I once had the pleasure of spending the day with the celebrity portrait photographer Rankin, in the course of which, he told me a really interesting thing about depicting people – and it equally applies to written profiles as well as portraits and sculptures.
Now while Rankin’s work enjoys its share of criticism for an ‘overly commercial editorial style’, his credentials as a man that implicitly understands his chosen medium are without question.
Rankin told me that a portrait is only ever a snapshot, the seizing of a moment in time that foregrounds a key or submerged aspect of personality. A portrait physically can’t do any more than that and the uses and limitations of portraiture as a medium are very precise.
So, at the one end of the spectrum you get pure propaganda (the deliberate creation of an image of power, built to last). Such as the Soviet-era portraits of old.
At the other end of the spectrum you’ll find those candid, off-duty pics and selfies made popular by celebs looking to peddle a softer, more down to earth image.
And then there’s everything else in between.
What is common to every good portrait, though, is that it reveals something of interest about its subject in the process of its depiction.
So, unless this Ronaldo bust is a visual metaphor for some latent emotional or psychological disfigurement lurking deep within the subject, or the re-imagining of a childhood trauma on his features, then it has wholly failed as a work of art, or as a technical exercise.
The problem with this bust is that at a technical level it doesn’t do its job. It depicts Ronaldo in a way that obscures the artistic intent and fails to inform a viewer’s interpretation.
The self-taught sculptor Emanuel Santos has defended his work by claiming he had followed the soccer star’s instructions literally down to the last wrinkle.
Santos, a 40-year-old former airport cleaner, said the Real Madrid striker had asked him to make the portrait more jovial, and had praised his efforts.
“It’s impossible to please the Greeks and the Trojans, and even Jesus couldn’t please everyone … It’s a matter of taste and not as simple as it seems,” Santos told Globo Esporte.
But this isn’t a question of taste or opinion as the sculptor claims. It is a cack-handed piece of work that doesn’t convey a clearly articulated and consistent impression of the subject.
Had the brief asked for a depiction of Ronaldo as a ‘melted waxwork of himself’, a caricature, or as a street urchin lookalike then you’d have a case for calling this a satirical masterpiece – Ronaldo’s ‘portrait in the attic’.
But given the context as a commemorative statue of a beloved local hero in a national airport, I am calling this simply ‘bad art’ of the highest order.
And this understanding of exactly what is required (and of your limitations), is a quality that all top people have in common. It separates the sheep from the goats, the self-taught amateur artist from the greats and indeed, the professional writer from the keyboard warrior.
It is also true of football scouts. When I was starting out I remember getting into a blind panic about capturing every last detail of a game in full flow, every set-piece routine, every tactical switch.
And the best advice I’ve ever read on the topic is a simple sentence in the great scouting reference book Match Analysis and Game Preparation. It comes from Bert van Lingen a Dutch coach synonymous with Dick Advocaat’s management career, the Dutch, Belgian and Russian national sides, Rangers FC, Sunderland, and Zenit St Petersburg.
He says: “You should not try to see everything, because then you will see nothing.”
In a different context, it is a line that might have saved ‘the self-taught sculptor Emanuel Santos’. His ambition has outstripped his abilities here and though he’ll get his 15 minutes of fame he must also live with the infamy of creating a laughing stock – an artefact that will be rightly remembered for all the wrong reasons.