The Art of Self-Portraiture

 

 

“The self-portrait is the artist’s most personal form of expression. It is the ulti- mate means of self-analysis, presenting an opportunity for self-reflection, self- expression and self-promotion; a bid for eternity.”[1] — Liz Rideal, 2005

 

“I have searched for myself everywhere.”[2] — Henri Matisse, 1946

 

 

The word “portray” is taken from the Latin protrahere, which means “to draw forth or reveal.” It follows that the practice of portraying yourself involves self- analysis and self-exposure. The title of this exhibition, Hide and Seek, refers to the process of searching that must occur, by the artist and the viewer, when engaging with self-portraiture. The meaning of these works must be negotiated, and our encounters with them are reciprocal and conditional, implicitly requiring the con- sideration of the following questions: How much of the artist can his or her artwork reveal? What has the artist intended for the viewer to see, and what has the artist concealed?

 

Self-portraiture is undoubtedly a complex process of projection, relying on the relationship between internal and external forces, to the extent that such works embody “a psychological drama, a point of struggle between thought and physical appearance.”[3] Itwouldbeimpossibletomentionthemanyandvariedwaysinwhich artists have engaged with self-portraiture throughout history, and throughout the world. However, there are certain outstanding examples from the past that shed light onto the various methods, ideas and impulses behind the works in this exhibition.[4]

 

During the fifteenth century, self-portraits were rare and existed mainly as subtle inclusions within greater works. The turn of the sixteenth century saw the status of the artist shift from “craftsperson” to someone with a more esteemed and intellectual vocation. Coinciding with this shift was the advent of the independent self- portrait, which artists created as a form of self-promotion, employing specific modes of representation to elevate their social status. One of the earliest examples is Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait of 1498. Painted when the artist was 23, the meaning of the depiction is clear. Wearing elegant clothes and holding a confident expression, the artist presents himself as someone of importance. In this case self-portraiture has been used as a means of creating a public image, which can be misleading or illusory. 

 

Perhaps the most famous self-portrait painter of the seventeenth century is Rembrandt van Rijn, who produced over 80 such works in a variety of media over 40 years. These self-portraits track the changes both in the artist’s appearance and technique. Although some of Rembrandt’s self-portraits were used as technical exercises, for example, in how to render certain facial expressions, many were interpreted as embodying the artist’s character, his changing moods and attitudes towards himself, exuding pathos, dignity, pride and resignation.

 

This way of reading self-portraits gained popularity throughout the nineteenth century. Following the work of artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, the idea that an artwork could convey an artist’s emotions was not just a possibility but a requirement. The Expressionist movement demanded that emotion and psy- chological events were of upmost importance in creating a work of art, and the self- portrait was the zenith of this kind of endeavour.

 

The possibilities of self-representation were expanded as realism was replaced by emotional impact as the quality by which a work would be judged. Colour became symbolic and formal distortion was linked to internal turmoil. Suffering was seen as an essential source of art and the notion of the artist as a creative genius emerged. This artist was an outsider, someone who was mentally unstable and on the brink of an existential crisis. The artist’s mental state and inner life was therefore given priority when reading artworks.

 

Within the cycles of resistance and renewal that characterised the ideological trajectory of art in the modern period, the self-portrait as a genre remained vital and important. Self-portraiture developed in line with scientific and philosophical theories that also took the human condition as their subject. Existentialism, psychoanalysis and physiognomy were all essentially concerned with self-exploration and self-awareness. Egon Schiele, an Austrian artist working during the first half of the twentieth century, was inspired by each of these disciplines. He created an unparalleled body of self-portraits that express a passionate, if not obsessive, engagement with his outward appearance in terms of its ability to display inner torment. A fine example of such work is Schiele’s Self-Portrait Pulling Cheek of 1910.

 

While Expressionism lauded the idea that a self-portrait holds a certain psychological truth, postmodernism positions the subject, or the self, as a simulacrum rather than an origin. The self is seen to be relative, multiple and in flux. Since the 1960s the artist’s body has been used literally, figuratively and metaphorically as a site of subversion to undermine traditional views of art, identity and subjectivity. It follows that self-portraits have lost their currency as literal translations of the artist’s inner world and contemporary artists have moved away from idealised, complete or singular representations of the self in favour of works that reveal vulnerability, inconstancy or multiplicity.

 

Anne Handelsmann-Braun’s Embrace (2007) shows that our perception and understanding of ourselves can change over time, and that the meaning of a self- portrait can also change. The artist explains that when she first made this work it was a double self-portrait, of herself as a girl and of her present self.[5] Over time, Handelsmann-Braun explains, her reading of the image has changed and that she now sees herself and her mother, and sometimes herself with her grandchildren. This re-interpretation suggests a broader perspective on the artwork, one that allows for unconscious motives or ideas. The multiple readings of this work place it within the postmodern vernacular of transition, relativity and simulacra.

 

Many of the artworks included in Hide and Seek deal with the themes of transformation, metaphor, masks and mortality, with a constant tension between what is revealed and what is hidden, and in this way they fit well within contemporary art practice. There is room for ambiguity and the works presented encourage subjective readings, however, at the heart of this exhibition is a genuine endeavour to communicate, to draw out internal states, to reveal personal realities and stories, and the emotional effect of these works is undeniable. It is in this way that the works draw upon the Expressionist ideal, exemplified in the work of Schiele, that the self-portrait is a site of psychological affect, where a direct transfer of emotion can take place. 

 

In the work of NEG and Graeme Doyle, the artist’s image is distorted or disfigured, appearing monstrous or hideous, in order to depict horrible or unbearable internal states. It is hard to comprehend that these images are true representations of the artists’ self-perception. But it is also hard to deny that the suffering, which was the impetus behind these works, is transferred in some measure to the viewer. The sense of outrage and turmoil is palpable, and it is in this way that the truth of the artists’ psychological origin is somehow confirmed.

 

A repeated feature in the artworks in Hide and Seek is the depiction of the inside of the body; the heart, the bones, the mouth or the chest. This literal exposure of the interior of the body could be seen to represent the artists’ genuine desire to reveal their internal state, inviting the viewer to look inside. Alternatively, these openings in the skin could represent wounds. In its original Greek, the word “trauma” means “wound”. Trauma, then, is a physical term that provides a metaphor for psychological injury, which is particularly poignant when viewing these works. Sally O’Reilly has written that when a person is exposed to prolonged trauma, “The inner and outer realms of the body collide, the self splinters, and the surreal bleeds into the real.”[6] This kind of experience can be found in Ruth Rich’s My Heart (2003), and in the work of NEG and Daniel Richards, where the experience of both mental and physical trauma is depicted as painful and raw.

 

Mortality is also a prominent theme in Hide and Seek. One of the earliest purposes of the self-portrait, and portraiture more generally, was to gain a form of immortality. Yet in Richard McLean’s I Used to be a Little Boy (2008), the artist actively engages with the ideas of ageing and impermanence. This work conflates past and present, tracking the passage of time and acknowledging that changes manifest themselves both physically and mentally as we move through life. This documentary mode of self-representation is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s life-long return to his own image.

 

The disappearance of the body could be seen as the logical end point for representations of mortality. In this way the inclusion of the abstract works, made in an institutional context in the 1960s, bring the exhibition full-circle, at once representing the body’s total decomposition, as well as the mental void that can occur when trying to pin down the self. They are redolent with possibility, yet poignant in their lack of substance.

 

Through exploring the works in Hide and Seek, and from looking at historical examples, it is clear that self-portraits can be both statements and modes of investigation. The reasons behind making a self-portrait are as varied as the individuals making them, and it is this variety that has characterised and re-energised the genre over time. Hide and Seek draws together self-portraits that reveal, conceal, explore and elaborate the creators’ experiences of themselves through internal and external projections. 

 

 

1. L Rideal (2005). Self-portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery, p 7. 

2. C Bock-Weiss (2009). Henri Matisse: Modernist against the grain. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, p 17. 

3. P Barlow (1997). Facing the past and the present: the National Portrait Gallery and the search for ‘authentic’ Portraiture. In J. Woodall (Ed.). Portraiture facing the subject. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p 219. 

4. This account is Eurocentric and lodged within the Western tradition of art practice. It is this tradition that has affected the greatest influence over the artists included in Hide and Seek

5. Embrace was made on a weekend retreat for child survivors of the Holocaust. It was made as part of a day of reflection called,

“The relevance of our childhood experiences to the modern world and our lives today”. 

6. S O’Reilly (2002). The body in contemporary art. London: Thames and Hudson, p.180. This quote was written in reference to the work of contemporary artist Daniel Joseph Martinez, whose piece More Human Than Human, Self-Portrait #9, Fifth Attempt to Clone Mental Disorder or How One Philosophizes with a Hammer depicts him reaching inside his stomach and drawing out his bloody entrails. 

© Juliette Hanson 2020