Painting lives

DMacA_3Domhnall MacAuley is a CMAJ Associate Editor and a professor of primary care in Northern Ireland, UK

 

Imagine your work was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Last week, Colin Davidson’s portrait of Angela Merkel, thrust this relatively unknown Northern Irish artist into the international limelight. A household name locally, Davidson is best known for his portraits of Irish writers, poets, musicians, and figures from the media. But, his portrait of Brad Pitt in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington first attracted the attention of the creative director of Time and led to this commission. In painting his portrait of Merkel, however, it was the first time that he had painted entirely from photographs and film without meeting the subject - which must have been a major challenge for an artist whose great strength is in bringing out the character and inner nature of the sitter. The power of Davidson work is not in the likeness but, in how his brush recreates the framework of a personality.

Forget Time Magazine. “Silent Testimony” his series of portraits of eighteen people, matched with the story of their individual experiences of loss through the Troubles in Northern Ireland, makes time stand still. The immense power of Davidson’s work surges from every canvas in this current exhibition. At first glance, it’s just series of portraits of normal looking people, who could have been drawn from a bus stop, a cinema queue, or from a family doctors waiting room. But, from beyond the canvas comes an avalanche of emotion, the weight of loss etched in their faces, a profound sadness in their eyes, and their grief, regret, and resilience draws you into the fabric of their lives and loss. There is a sense of something missing, a huge pool of suffering below the surface.

It is a doctor’s waiting room and consultation. And, that’s partly why I find Davidson's “Silent Testimony” overwhelming and poignant. He has listened, understood, and painted a permanent record of each life. Each portrait resonates with me of someone I know or have known, who told me their story in the consulting room, whose life I shared in some small way. Every family doctor knows the privilege of being offered a window into the lives of others, a brief insight into their private being and the cauldron of emotions associated with illness, injury and bereavement. The true legacy of those dreadful times is marked by the fault lines of those deepening wrinkles, and the pained eyes in the faces of those living on in Davidson's portraits. As time moves on, people age and their great burden ages with them. Suffering endures.

Patients, and their doctors, who lived through thirty years of the troubles are gradually dying off. One by one they leave the stage, once the scene of that terrible drama, taking their own personal experiences with them. Their stories are forgotten to be recreated somewhere else, like Paris or Beirut, or countless other places in our war torn world. There are no sides in suffering, right or wrong, religion or none. We need artists like Davidson, who can tell their stories, illustrate their pain, witness their enduring strength, and remind us all how memories remain and shape the character of our lives.

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