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Friday, 26 June 2015

Self-portrait round up

Self-portraiture is one of the most enigmatic topics tackled by the artist and is intimately connected to complex questions of identity, style and technique. Inspired by the success of our ‘Selfie’ exhibition, which closes next Friday, we take a look at some of the seminal self-portraits in Western Art:

'Portrait of a Man', Jan Van Eyck, 1433
'Portrait of a Man', Jan Van Eyck, 1433, © The National Gallery, London
The man’s penetrating gaze as well as the elaborate inscriptions on the top and bottom of the frame, skilfully painted to look like carvings, which read ‘Als Ich Can’ (As I/Eyck Can) and ‘Jan Van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433’, suggest that this painting is a self-portrait. Van Eyck’s subtle use of light highlights how the sitter appears to emerge from darkness, his face and headdress modelled by the light that falls from the left.

'The Desperate Man', Gustav Courbet, 1843-45
'The Desperate Man', Gustav Courbet, 1843-45 © DR 
This dramatic self-portrait depicts Courbet staring straight out at the viewer, pulling back his hair and with his eyes wide open. Courbet was a controversial figure who challenged the established painting genres in terms of subject matter and technique. He openly rejected the large scale, history paintings inspired by classical myths that were favoured by the art establishment. He painted what he saw around him and famously used the less privileged in society as his subjects. This painting acknowledges the popular Romantic approach to portraiture, which was preoccupied with expressing the psychological state of the individual and emphasises his daring personality. 

'Self-Portrait with Palette', Edouard Manet, 1878-9
'Self-portrait with Palette', Edouard Manet, 1878-9, © petrus.agricola, Flickr  
This painting is an unusual work in Manet’s oeuvre and he has capitalised on a rare moment of artistic freedom as both the subject and creator. Manet has often been dubbed as the forefather of Impression and this self-portrait, rapidly painted in a narrow range of tones, demonstrates his stylistic audacity. This is emphasised in the bold light source that highlights the right hand side of his face and the open, visible brushwork, particularly evident in the hand that holds the paintbrush, which blends into the ochre of his jacket. Interestingly, Manet has not reversed the mirror image of himself so he is shown painting with his left hand.

'Self-portrait', Pablo Picasso, 1906
'Self-portrait', Pablo Picasso, 1906, © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society, New York 
This self-portrait depicts a young, athletic Picasso who, like Manet, is holding his palette. In preparatory drawings, Picasso included a paintbrush in his right hand but it does not appear in the final version. This may suggest the equal importance of physical prowess and artistic interiority, which is reinforced by Picasso's staring gaze. Unlike other self-portraits, in which Picasso depicts himself in the guise of beggars or performers, metaphorically representative of the 'outsider artist', this work can be seen as a celebratory manifesto of his unique vision. His artistic power is channelled in his muscular appearance. The stern, mask like and expressionless rendering of his face shows the stylistic influence and 'magic' Picasso saw in African Art and Iberian sculpture as well as reinforcing his power, making a subtle visual nod to an athlete or warrior who covers his face with a helmet. The stylised eyebrows and oversized ear also show the influence of fellow artist Paul Gauguin, particularly his sculpture. 

'Self-portrait with Necklace of Thorns', Frida Kahlo, 1940
'Self-portrait with Necklace of Thorns', Frida Kahlo, 1940, © 2009 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust 
When Kahlo was 18, she was badly injured in a bus accident. After this, she taught herself how to paint and it became a cathartic process that was manifested in symbolic images, which portrayed the cycle of death and rebirth. Her affair with Hungarian-born photographer Nickolas Murray in New York, which ended in 1939 and her divorce from artist Diego Rivera in the same year left Kahlo feeling desolate. During this period, she produced some of her most fascinating paintings and self-portraits. Kahlo faces the viewer and has depicted herself against a background of leaves. The setting contains symbolic references to her suffering, most notably the necklace of thorns that she wears around her bleeding neck. 

'The Son of Man', Rene Magritte, 1964
'The Son of Man', Rene Magritte, 1964, © Flickr 
'At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It's something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict...between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.' 

Magritte depicts himself wearing an overcoat and bowler hat, standing in front of a wall that overlooks the sea and with his face partially obscured by a suspended green apple. This painting resembles The Great War on Facades, which depicts a woman with an umbrella standing in front of a similar wall and overlooking the ocean, her face obscured by a hovering flower. 

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