20 Jul, 2009

The art of self-portraiture

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Laura Cumming’s superb study of the history and meaning of self-portraiture is both passionate and insightful, says Rachel Cusk

Every age rakes the past with its particular searchlight. In our own era, it is the unstoppable rise of the personal that has defined our attitudes to history. It is the self, the individual, that interests us now and that we try to pick out of the darkness; the self is the light in which we “relate” to the past, or raid it.

In her excellent book on the history and meaning of self-portraiture, Laura Cumming points out a difficulty in our blithely interpolative strafings of that most tempting target, art: it arises in the person of the art historian, whose determination to hold the line against 21st-century subjectivity amounts to a form of emotional asceticism. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in our modern devotion to Rembrandt van Rijn, a painter we regard as our brother-in-arms in self-analysis – except, apparently, “that Rembrandt has no sense of self. Self-awareness has not yet been invented. This at least has been the steady assertion of some very eminent scholars over the years who insist… that artists before the 19th century cannot possibly be conscious of – still less actively contemplating – their inner selves.”

Cumming, the Observer’s art critic since 1999, has stood up to these old sticks; indeed, she has walked right into their terrain, an incursion to which neither they nor anybody else can properly object, for the great flaw in the written history of art from Vasari onwards lies in its expressive paucity, its general failure to find a way of describing the medium of paint in the medium of words. In a discussion of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, she quotes the painter Luca Giordano’s remark that Las Meninas represents “the theology of painting”, a good example of the kind of powerful phrase-making that the average art historical tome is badly short of.

Cumming is firmly on the side of the expressive as opposed to the scholarly: she herself is an intense and passionate writer in whom academic crispness is replaced by long descriptive prose cycles packed with personal feeling. Sometimes her conclusions seem “wrong”, too subjective, particularly where she demonstrates impatience with certain artistic sensibilities (Edvard Munch, Lovis Corinth), but in an important sense she is showing the way towards a new, civilian discourse of art. This way passes confidently and purposefully through the lives of the artists themselves, and hence liberates the language of art from its unease, its fusty atmosphere of suppression. In painting as in no other art form the artist’s own life and character is an indispensable analytical tool: this is why Vasari, for all his faults, is still read today. It is only when we have a grip on the personal material that our conversations about art can be freed from their dreadful awkwardness, from the panic that comes with the sense of confinement in a purely visual medium. People find it far easier to talk about Van Gogh, whose life story is a matter of public knowledge, than about Courbet or Seurat or Rothko. Cumming’s writings about these artists (particularly Seurat, whom I had never remotely understood) are revelatory because time and again she unlocks them with this simple key, and having located herself in a place (the self-portrait) where life and art cannot reasonably be expected to be separated, she uses the subject as a welcome starting point for a wider discussion of the artist’s work.

One fascinating aspect of A Face to the World is the graph it draws, through art, of the human concept of “self” as an eternal set of variations. Far from “evolving”, as the Rembrandt experts would have it, the self has a pure relationship with form. There are those whose knowledge of life always proceeds from knowledge of self, and there are those for whom the self must remain hidden while the world comes first as an objective fact. Cumming writes particularly well about the second group, so uneasy beneath their own scrutiny. Poussin, for instance, paints himself in virtual darkness, “avoid[ing] social contact. He makes an appearance, as all self-portraitists must, with a marked sense of withdrawal. But this refusal to draw close, to be on our side, is elevated to the level of pictorial principle.” Goya’s Self-Portrait in the Studio similarly shows the painter in darkness, but this time it is because he is backlit by the sun coming through a window, “silhouetted against a whiteness so shattering that every contour is emphasised”. According to Cumming, he was completely deaf, the tragic result of an illness, when he painted it: “and the world is shut out of this picture, the window a whiteout, the artist all alone in the little kingdom of his studio.”

The most affecting self-portraits, of course, are those made in the artist’s old age. The face that once held knowledge of life now holds the knowledge of extinction. Munch’s desolate Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed, Lovis Corinth’s Last Self-Portrait, Bonnard’s humbling portrait of himself in the bathroom mirror: for these artists such pictures mark the conclusion of the project of self-realisation, an undertaking that appears to yield at its end an absolute certainty that there is nothing beyond the self and its death. By contrast, Van Gogh’s late self-portraits show a greater and greater objectivity, a kind of offering up of the ego to what is eternal in art itself, what Cumming brilliantly calls the “aura” of his paintings. “It is difficult to know yourself,” Van Gogh wrote once in a letter, “but it isn’t easy to paint yourself either.”

• Rachel Cusk’s most recent book is The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (Faber)

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