Thursday, October 22, 2009

Self Portraits

Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528)
Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe
Limewood, 67,1 x 48,9 cm
Alte Pinakothek, München

Rembrandt (Harmensz. van Rijn) (1606 - 1669)
Oak, 15,6 x 12,7 cm
Alte Pinakothek, München

Rembrandt (Harmensz. van Rijn) (1606 - 1669)
Self-Portrait, 1659
oil on canvas
Overall: 84.5 x 66 cm (33 1/4 x 26 in.) framed: 122.9 x 104.1 x 8.9 cm (48 3/8 x 41 x 3 1/2 in.)
Andrew W. Mellon Collection
The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

In the TLS this week Elizabeth Lowry reviews A Face to the World: On self portraits by Laura Cumming (280pp. Harper Press. £30.)

The book is a survey of self portraits by artists from Jan Van Eyck to Tracey Emin.

"We expect self-portraits to be more true to life than other pictures, as Laura Cumming argues in A Face to the World, her thought-provoking book on artists’ images of themselves. In a self-portrait, the fusion of person with picture seems to be total. When we look at any portrait “there is always the sense of coming face to face with another person before that person reverts to an image”, but self-portraits “go further in claiming the two to be one and the same”. The artist’s appearance as author of him- or herself makes a bid for verisimilitude that goes far beyond simple realism – here we somehow expect to get the soul, too.

The results, from Jan Van Eyck’s ghostly appearances in the margins of his art to Tracey Emin’s frantic self-exposure, are rich in human interest. Self-portraiture is an opportunity for the artist to put across his or her side of the story, and as Cumming points out, it has been used at times “as a love letter, mission statement or suicide note by other means”. "

"The most immediately recognizable of these is Albrecht Dürer’s full-face self-portrait of 1500, with its fur collar and long streaming hair, “a triangle of metal-bright locks, not a single tendril out of place”. Cumming is excellent at annotating the picture’s “peculiar golden radiance”, its charisma and almost oppressive vitality. It is the defining advertisement for Dürer the man and artist, an icon rather than a representative image (as Cumming notes, the painting “was obviously never meant to stay quietly at home with the family”). And it seems to have been worshipped as an icon by future generations of German artists, appearing in numerous later prints and in Georg Vischer’s “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” as the face of Jesus.

Cumming argues with great brio that this most pictorialized of self-portraits in fact embodies the fusion of art and artist. The serenely detached pose, shoulders squared, the finger of Dürer’s right hand pointing meaningfully at his own chest, is baffling until we look at it closely. That triangular mass of hair, the crossbar of the beard: what are they other than the counterpart, writ large, of the A of Dürer’s own trademark initial in the top left-hand corner of the painting? The maker and his image, the product of his prodigious talent, are one. Yet Cumming, perhaps dazzled by the self-confidence of that face, stops short of drawing the obvious conclusion.

If the face is Christ-like, it is a Christ meant for a humanist age, exalting the divine in man. “Whatever he feels, whatever he senses in his fingers, ought to connect straight up to the face, but when you get there all explanations are frustrated.” Really? Look again. The finger, the face, are quite clearly saying “Ecce homo”. Dürer’s is, as Cumming rightly claims, the alpha and omega of self-portraits."

"For self-knowledge at its most unsparing, however, one must turn to Rembrandt. An indefatigable portrayer of himself, he painted more than eighty self-portraits in a career spanning nearly forty years, “a record of change and decay unparalleled in the history of art”. Although he is cavalier with the details of his own physiognomy – the colour of his eyes, the shape of his nose, never seem to be the same from one picture to the next – the whole adds up to an unrivalled sense of truth to life. Cumming’s discussion of Rembrandt’s evolving originality as a self-portraitist and the frank disclosure of personality in these images – a personality that remains, to the end, restless and unresolved – powerfully counters the argument, still sometimes put forward by art historians, that artists before the nineteenth century did not have a developed idea of self. By all accounts Rembrandt was litigious, careless, vain, irritable and charmless, and that is how he depicts himself, not just in “the porky adenoidal youth or the cackling prodigal in the tavern”, but in some of the late self-portraits where he appears “sweating and absurd in his hats, making an old curmudgeon of himself”. He is a disappointed soul, ageing, tired and without any sustaining illusions left, and the self-portraits aren’t afraid to show it. "