dissipated emotional bonds, biographical connections, or even a large part of cultural identification. We know nothing of those individuals that we are not willing to create fiction. Moreover, with the passage of time the binomial person-thing seems to alter. Could it be that we know less and less about the human singularity that surrounds the portrait and more about the attributes of the chair specimen that accompanies it? What a paradox! The portrait emerges to combat oblivion and gain the immortality of characters and personalities, not chairs.