Could they be friends

…if they met in the real world?

A visitor to Sevostianov's exhibition
A visitor to Sevostianov’s exhibition

Most people don’t feel comfortable staring at other people because those who are being stared at often show they don’t like the staring. All this creates such tension that it is safer to look the other way.

In this respect, portraits are better than people because they don’t stare back indignantly (well, a few may be seen as such, but – in 9 cases out of 10 – it is simple arrogance). Portraits often show people we don’t know and don’t expect to meet, so we feel safe studying them, making assumptions about the personalities of the portrayed, measuring them up against our own scales and norms and coming to conclusions that help us socialise with real-life people in real-life situations later.

I once worked on a reconstruction of the mental processes of a relatively randomly sampled men (aged 18 to 35) who were exposed to portraits of women. First, they were building their own view of the character and personality of the girl from the picture. Then, they were introducing a similarly looking woman (the portraits were turned face down at that point) with the personality that they “read off” the portrait into their life and played out different situations of interacting with her. That was happening purely in their imagination, unprompted, and it took a lot of projection exercises to pull this out from the poor guys, whose verbal reaction was mostly, “Yeah, I like her”. “No, she’s sorta not cool”, etc. You can imagine what randomly sampled men say  in response to direct questioning when they are shown a picture of an attractive woman.

The perceived physical attractiveness of the portrayed was a major factor in the portraits’ ability to become a stimulus for a long-term mental play.

The men knew they’d never meet these women, but they felt more confident about interacting with the opposite sex after their exposure to portraits (if they could find one to mentally play with),

So, subscribing to Playboy or visiting the National Portrait Gallery (or any other gallery with portraits) can be good for men lacking confidence, especially if they study portraits of all women, not just the ones whose breasts are provocatively exposed.

Now, my big question is, honestly, does it work the other way too? Do women “import” attractive men from portraits into their lives for a bit of mental scripting?

PS I’ve never tortured women the way I did men on the portrait issue – I have a lot of untested hypotheses though from studying their reaction to ads and TV videos. But there’s a lot of differences between a still image and “moving pictures”. 

PPS The funny thing is, making people more confident in socialising is never the artist’s objective when they paint a portrait. At least I’ve never heard of this motivation before. And, certainly, not all portraits work the way I was describing in this post. But a lot of them, actually, do. 


  1. This is interesting and worth expanding upon. I’m currently working on a portrait painting of a woman… and I have thought about my own interaction with her as a painted subject as well as her as a real person, and the differences between the two. Will be writing some posts on portraiture and also the portrayal of beauty and people’s perception of it. I agree with last comment and would go further and say that women probably spend a lot more time mentally scripting about portrayed women (than portrayed men), whom they would seek to either emulate or criticise.

    1. Hello, Adrian – I look forward to reading your posts on portraiture ) This is something that I’ve not written about very often. John Berger would totally agree with you on the women studying women point, I think, his logic in this case would be the following: women are more concerned about their appearance than men, so – unlike men – they would be checking if the portrayed woman successfully pulled the trick of appearing just like she intended to, what had she done to appear in this way, and whether it is possible to see where and how she “slipped”. that is failed to present herself in the way she intended. Indeed, I think this is something to expand on!

      Thank you for sharing this insight!

      In the meantime, you might be interested in this post on Van Gogh’s portraits, if you haven’t seen it yet, of course.

      1. John Berger has some great insights – I love his writings (but particularly thinking of his book, “Ways of Seeing”). The portrayal of women in art, photography, media, etc. is such a contentious issue that I need to give any post on the subject some careful thought!

        1. Nude vs Naked, Aware vs Unaware ))

          I don’t always agree with Berger, especially on his bias towards marxist interpretation of art, but I am with him on demystificaiton of art ))

          There was also a post you may like here, on contemporary naked portraits:

  2. Interesting question and probably worth testing. My gut feeling, which is most probably influenced by my own behavior, is that most probably women not only do, but are more prone than men to the mental scripting you are talking about. Strangely, the title of your post is more or less identical with the ending of my post about interaction with/between portraits a couple of weeks ago. You may want to have a look here:

      1. Yes, the joy of minds meeting minds and the unexpected roads that open in result. I don’t know if the Internet made the world a better place, but it certainly made it a more interesting one!

    1. As you can see now, I’ve been to that post and totally enjoyed it )

      I think they are two very different characters. Your girl is very modern, in terms of character strength.

      And I hate the novel on which the movie is based. It is so untrue, and so against any common sense that I can’t appreciate it ))

  3. Women import attractive men (ahem, Chris Hemsworth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Michael Fassbender, Chris Hemsworth, Orlando Bloom, Rupert Friend, Thomas Mison, Chris Hemsworth…) from Tumblr for a bit of mental…’scripting’. I’m guessing.

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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