Artists have always created self-portraits. And whatever their motivation: as a showcase for their talents, a political statement or a conscious projection of their best self – the result is always the same: the creator becomes the subject. This idea is celebrated in Facing the World, which presents a breath-taking selection of portraits, in various media, spanning six centuries, from Rembrandt’s paintings to Ai Weiwei’s instagram posts.
Artists represented in the exhibition include Simon Vouet, Rembrandt, Hyacinthe Rigaud, David Wilkie, David Octavius Hill, Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, Oskar Kokoschka, Andy Warhol, Marina Abramović, Tracey Emin, John Coplans, Ken Currie and Alison Watt.
Facing the World is a collaboration between the National Galleries of Scotland, the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe and the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon and has been made possible with the support of the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. More information on the the collaboration can be found on the I AM HERE project website.
Image: Louis Janmot, Self-Portrait (detail), 1832
© Lyon MBA - Photo Alain Bisset
Artists have always created self-portraits. Whatever their motivation (as a showcase for their talents, a political statement or a conscious projection of their best self), the result is always the same: the creator becomes the subject, and the artist become the sitter. Many artists have subsequently created self-portraits by omitting the most recognisable part of their bodies: their face, and have instead explored their ‘self’ in more conceptual ways. But how truthful are these representations of self? And does it even matter?
In this film, art critic and author Laura Cumming; artist Angela Palmer; and forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson, discuss the notion of truth in self-portraiture, with particular reference to two pretty unconventional self-portraits: both of which depict the artist’s brain.
Facing the World comprises five sections each looking at a different aspect of self-portraiture.
Up Close and Personal
This first section of the exhibition concentrates on self-portraits by artists who have depicted themselves without any attributes, such as a palette and brush, which specifically reference their chosen profession as artists. Here they represent themselves to us, above all, as human beings, whose expressions may convey a wide range of differing emotions and circumstances. In many instances they could be said to illustrate the ancient Greek proverb which encourages us to ‘know thyself’. Artists have, of course, over the centuries portrayed themselves for a variety of reasons: as a process of psychological or physiognomical self-examination; as the exploration of a particular facial type; as an exercise in self-promotion; or simply because they viewed their own features as providing the cheapest and most readily available model to hand!
The Artist at Work
In the works included in this section artists very clearly identify themselves as such, whether it be by depicting themselves with the tools of their profession, such as brushes, palettes and canvases, or by showing themselves at work in indoor or, on occasion, outdoor settings. Such images can function as personal propaganda, or as more general commentaries on the circumstances of the sitter’s chosen profession. Sometimes this is achieved with understated subtlety, as in Matisse’s The Painting Session or Scharrenberger’s isolated and alienated Self-Portrait in the Artist’s Studio; or the references can be more overt or challenging, as in the confident self-portrait by Degas’s one-time teacher Louis Lamothe, or in James Ensor’s disconcerting and questioning self-portrait in which he seeks to draw his own likeness.
Family and Friends
The works in this section are some of the most intimate and affectionate in the exhibition. Artists naturally wished to portray their most immediate social circle – their family and friends. Images in the first category are similar in intent to the family photographs many of us have in our own homes. They may also display the domestic security and affluence an artist may have attained through his or her chosen profession. Portraits of friendship, of which there are a number of distinctive examples in the exhibition, were particularly popular during the Romantic era in the nineteenth century and were often presented as gifts between artists. In one particularly affecting image, the double portrait of the Winterhalter brothers, the artists probably combined to paint each other’s likeness in the same picture.
Since antiquity artists have, on occasion, inserted their self-portraits into their compositions. The ancient Greek writer Plutarch tells us that the sculptor Phidias portrayed himself in the throng of Greeks set against the Amazons on the breastplate of his masterpiece, the Parthenon Athena. Renaissance examples include Raphael’s appearance in his Vatican fresco The School of Athens, the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck in The Ghent Altarpiece and Albrecht Dürer in The Adoration of the Trinity. Such self-insertion can be used as a form of artistic signature, or as the artist ‘bearing witness’ to a particular event, or the artist using his or her own features to play a particular role or character. In more recent times artists have sometimes used the presence of their likenesses in their works to comment on political situations, or on such major themes as gender, morality, sex and death.
Body of the Artist
‘My body is the source and the purpose of all my work.’ This comment by Jan Fabre illustrates how many contemporary artists have turned from the face to the body as the vehicle of self-exploration and examination. This has been stimulated, in part, by the advent of film and related media in which such observation can be achieved on camera, as, for example, in Marina Abramović’s performance-for-video Art must be Beautiful, Art must be Beautiful. Both Fabre’s and Abramović’s work can be viewed as filmed dramas. Static body imagery, on the other hand, in various media such as sculpture and photography, can also be found in much modern self-portraiture. Here, the body, or parts thereof, becomes a metaphor for, and sometimes an abnegation of, the self as embodied in the more traditional form of self-portraiture, the human face, the supreme egotistical identifier.