CONCEPTS OF IDENTITY by Katherine Hoffman


Historical and Contemporary Images and Portraits of Self and Family
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 This earnest art-history slide lecture offers no compelling thesis to unite the many images of self and family that are examined. Asserting that we look at portraits of others in order to learn about ourselves, Hoffman (Art History/St. Anselm College) declares that the point of this brisk walking tour of images throughout history is to stir the reader to some greater awareness of one's family and one's self. She points out Hellenistic portraiture's emphasis on the soul, the Roman linking of the family to power and the economy, the resurrection of personality (along with perspective) during the Renaissance, when man replaced God as the focus of civilization. During the Enlightenment, she asserts, public life became preeminent and ``portraits or scenes of the family served to maintain that connection.'' She traces the impact of the birth of photography on depictions of family life and the rise of the ubiquitous family photo album. Positive images of the family produced in both Hitler's Germany and in postWW II America provide the only thread of consistency here, underlining the contradiction inherent in the propagandistic image of the united family and its unvarnished reality: In ancient Rome, for example, there were numerous childless marriages and divorce was prevalent, just as the happy American family of the 1950s concealed unrest and unhappiness. While Hoffman offers careful readings of individual works, setting them within the context of their times, her narrative never seems to draw any overarching revelations from these paintings and photographs: One closes the book having learned little about one's own identity and about where the family may be heading. A soothing read, this book would sound better in a headset at the museum, where we would be able to better view the selected images. (74 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-06-433332-9
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1996