The Self portrait
Rembrandt is the master of the genre with about fifty paintings, thirty-two etchings and only seven drawings, and perhaps Van Gogh has produced the most famous. Turner’s painting at the Tate is well known too. A romantic young man in his mid-twenties is staring at you who will become seduced by his skill and imagination. The artist can take their time in a self-portrait to present themselves to the world, as earnest, intelligent, handsome or pretty – as individuals of worth without being saints, royalty or historical/mythic personages.
One of the earliest is by a precocious boy of thirteen drawn in silverpoint (in Vienna) shows no attempt to flatter himself. He was Albrecht Dürer and his next extant from 14 years later in 1498 is his self-portrait in the Prado. A shock of curly blond hair is straight out of the 1970s, with a short rough beard, beautifully dressed in a floppy cap and loose shift of restrained colour. In a traditional three quarter profile his hands are too big. He looks back at you with no humour, settled but wary, ready for a surprise audience. The painter is an artist, a gentleman more than craftsperson, perhaps capable of revealing the inner as well as outer individual. His later front-on self-portrait of 1500 (in Munich) is even more Christ-like.
John Berger writes: ‘One can recognize a self-portrait a mile off, because of its particular kind of theatricality. We watch Dürer playing Christ, Gauguin playing the outcast, Delacroix the dandy, the young Rembrandt the successful Amsterdam trader. We can be as moved as by overhearing a confession, or as amused as by a boast. Yet before most self-portraits, because of the exclusive complicity existing between the eye observing and the returned gaze, we have a sense of something opaque, a sense of watching the drama of a double-bind which excludes us.’ (Covering the Mirror, 1999. He thinks the Turner is an exception).
Orlan goes for a much less subtle presence, going under the knife to change her appearance to mimic elements from famous paintings and sculptures, in a series of operation-performances. ‘My work may be considered as a classical self-portrait work. Classical indeed even if, at the beginning, it is elaborated through computers. But then, what can be said when it is to be engraved in the flesh on a permanent basis? I would say it is a “Carnal Art” also to distinguish myself from “Body Art”, as people often try to link my work to that movement.” (This is My Body, This is My Softwear).
The writers Edgar Allan Poe, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton all drew or painted disturbing self-portraits. My self-portraits are elusive in a different way to Suzan Etkin’s Self-Portrait (1992) which used an atomiser to diffuse her favourite perfume, into the gallery. Many friends who were convinced she was somewhere close when she wasn’t.