07 Jul, 2009

Face to face with your own maker

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Flattering or fanciful, mocking or downright menacing, the self-portrait has often been sidelined by art historians or dismissed as mere narcissism. Far from it, says Observer art critic Laura Cumming in a new book: from Lucian Freud’s poor bare fork’d animal to Frida Kahlo’s buzz cut, these works offer a unique insight into the mind of the artist – as well as revealing us to ourselves

On a winter’s day in 1905, a museum guard was patrolling the Alte Pinakothek in Munich when he noticed that one of the paintings had changed since the last time he looked. The eyes of Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait – the most famous eyes in German art – had lost their piercing charisma. Ferocious little rips were discovered in the pupils that had probably been made with a hatpin and whoever attacked the painting may well have used such an easily concealed weapon, for it seems that nobody noticed. Somebody unseen, who would never be caught, had tried to put out Dürer’s eyes.

Dürer’s eyes – that’s what we say, not bothering to distinguish between the painter and his self-portrait; and we do the same with portraits too. Mona Lisa is what we call both the picture and the woman who sat for Leonardo. But it feels more natural with self-portraits, since artist and sitter are one and the same, personally inter-related. And in the case of Dürer’s 1500 self-portrait, one would become the counterpart of the other as never before in painting.

This old picture of a man with prodigious hair and alarming eyes has been kissed and excoriated, worshipped and attacked, carried through the streets and mounted on an altar like an icon. It has been accused of self-love, sacrilege and shocking froideur. Women have loved it like a man. The German writer Bettina von Arnim became so infatuated with it that she had a copy made for her own private purposes. But was she in love with the portrait, or the man, or the idea of an artist who could create such a transfixing image?

One summer of my childhood was spent in bed with measles. A family friend braved the quarantine bearing what she called her portable museum, dozens of old master postcards in a shoebox. Among the many portraits were some that stood out, having that intensity about the eyes that even a child recognises as the sign of a self-portrait; one was this Dürer. Too modern to have been painted so long ago, too vital to be trapped behind ancient varnish, the picture captivated me with its coldly glowing stare. It made me aware for the first time that people in paintings could be as exciting as people in life, that art could be as powerful as reality.

For some children that realisation comes through other kinds of art; for me it came with self-portraits, catching my eye so deliberately from the gallery wall. And even when it was explained that this intensity of look originated in the mirror – the artist studying him or herself – I still felt a frisson of recognition, something like chancing on one’s own reflection. This switch that self-portraiture effects, putting you in their position, seeing the artists as they saw – or wanted to see – themselves, is so unique and human that it has led me to write a book examining how and what self-portraits communicate and why they come to look as they do. Decades later, for instance, trying to comprehend the Dürer’s surpassing strangeness – its golden radiance (no gold is used), its powerful symmetry, its overwhelming resemblance to Christ – I came across the report of the attack buried in the Alte Pinakothek archive. Even there, among dry details of repairs, the experts acknowledge the painting’s force of personality. Why was it blinded? Because of the way he/it looked at the assailant, of course, because of “Dürer’s penetrating stare”.

The artist as his own masterpiece: I took Dürer to school and was astonished when my art teacher disapproved. “There is too much of the artist,” he shrugged, “in the picture.” It’s a common charge – self-portraits are too personal, essentially promotional, all front; certainly they’re often treated this way, reproduced on the covers of monographs and fictional lives, displayed at the door of the museum retrospective like the party host, a preface to the real work that follows. But my teacher’s words were revealing none the less. With all portraits, no matter how mediocre the image, how brief and faltering its illusion, there is always the sense of coming face to face with another person before that person reverts to an image. Self-portraits go further. Whatever they show of the outer appearance – and they may be fanciful, flattering or downright inconsistent, Rembrandt being a case in point, never the same from one picture to the next – they always offer a special class of inner truth, a pressure from within that determines what appears without, how an artist chooses to picture himself both in and as a work of art.

I take these truths to be significant and am struck by the reticence of Poussin, fastidiously withdrawing into a booth of his own paintings, enclosed by his art; by the unstoppable ego of Courbet trying to thrust his way out of the picture space. By Salvator Rosa with his glowering mountain-man pose looming above a tablet engraved with the injunction to shut up if you’ve nothing better to say, the solemnity of both the words and the image half-mocked by the melodramatic pose.

Rosa speaks loudly, no matter that he is affecting to keep silent, and self-portraiture is rarely as introverted as people claim. When Munch painted Self-Portrait in Hell, in which he appears up to his waist in sulphurous paint, he wasn’t simply describing the lonely anguish of being abandoned by a lover who had brought him so much grief that the artist had turned a gun on himself (strategically missing everything but one fingertip of his non-painting hand). He was issuing a public j’accuse specifically for display in an Oslo gallery where anyone, including the newspapers, could see it. Love letter, mission statement, suicide note – self-portraiture offers an obvious opportunity to put across one’s side of the story.

Its special look, so sharp, so expectant, shifts straight into the first-person address, and self-portraiture has its counterparts in soliloquy and monologue, as well as fiction and memoir. Quite apart from its sublime qualities as a painting, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, with its maze of relationships, may be the one great novel in art. But directness and potential intimacy come fraught with dilemmas. Should self-portrayers show themselves in the act of painting – true to the moment of creation – or doing something completely different, say, twanging a lute, that might appear less plausible but more impressive? And if painting, should the picture on the easel be this or another? And if this one, what about the paradox of timing – I show myself painting but my picture is patently finished. The supposedly direct relation between mirror and canvas is confusing too. Who is this in the mirror: I or she? And when painted, has this self become someone independent of me? Some artists, for instance Sargent in an image so devoid of inner stresses it might as well be a portrait, or Titian looking away and clearly impatient to be gone, justify their presence by appearing in the alibi of the third person.

Why do artists choose to show themselves in the first place, exposing themselves to accusations of narcissism among critics who seem to confuse self-representation with self-regard? Historically, there has never been much money or glory in it; self-portraits, unlike portraits, are rarely commissioned or appraised as the high point of an artist’s career, even if by Rembrandt or Velázquez. But they’re often called for in more intimate ways. Goya painted himself in the arms of the doctor who saved him from dying, a token of gratitude. Murillo painted a self-portrait at his children’s request, to live among them after his death.

Self-portraits make artists present as the embodiment of their art; it sounds so neat and succinct. But they often do so only to ask who or what this person is who is looking back from the mirror, how dismaying it is to be alone, how hard it is to represent or even just to be oneself.

I only know for certain the exact circumstances in which one such self-portrait was made but my sense is that something in this artist’s experience may speak to a universal truth.

She was my mother, Elizabeth Cumming, studying painting at Edinburgh College of Art not long after the second world war and surrounded by men who fought that war, many of them still in uniform at the easel. Compared to these heroes who had seen – and changed – the world, she felt she knew about nothing more significant than herself. College days were spent painting the external world on which she had such a powerless grasp, but one night, when everyone else had gone home, she took a canvas and made a self-portrait in secret. There was more conviction in that image, she said, than all the heaped apples and nudes she ever painted. She had made herself real, momentarily, to herself.

My mother would be horrified to think that her painting should be mentioned on the same page as Las Meninas, but they have something in common. Self-portraits stand in the same relation to each other as human beings – possessed of a self, members of the same infinitely various race.

If one thing connects them, for me, it is that the behaviour of people in self-portraits has a strange tendency to reflect the behaviour of people in life. One might say this of portraits too, but it is not so easy to think of a portrait in which the sitter tears at his face, pulls out his hair, looms up at a mirror in disbelief or recoils quite openly from it; still less where the sitter is masturbating like Egon Schiele, or, like Tracey Emin, wallowing stark naked in cash. Nor do many portraits express what it is like to live deep inside the sitter’s mind. Rembrandt’s depth of knowledge is not an illusion. Van Gogh’s mind teems like his brushstrokes. Velázquez senses the brevity of our life’s brief day in the sun as few other painters in art.

We all have a self and a public existence, however limited, and it is the daily requirement that we put together some sort of face to the world. The thought of having to create a definitive face for all time might make even an extrovert falter, so it is no surprise that stage fright is so common or that many artists produce serial self-portraits as if giving themselves another chance. The opportunity to put oneself across as completely as one cannot in life has its obvious appeal – and terror. The most poignant self-portrait I know is by Annibale Carracci, who shows himself as an unfinished self-portrait, a little bit of painted canvas on a rickety easel in the gloaming: there and not there, like all men a work in progress.

Art historians do not concern themselves much with the power of art to move, excite or disturb; yet it is hard to think of an artist even in the past century whose ambitions are exclusively formal.

Self-portraiture offers a perfect instance of this dichotomy. Historians sometimes treat it as the remote and insignificant twig of the far greater branch of portraiture, finding in self-portraits a profession’s collective representation of itself, a way of signing works, advertising style; where there is no written evidence, they ignore its human content. But I cannot believe that self-portrayers are never thinking of themselves and their lives, that self-portraits have no subjective or personal significance as in some sense fragments of somebody’s self.

I cannot see Rembrandt’s self-portraits solely in terms of the art market in 17th-century Holland any more than

I can look at Dürer’s 1500 self-portrait, even after historians have tried to put out its fire with theological explanations, and not be amazed. These self-portraits have human mystery as part of their content.

Peculiarly testing for the artist, who has to hit upon some kind of self to represent, peculiarly rich in the self-knowledge on which it can call, self-portraiture draws forth some of the most profound and advanced picture-making in art. But its appeal is never just visual. Self-portraits put you exactly where these artists once were, contemplating themselves, an experience that resonates with every attempt to come to terms with oneself. They turn the subject inside out, remaking him or her as an indivisible trinity: here is the work of art, the image of the maker, but also the truth of how he or she wished to be seen, how they chose – as we all must choose – to present themselves to the world.

• Laura Cumming;s book A Face to the World is published on 13 July by HarperPress at £30. To order a copy for £27 with free UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6847.

A portrait of the artist

Lucian Freud, Painter Working, Reflection, 1993

Lucian Freud casts a cold eye over his body in its mortal condition. Confronting his own reflection at 71, heavy workmen’s boots unlaced and flapping like the fetlocks of some hooved animal, he is a bare King Lear of the studio, a satyr or perhaps something more devilish. There is no reliance on the usual combination of pose, clothes and expression to put oneself across; identity emerges even naked. Whatever we are as human beings, we are infinitely more than our bodies. Freud brandishes his palette knife like a baton – maestro, subject and audience of his own solo performance.

Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889

A Starry Night in daytime, dazzling yet solemn, this is Van Gogh’s final self-portrait. He is of a piece with his own painting, speaking of himself in the same language he uses for fir trees and stars. The artist never quite explained how his colour effects should work, but the strange outcome of so much blue radiance here is uplifting calm. Sane and free of self-pity: the opposite of Van Gogh as clichéd martyr.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940

The severed hair has active life, falling, tangling, dancing in retort to the man’s rejection above: ‘If I loved you it was for your hair, now that you have no hair I don’t love you any more.’ This is not a literal illustration (the incident never happened, though Kahlo painted it when Diego Rivera divorced her) but a pictorial metaphor with a sardonic twist, written in Kahlo’s own hair.

Jacques-Louis David, Self-Portrait, 1784

David is oppressively alone, not quite recognising himself immediately or completely in the mirror. There is a trace of bewilderment, even grievance and one imagines he has lost all sense of the brush and palette he grips so tightly. Imprisoned for his association with Robespierre in the French Revolution, David is literally in solitary confinement.

Ron Mueck, Mask, 1997

Three polyester-resin feet of glowering frown from knotted brow to bristled chin, super-real down to the spittle. Mueck wanted to see how he appeared to his little girls when trying to shout them into bed. Self-portraiture in the spirit of Burns’s gift to see ourselves as others see us.

Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969

Wilfully awkward, self-satirising, full of humour – an artist attempting a self-portrait with a sheet over his head, puffing away at his fag and his art – this is Guston as anti-hero, picturing himself as a cruddy hood in a near-cartoon. Yet everything is filtered through high art: curtains from Vermeer, light bulb from Guernica, the silvers, greys and pinks of Velazquez. Why paint yourself painting? This scene gives the greatest answer, assembled piece by piece from everything Guston knows and loves about painting. He is not separate but a humble part, like his smouldering brush, of art’s working tradition.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638

Head tilting, body kiltering, Gentileschi rises to the creative moment like an action painter three centuries in advance. She could have shown herself sedately doing nothing, like most women before her. Instead she embodies her own legend as the most celebrated female artist of her time. Gentileschi wastes no time on eye contact, on social introductions, but gets straight down to work: a painter of strong women, a strong woman painter.

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