While respected British portrait artist Alexander Talbot Rice was working on a painting of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, he came close to death in Afghanistan, suffered personal loss, and yet throughout the entire experience, he grew in faith.
“It was a very meaningful experience for me,” Talbot Rice tells ZENIT. “It is a picture that was supposed to be painted.”
The artist, who has painted in person Queen Elizabeth II and the late former British Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher, presented the portrait at a June 28 dinner of distinguished guests in Rome hosted by the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a Catholic non-governmental organisation.
The painting, taken mostly from photographs, took two years to complete and is expected to be bought by a donor to be given to the Vatican Museums.
The project began in 2011 when Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, the former governor of Vatican City State, commissioned the painting, having seen Talbot Rice’s painting of the Duke of Edinburgh. “He took me to one side and said wouldn’t it be lovely if you did a painting of the Holy Father,” Talbot Rice recalls.
He says he found the experience of painting Benedict XVI’s portrait “profoundly spiritual”, adding that although he didn’t meet the Pontiff, in painting such a man of faith one finds “part of them in yourself.”
The portrait depicts Benedict XVI with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes. “There’s that incredible intelligence shining through his eyes,” says the artist. “That’s what struck me about him: the strength of mind, and his love of high culture.” It also shows him with “a little more vigour” than images of him of late, where he has appeared increasingly frail.
But it was also everything else that was going on in his life that brought a deeper meaning to the portrait. Talbot Rice, who comes from a family with close connections to the Welsh Guards, spent time in Afghanistan where he helped a foundation, set up by British parliamentarian Rory Stewart, to create an arts centre in Kabul. After that, he wanted to see more of the country – but it was an adventure that nearly cost him his life.
“I bought three horses and with a guide and translator, basically rode over northern Afghanistan,” he recalls. “Half-way through the journey, we were at 14,000 feet. It was bitterly cold, it was getting dark, we’d been riding for 10 hours, and we had to stop to feed the horses and get some shelter.”
“We came to a village and went to main house there. About 25 men were in there, all Talib [members of the Taliban] and they were in the middle of their prayers. A mullah was leading their prayers, looking a bit like Bin Laden, and I thought the polite thing to do would be to join them, so I went to the front, knelt down and, as a Christian, prayed with them.”
“Afterwards, I called my translator over and asked if he would please explain to the mullah that we’d like to accept his hospitality. And the mullah turned to my friend and said: ‘If this man is a Christian and prays as a Christian among so many Muslims, he must be a man of great faith and God is protecting him.'”
All this, he says, was happening concurrently with the painting. “That was an extraordinary experience, literally being very close to being killed, and so a lot went into this painting.” He had also just gone through a painful divorce.
As Talbot Rice finished the painting, he remarkably cut away most of it, leaving just the head and shoulders. “Originally it was going to be a much bigger picture, three quarter length,” he says. “It was just when I’d finished it that I decided to cut all of it out and just go for the head and shoulders.”
The original had been of Benedict in full vestments giving a blessing. “I took all of that out. I wanted it to be much more intimate,” he says. “I woke up one morning, I’d just finished it, and I knew what I had to do, so I got a pencil, drew around a frame I had in the house, got a pair of scissors and chopped it all off.”
He says “part of the process in painting is a dialogue with the picture” and that sometimes “you never know where you’re going to go before the answer becomes apparent.”
Talbot Rice was raised a Greek Orthodox Christian, but he is fond of the Catholic Church, feels drawn to it, and sees a “strong cultural connection” with Rome. He now hopes to start a portrait of Pope Francis whose humility he finds an “inspiration”, and would very much like to paint him in person.
While he was working on the painting of Benedict, he was also painting a portrait of Baroness Thatcher who sat regularly for him. It was the last painting of her before she died in April this year. Previously, he has painted the Queen, who sat for him in the Coronation Coach, which she has only ridden in three times during her reign.
“I loved her, I thought she was great,” Talbot Rice says. “There are two queens – a public queen and private one – and she was just lovely. But you never forgot who you were with her, while at the same time it was important not to be obsequious.” He was particularly pleased that she felt at ease during the sittings. “That’s a great help as it gets the best out of a subject,” he says. “I wanted to paint her smiling and that’s what happened.”
Talbot Rice is a specialist in fine arts; he studied classic portraiture in Florence and at the exclusive Repin Academy of Arts St. Petersburg. But he laments that in the contemporary art world, he is almost considered “anti-establishment” because he is a classical, naturalistic painter. The irony is that conceptualism and modern, abstract art is now the establishment.
“It’s important to encourage artists that all of these forms are valid and that to appreciate all forms of art is to be the opposite of closed minded, which is the opposite of what they [conceptualists] pretend to be,” Talbot Rice says.
Some have drawn parallels between modern and classical art and the tensions between the faith and modernity, between the Church and secularism, where secularists have become the establishment and are intolerant of those who value the Christian roots of civilization.
Talbot Rice argues that for art to be abstract, it has to be an “abstraction from something” and that something provides the forms, language, and vocabulary in which to express oneself through art with understanding. “How you choose to express yourself is up to you but you have to have that vocabulary in music, or in literature or in any art,” he says. “And if you think fine art is any different from any other art form then actually you’re asking several fundamental questions which are rather presumptive, like what is art?”
He adds there’s a “lack of humility, an intolerance that I don’t like about conceptualism,” and argues that “the guy in the street” should be able to look at the painting and “get it.”
“You should find it tasty, and if it’s tasty, you know it’s tasty. It’s like good food – no one can tell you that you should or shouldn’t like that. We’ve all got something in our DNA that should enable us to say ‘this wine tastes lovely’. That doesn’t mean we should all like the same wine, but there’s definitely a difference between something that’s corked and something that isn’t.”
Today’s conceptualist “is about sensationalism, celebrity, and about them,” he says. “It’s very ego driven.”
This article appeared in ZENIT, July 12, 2013.