Portraiture has been used to promote kings and queens, to flaunt wealth and, more intimately, as a memento of loved ones. At its most basic, it provides a record of our very existence.
As the 20th century has advanced, this more personal face of the genre has come to the fore. Compared to our predecessors, we have little interest in official portraits of the great and good. Today's focus is more on individual identity - a change that has given artists more scope to express mood and atmosphere.
And the invention of the camera, once considered a threat to artists, has liberated them from the need to provide a "likeness", and allowed them to experiment.
Head First contains some seminal works in a wide variety of media. Artists on view include Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, David Hockney and Maggi Hambling.
The show starts with work most people would call traditional, presenting a faithful picture of its subjects. Here, for instance, is one of Sickert's Belgian cocottes together with Frank Dobson's bronze head of the dancer Lydia Lopokova. But, by the middle of the century, Nigel Henderson's photographic collage "Head of a Man" signifies a change. The portrait acts as a symbol, casting the human head as an engine of power. Likeness is no longer an issue. And the viewer is involved in adding meaning to the work. In Michael Craig-Martin's elegant series of mirrors the viewer is part of the display, and invited to ponder over the texts. Or make what you can of Gilbert and George doing their stuff on video, performing against a background of thunder and rain.
By the Nineties the portrait has become a secular confession, offering photos of the artist's body, then the artist's mother's body, as objects for inspection. Finally Richard Hamilton's computerised image of Derek Jarman in the days before his death is as haunting as any work here.
With 31 works this is not a large show, but the selection is excellent, providing comparisons within as well as between media - the many ways, for instance, that Maggi Hambling and Leon Kossoff portray their subjects, the one conjured from thin air, the other the result of obsessive layerings of paint.
Many issues are also up for debate. What are the uses of portraiture? How do artists realise their intentions? Do some works tell you more about the artist than the subject? How can the self be represented ? Why has portraiture survived against the odds? These are just some of the questions Leicester school groups will discuss before making self portraits that will include chosen objects and creative writing to show the many ways of describing a personality.
As a bonus, at this venue, the upper gallery has a selection of children's painting on the theme of Funny People. With prizewinners selected by Leicester author Sue Townsend it shows raw talent raring to go.
Head First is a South Bank touring exhibition accompanied by a paperback catalogue with an introduction by Richard Shone, price #163;9. 95. Leicester City Gallery until February 28 Southampton City Gallery April 9 - May 31 Abbot Hall Art Gallery Kendal June 10 - September 13 Hatton Gallery University of Newcastle September 26 - November 8, Victoria Art Gallery Bath January 16 - February 28, 1999 Graves Art Gallery Sheffield March 6 - April 18 Ferens Art Gallery Kingston upon Hull April - June. Info: 0171 921 0837Head First, an Arts Council touring exhibition that opened at Leicester in mid-January celebrates the changing face of 20th-century portraiture.