AN ART LOVER'S GUIDE TO CAMBRIDGE - 'The Hairdresser', 2008, Saied Dai (b.1958) Girton College, Cambridge
“The Hairdresser” seems a particularly appropriate image to share with you this week as hair salons reopen and some of us have finally been able to get a haircut. This painting is part of the People’s Portraits Collection at Girton College which began as a millennium project, initiated by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. The aim of the project was to provide a snapshot of Britain in the year 2000 by commissioning a series of portraits of “ordinary” people going about their daily lives. The collection includes portraits of butchers, postmistresses, motorbike couriers, lifeboatmen and many more and is now on permanent loan to Girton College. Here the portraits hang in stark contrast to those of worthy academics found on the walls of most other Cambridge colleges.
Saied Dai, the artist, was born in Iran and moved to the UK when he was six. He began his training as an architect, before going on to study painting at the Royal Academy School. He describes portraiture as ‘the most complex of the visual idioms, both structurally and psychologically, and consequently the most fascinating, as one is dealing with humanity itself or in mirror reflection, ourselves. It is also a microcosm in which one can explore almost all the problems of drawing and painting.”
The painting turns on its head the traditional portrait composition in which the subject is positioned at the front of the picture plane and looks out to the viewer. Here, the subject stands with his back to us, while his client looks to one side as she views her recently cropped hair in the mirror. The reflected image of the hairdresser himself stands at the back of the painting, job done. These two figures appear in the painting a total of five different times.
Saied Dai ascribes a more universal meaning to the painting: 'The subject of 'The Hairdresser' is in reality a metaphor for the Artist and the Muse. The painting depicts a scene where all activity has finally ceased, but for the contemplation of the artist and his work. A complex composition is set up involving multiple mirror images, resulting in ambiguities between the actual and its reflected equivalent.’ It is these ambiguities that encourage us to look more carefully at the painting and see that this is no “ordinary” portrait. In turn, the People’s Portrait collection as a whole shows us that there are no “ordinary” people. Each portrait in the collection reveals an individual with their own unique and often fascinating life story.
Saied Dai (b 1958) The Hairdresser, 2008, oil on canvas, 120 x 74 cm, on loan from the Royal Society of Portrait Painters to Girton College, Cambridge as part of the People's Portrait Collection Image © the artist. Photo credit: Girton College, University of Cambridge
All posts written and researched by Sarah Burles, founder of Cambridge Art Tours. The 'Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge' was sent out weekly during the first Covid 19 lockdown while Cambridge museums, libraries and colleges were closed.