Self-portraiture

Self-portraiture

Albrecht Dьrer Self-portrait, 1500. Drer’s exceptional skill as a painter and engraver eventually earned him the position of court painter to two Holy Roman Emperors, Maximilian I and Charles V. However, this portrait was produced early in his career as a master painter. Dьrer was committed to raising the status
of the artist, and his attention to his own portrait was part of this exploration of artistic identity.

Self-portraiture

In addition, most artists before the Renaissance were considered to be craftspeople or mechanics whose primary occupation was to be responsive to the needs of their workshop and patrons. When artists began producing portraits of themselves in the fifteenth century, it was initially as a footnote or signature to another commission. In Flanders, Jan Van Eyck famously included his self-portrait in the convex mirror of The Arnolfini Marriage [see 28], and his reflection can just be detected in the helmet of St George in his altarpiece representing the Madonna with
the donor Canon van der Paele (1436). Van Eyck’s Italian contemporary, the sculptor Ghiberti, produced two self-portraits as part of his commission for the doors of the Baptistery in Florence. The first of these was possibly as early as 1401, but the more famous self-portrait appears as a roundel on the so-called ‘Gates of Paradise’ (1425–52) amidst the heads of prophets. Ghiberti’s inclusion of his self-portrait on this highly prestigious commission thus acted as a form of signature that associated him with his masterpiece. Although Ghiberti’s is one of the earliest Italian examples of this practice, according to the sixteenth-century biographer Giorgio Vasari a number of Renaissance artists represented Detail of 28 themselves as witnesses or spectators in religious commissions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for portraiture, there were significant changes in the status of the artist in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Self-portraiture

David Hockney The Student: Homage to Picasso, 1973. Hockney produced portraits throughout his career. In a number of cases these works were reflections on his own identity as an artist and as a gay man. This self-portrait is more concerned with Hockney’s conception of his artistic debt to Picasso. Hockney modelled his experimental approach to style and technique on Picasso’s lifelong creative breadth. This self-portrait by Hockney pays homage to Picasso using the etching technique, which was one of many methods of printmaking with which Hockney experimented.

The assertion of status was only one of the reasons artists produced self-portraits. Self-portraits often originated as opportunities for technical or thematic experimentation. Artists who could not afford models
were able to use themselves as subjects, and they were not constrained by issues of contract, decorum, or sitter expectation. This freedom enabled Rembrandt, for example, to use self-portraits to explore the effects of chiaroscuro (light and dark) on his work—a method he transferred to his various history paintings. This can
be seen most notably in the self-portraits by Egon Schiele (who represented his body as amputated and contorted) or Frida Kahlo.
Experimental self-portraits can also document the artist’s age and appearance at a particular period in their life. From the fifteenth century onwards, artists have produced series of self-portraits over short or long periods of time. Dürer, Rembrandt, Sofonisba Anguissola, Van Gogh, Kollwitz, and Schiele are only a few examples of artists who returned to themselves as subjects again and again. In these cases the portraits could serve many functions: as a mapping of ageing, an exploration of psychological change, or an expression of varying moods.

Self-portraits
became important records of artists who were associated with European academies, as institutions such as the English Royal Academy and the French Académie Royale traditionally required members to deposit their self-portraits in their collections. The famous collection of selfportraits in the Uffizi in Florence similarly served as a record of notable artists who lived in or visited Italy, or were honoured by one of the Italian academies.

Self-portraiture, gender, and artistic identity

The Italian artist Parmigianino’s sixteenth-century painting of himself looking into a convex mirror [102] and the German sculptor Renée Sintenis’s 1917 drawing of herself in the nude [103] convey a range of different impressions about the artist and the self-portrait.
Both works appear, at first glance, to be technical studies. Parmigianino has represented himself in the act of painting, but by distorting his own form and that of the room behind him he has skilfully drawn attention to the convex mirror in which he is looking. Parmigianino is thus referring to the tradition of artist as craftsman as well as engaging in a kind of visual game which forces the viewer to look in a mirror and see the artist looking back.
Inspired by the late work of Michelangelo, Italian mannerist artists such as Parmigianino favoured attenuated or exaggerated form and complex, sometimes deliberately arcane, subject matter. In contrast to this mannerist complexity, Sintenis’s work seems to serve the more prosaic purpose of a life drawing—a kind of technical study essential to the artist’s practice. However, the fact that the nude model she uses is herself gives the work an additional resonance.
These two self-portraits reveal a great deal about gender and status categories in the periods in which they were produced. In the early sixteenth century European artists were battling against the tradition that labelled them as mere mechanics and were striving to obtain a higher status than their fellow craftspeople. Parmigianino’s emphasis on his own hand and the technical qualities of the work alludes to this tradition of manual labour, but the dominance of his head also stresses the new significance of artistic learnedness. The technical skill with which
Parmigianino represented his image splayed unevenly on the face of the convex mirror is complemented by the inventiveness that underlay this unusual choice of composition.

Self-portraiture

Katharina van Hemessen Self-portrait, 1548. Hemessen was only 20 years old when she produced this self-portrait. Although this particular work is restrained and somewhat formal, women artists in self-portraits of later generations repeatedly used Hemessen’s iconography of the woman artist before the easel.

The self-conscious examination of the technologies and philosophies of artistic creativity that can be seen in Parmigianino’s selfportrait was embedded in male self-portraiture from its inception. Dürer returned to his own self-image in a number of different contexts: he produced self-portrait drawings as technical studies or as documents of his state of health; he included self-portraits in religious commissions, just as fifteenth-century Italian artists had done; and he painted freestanding self-portraits. In the latter category are three notable portraits from the turn of the fifteenth century. In the first (1493) Dürer painted a self-portrait that was intended as a betrothal gift to his fiancée, Agnes, showing himself holding a sprig of holly, representative of happiness in love. The second (1498) was painted after his return from a trip to northern Italy.
The most controversial of his self-portraits is the last one (1500) [104]. In this painting Dürer’s frontal pose seems to make a direct reference to images of Christ, or the holy face, as seen on Veronica’s head-cloth in contemporary religious paintings.4 Whether or not Dürer intended this deliberate Christ-like reference to be seen as a sign of his status as an artist/creator and whether such an allusion could be read as blasphemous have been the subject of much art-historical controversy and remain unresolved. However, it is difficult to deny that
Dürer was representing himself in a way that had clear echoes of contemporary images of Christ, and that his self-portrait avoids any reference to the act of painting itself. The fine detail seen in the curling strands of hair and in the fur of his sleeve, which he seems to caress with his fingers, demonstrates the skill and attention he devoted to the production of this panel. However, the processes of labour are concealed rather than declared. Dürer is not showing himself as an artist: this was significant in a period in which the status of the artist was subject to scrutiny and change. Dürer himself was dedicated to raising the artist’s status in Germany, and his enterprise was acknowledged by his later biographers such as Karel van Mander, whose Het Schilderboek of 1604 stressed the deference paid to Dürer by noble patrons. In the early years of self-portraiture artists often used this mode of representation to provide themselves with the more elevated roles normally associated with sitters of a higher social status.
This conception of the male artist as a superior being has remained prominent in the visual rhetoric of self-portraiture, but different kinds of roles have been assumed to demonstrate it. The German artist Lovis Corinth painted several self-portraits in this sexually dominant mode. In one he represented himself indulging in drink and sexual foreplay with his nude model, Charlotte Berend, who later became his wife.
In Corinth’s work his artistic identity is inextricably linked to his sexual prowess. By avoiding any indicators of the act of painting his work implicitly linked painting and sexuality. It is this image of the sexually active male Bohemian artist and the coupling of sexuality and creativity that was held to be fundamental to the male modernist artist.

Self-portraiture

Max Beckmann Self-portrait in Tuxedo, 1927. Beckmann’s rather bleak view of the pointlessness of life was fed by his enthusiasm for the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer. Beckmann adopted this theme in his selfportraits, most of which show him playing a role or wearing a disguise. In some selfportraits,
Beckmann chose symbolic disguises such as that of a clown; in others, such as this one, he overplayed the part of a bored modern bourgeois man. Although
Beckmann rejected the label ‘Expressionist’, his emphasis on the inner life was commensurate with the interests of his Expressionist contemporaries in Germany.

Pedriali portrays himself in the nude, just as Sintenis had done; like her, he shows himself engaged in his craft by snapping his photograph in a mirror. Here his artistic apparatus serves to obliterate his face—a primary indicator of his identity—and focus attention on a naked body seen in the context of a bathroom, which he
shares with a nude male friend. Like many male twentieth-century artists, Pedriali collapses his sexual identity into his artistic identity, but his self-portraiture also involves playful reference to his technical skills
as an artist.
The self-conceptions of the male artists discussed here are thus tied up with their technical ability, social identity, and their gender. These are also issues at stake in self-portraits of women artists. Returning to
the portrait drawing of Sintenis, here we see a woman artist following in a male academic tradition of using the nude female model as a subject of study. Her study of herself serves to problematize the idea of the woman as artist, as she presented herself as both nude model and working woman. In German art schools of her time, nude models were generally used in life drawing classes as part of artistic training; selfportraiture was alien to this practice. Furthermore, women were employed as nude models in academies and art schools for centuries before they were officially allowed—towards the end of the nineteenth century—to draw ‘from the life’. Sintenis’s focus on her identity as both an artist and a woman is highlighted by comparing her self-portrait to another painted only four years before by the English artist Laura Knight [106]. Knight portrayed herself in a way that referred more
explicitly to the conventions of academic life drawing—the clothed artist painting the nude female model. She
shows both herself and her model with their backs turned; there is thusa rhyming pattern to the positioning of their bodies, but Knight’schoice of pose also provides a clear view of the painting she is making.
The fact that she chose to present this work to the Royal Academy in London upon her election to that institution makes the choice of subject even more significant. As women had been excluded from Academy membership for most of the nineteenth century, Knight’s painting stands as a manifesto of her skill and a declaration of her achievement as a woman artist, but it also adheres to the principles of an academic training based on study of the life model.
The earliest self-portraits by women artists also emphasized their professional role. The sixteenth-century Flemish artist Katharina van Hemessen depicted herself with brushes, palette, and canvas [107]; this painting became a prototype for other self-portraits by women who employed a similar three-quarter-length format with a partial profile angle.8 At a time when male artists such as Dürer were attempting to raise their status and disassociate themselves from the mechanical aspects of their trade, women were only just beginning to gain recog nition
as artists. Representing themselves in their professional role may have seemed necessary as a statement of purpose or a document of achievement. It is important to note that self-portraits by women were not exclusively of this nature.
The self-portraits discussed in this section reveal some of the complexities of gender and status underlying artistic identity in selfportraiture. If a self-portrait was mimetic, it needed to show the artist in the act of producing the portrait, but this also drew attention to the self-portrait avoided the trappings of the artist’s studio, it could present other aspects of the artist’s identity, such as the links between sexuality and creativity often associated with the modern Bohemian male artist.
Because the self-portrait is both an object of artistic creation and a selfexploration, ideas of gender and status are never far beneath the surface.
Self-fashioning and self-presentation In self-portraits artists did not simply present their status and gender
identities in an unthinking or un-selfconscious way. From an early stage in the history of self-portraiture artists realized they could project particular ideas about themselves. This deliberate ‘self-fashioning’10 has been rarely absent. Artists have used self-portraiture as a means to perpetuate a view of themselves as wealthy, poor, sad, insane, or as a genius, iconoclast, exemplar, outsider. Such roles were frequently contrived and served to elevate the self-portrait to a statement about the artist’s private life or his or her place in society. The idea that different public roles could be crafted, assumed, and represented was articulated in conduct books from the Renaissance onwards. Castiglione’s The Courtier (1528) was one of the first substantial texts that suggested that
a particular kind of character. Such ideas are significant for our understanding of self-portraiture. Because artists were conscious about their own status and where this placed them in the social hierarchy, they could use the tool of self-portraiture to enact roles that declared their aspirations, as Dürer had done.
Rather than focusing on a single declaratory image of themselves, or using the self-portrait as a kind of manifesto of their social position, a number of artists represented themselves in a variety of roles and guises over a period of time. Such self-presentation could be probing, revealing, theatrical, experimental, or arbitrary.
These works could be intended only for the artist and his or her immediate circle, and they could be less eterminate or instrumental than the roles artists assumed to perpetuate a particular kind of public image.
Perhaps the first artist to use self-portraits systematically in this way was Rembrandt in the seventeenth century. Rembrandt produced over 50 self-portraits in many different media: painting, drawing, and etching [108 and 109]. The purpose of these fascinating and enigmatic works has been the subject of heated art-historical debate and controversy that, in the absence of full documentary evidence, has by no means been resolved.12 In his earliest self-portraits, many of which were etchings, Rembrandt employed the self-portrait to conduct experiments in artistic technique, using himself as the cheapest and most accessible model available. These self-portraits appeared to be exercises in facial expression and chiaroscuro, and they may consequently have functioned as studies for history paintings. If they were experimental, this could explain why he returned to this mode of representation again and again throughout his life. From the 1640s onwards, when Rembrandt practised in Amsterdam, he produced painted self-portraits which showed him in a variety of elaborate costumes and with carefully rendered facial expressions. These works appear to be more than technical experiments or studies for history paintings. Some art historians have interpreted these portraits as Rembrandt’s map of his moods and changed status at significant high and low points of his life. This has led to a tendency to retell Rembrandt’s life through his art. Thus his final
self-portrait (c.1669) [109] represents a doddery old man verging on senility, who has recognized the vanity of his earlier optimism. The labelling of this self-portrait relates him both to Democritus, the socalled ‘laughing philosopher’, and to the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis, who was said to have died laughing at a picture of an ugly old woman.
This is a powerful work in which Rembrandt’s heightened expression contrasts with absence of visible emotions that characterize much portraiture.
By including such an expression he seems to provoke the viewer to see his life reflected through the painting. However, in this work, as in earlier paintings in which he shows himself dressed in elaborate robes or scowling experimentally through a heavy haze of chiaroscuro, we get a sense of an artist playing roles.
A number of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century self-portraits appear to exhibit the artist’s imaginary
projection of himself or herself into different kinds of roles. One of these roles was the virile Bohemian already mentioned, but modernist artists played on other motifs, such as clowns, dandies, or classical gods.
Picasso and Georges Rouault chose the persona of a clown to evoke the tragicomic aspects of human existence; Otto Dix glorified himself as Mars, the God of War.
For example, the unprecedented number of artists who were conscripted during the First World War forced them into the unfamiliar role of soldier—an occupation that many neither expected nor desired. One artist who served only briefly during wartime was the German Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, whose nervous breakdown quickly led to his removal from active service and exile into a Swiss sanatorium.
Despite his very limited experience of action, Kirchner represented himself in his military role in Self-portrait as a Soldier (1915) [111] in order to convey his sense of despair and identity crisis at the time.
Although he suffered no major war wounds, Kirchner depicted himself with an amputated hand, which is significantly his right—painting— hand. Kirchner shows himself with a disability that metaphorically emasculates him and prevents him from practising his art. This image of emasculation is enhanced if this self-portrait is compared to another
one Kirchner produced before the war (1910), showing himself wearing a garish bathrobe sporting a phallic paintbrush and pipe and exuding an air of bold self-confidence. The presence of a semi-clad female model completes the effect of masculine sexual and artistic creativity. This work was produced at a time when Kirchner shared a studio with the Brücke (Bridge) group of artists, who cultivated a free love ethos, and maintained a Nietzschean belief in the links between virility and creative energy. Kirchner’s self-portraits explore his psychological state as well as his position as an artist, but there is also an aspect of ‘self-fashioning’ in the cultivation of a role that was not just a personal statement of anxiety but an image that would have communicated to a wider audience.

Self-portraiture

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Self-portrait in a Cap, Openmouthed, c.1630. This is one of four self-portrait etchings that Rembrandt produced in 1630, each of which was a study in a different facial expression. In addition to this work showing him with a bewildered look, he also depicted himself laughing and shouting.

Self-portraiture and autobiography
Self-portraits can be playful, experimental, theatrical, and many other things, but there is a question about the extent to which they bear any relationship with the narrative and revelatory qualities of autobiography.
When looking at a self-portrait viewers can be tempted to test the artist’s view of himself or herself against what is known about their life, and to see the artist’s self-representation as somehow indicative of their feelings
or appearance at the time the work was produced. However, as with biography’s connection with portraiture, comparisons of self-portraiture with autobiography offer both analogies and important differences.
De Man was referring specifically to autobiographical literature and to the way the genre had its own conventions and techniques, which artfully constructed the subject of its narrative. Although a human being is a fragmented array of emotions, experiences, behaviour, and knowledge, the autobiographical narrative seems to erase these discontinuities and create a unified self that can be conveyed through a genre. Rembrandt’s self-portraits, for example, may seem to give
us a snapshot of himself wearing particular clothes and expressing particular emotions at an identifiable moment in time, but the conventions of portraiture convert this apparent life moment into an art form. Furthermore, while a written autobiography will be constrained by those parts of the life selected by the author, a work of art is even more shackled by technical limitations, as—apart from time-based media like video—art works can present only a series of frozen moments.
Although a self-portrait can convey little but traces or vestiges of an actual life, filtered through a medium with its own conventions and limitations, it is significant that the flourishing of self-portraiture in Europe coincided with the advent of autobiography as a genre. As early as the fifteenth century artists began telling the story of their lives.
The sculptor Ghiberti published a comentarii, which was a form of autobiography. By the late sixteenth century, when the genre of autobiography was well established, the Tuscan goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini wrote a lively story of his own life, which was enriched by many details of his fellow artists and patrons (written 1558–62, first published 1728). In the same centuries both Catholic and Protestant theology emphasized the importance of self-examination and self-awareness.
Although early autobiographies existed, the use of the term to characterize the genre of narrating your own life did not become common until the end of the eighteenth century.Autobiographies could take the form of memoirs or diaries and were frequently published after the author’s death. These generic developments were complemented by a
public interest in the lives of artists that flourished especially in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

Self-exploration and psychoanalysis
Rightly or wrongly, self-portraits can convey to the twenty-firstcentury viewer the idea that an artist is investigating their inner life rather than playing out social or artistic roles, or referring to specific events or moments. Self-portraits seem to suggest a form of selfexploration.
Although the idea that an artist would choose deliberately to explore their states of mind through self-portraiture is a modern one, such an interpretation is often read back on to self-portraits in the past.
This view of self-portraiture is epitomized by responses to and interpretations of Van Gogh’s self-portraits. Van Gogh struggled throughout his life with his intense desire to be recognized as an artist and the concomitant frustration of being unacknowledged while he was living.
His manic approach to his art—which led to bouts of prolific production— and his well-documented lapses into insanity have coloured subsequent interpretations of his work. Our knowledge of these obstacles and frustrations is enhanced by the evidence of his many letters to his brother, Theo, which were published posthumously, and
by the sequence of self-portraits he produced throughout his working life. Van Gogh’s work is an example of how subsequent generations could use self-portraiture as a means of exploring the life of an artist.
However, the difference between retrospective interpretations of Van Gogh and those of Rembrandt is that Rembrandt’s self-portraits are seen as rather more self-conscious presentations of his successes and failures, while Van Gogh’s self-portraits are more often read as catalogues of his unstable state of mind. His self-portraits show artistic innovation and skill, but they also seem to reveal an artist who is intent on a documentary observation of his own psychological vicissitudes.

Many of these portraits appear to represent the artist as melancholy, brooding, intense, or threatening [113]. Although artistic intention is always a problematic concept, it is possible to speculate that Van Gogh’s
own motivations in producing these self-portraits could conceivably have been no different than Rembrandt’s. It is notable that Van Gogh had perpetual money worries, and models were an expense he could ill afford, which made self-portraiture a practical choice for the artist.
However, shortly after Van Gogh’s death, and with the posthumous publication of his letters in 1914, art historians and critics developed an idea of the artist as an insane genius. The retrospective interpretations of his self-portraits were based largely on this view of his life.
The historical point of focus here is the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which witnessed changes in the scientific understanding of psychology. Notable investigations during this period included Jean-Martin Charcot’s studies of hysteria in France and Sigmund Freud’s focus on sexuality and the unconscious in Vienna, which eventually resulted in his development of psychoanalysis. Explorations such as these led to unique perspectives on the relationships between human behaviour and such issues as insanity and sexual development.
Kokoschka’s older contemporary, Schiele, produced around a hundred self-portrait paintings, drawings, and watercolours [114] in order to explore the relation between inner and outer life in a similarly probing
way. Schiele’s self-representations are inevitably disturbing. He showed himself naked, with distorted or amputated limbs, and an emaciated or flayed body. He subjected his face to the same sort of brutal treatment, and many of these works represent him scowling or grimacing. Some of Schiele’s more extreme works were not intended to be purchased or exhibited; to a certain extent they represent the kinds of experiments with expression characteristic of Rembrandt’s early self-portrait etchings.

Self-portraiture

Parmigianino Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524. This is one of three paintings that Parmigianino presented to Pope Clement VII when he met him in Rome in 1524. Parmigianino came to Rome shortly after the Pope was elected in 1523, and this selfportrait was clearly intended to impress the Pope with its clever illusionism. The efficacy of the image helped persuade Clement to offer Parmigianino a number of commissions for religious schemes.

However, Schiele was working in Vienna at a time when Freud’s ideas were becoming widely discussed. The overtly sexual subtexts of Schiele’s self-portraits appear to tie in with Freud’s theories of sexual deviation—ideas that were also explored in the work of other Viennese psychologists, such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) and Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character (1903).
Psychoanalysis was used rather differently by the Surrealists, who latched upon Freud’s ideas of sexual repression rather than concentrating on his study of sexual deviance. As part of their wholesale attack on bourgeois society, the Surrealists emphasized the by-products of sexual repression, as revealed through the imagery of dreams, wishes, and fantasies. European Surrealism was largely a male movement, but there were also a number of women artists associated with Surrealist tendencies in other countries, including the German/Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Kahlo produced a number of extraordinarily original selfportraits that drew upon Surrealist ideas of displacement and repression but minimized their emphasis on sexuality [115]. Kahlo’s self-portraits had elements of both autobiography and psychoanalytic self-exploration.
She frequently alluded to her adoptive Mexican heritage, and she also referred explicitly to a series of back operations that left her in constant pain, and to the miscarriages that prevented her from bearing a child she wanted. Her deeply personal self-portraits turn these real life events into metaphorical and fantastical realizations of her own physical and psychological pain.
Artists like Schiele and Kahlo saw self-portraiture as a way of exploring their own psychological states imaginatively as well as therapeutically.
However, it could be said that all self-portraiture involves the kind of othering of the self that Schiele and Kahlo played with so overtly. One of Freud’s more notable successors, Jacques Lacan, discussed the phases of life in terms of the development of the human ego.18 The earliest stages of childhood, in which the baby sees itself as
one with the mother ends at the point when the child recognizes its own image in a mirror and realizes that it is a separate being. The implicit or explicit presence of a mirror in self-portraiture recalls Lacan’s theory of the development of the self, but it was only in the twentieth century that artists began to adopt this approach self-consciously.

Self-portraiture

Vincent Van Gogh Self-portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888. Although Van Gogh devoted his most sustained attention to landscape, portraiture played
an important role in his work, especially from 1888. At that time he moved to Arles in France, hoping to found a community of artists. His correspondence with Йmile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, who were invited to join him there, was accompanied by an exchange of self-portraits among the three men, as declarations of friendship and common purpose. The decline of Van Gogh’s mental health can also be traced to this period, and the series of self-portraits he produced
have been interpreted as knowing self-examinations of his psychological state.

Self-portraiture