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A Cultural History
by James Hall
Cosimo de' Medici, the great 15th-century art patron and dynastic founding father, supposedly said that 'every painter paints himself'.That was then; now everyone with a smartphone takes a selfie. The self-portrait has become the defining visual genre of our narcissistic culture. Today's gurning phone snaps are, however, simply the latest manifestation of a form that has, appropriately, worn many faces over the centuries. These changes are the subject of this fascinating, erudite and beautifully produced new book by the art historian and critic James Hall.
Traditionally the self-portrait owes its existence to the simultaneous emergence of the Renaissance and the glass mirror. The former put the individual at the centre of the universe - as an autonomous creature rather than simply the chattel of God. The latter provided the means for the individual to study their outward appearance in detail and thus for artists to become their own sitters.
While Hall concedes that the Renaissance did indeed see a boom in self-portraiture, he points out that it was in existence long before then. One of the earliest self-portraits, for example, is also one of the most charming in art. It is carried on a limestone relief carved c1353-1336BC by Bak, chief sculptor to pharaoh Akhenaten, and shows the sculptor and his wife Taheri. She is a svelte figure dressed in a diaphanous gown; he, though, sports a pot belly and moobs. Bak unashamedly displays his portliness as a status symbol; no manual labourer could afford to be this well fed.
Self-portraiture is rare in Greek and Roman art, but that is probably simply an accident of survival. Greek sculptors were certainly signing their works by the 6th century BC, small polished metal mirrors were widespread in antiquity and self-portraits are mentioned in the writings of both Pliny the Elder and Plutarch. They are scarce, too, in the Middle Ages but they do appear in manuscript illuminations, the one place where artists could truly express themselves. One of the most striking is by St Dunstan, 'the most high-ranking and politically powerful artist in history', as Hall calls him. On the frontispiece of a Latin grammar, cAD943-57, this one-time Archbishop of Canterbury drew himself as a tiny tonsured figure prostrate at the feet of Christ. Above the figure he has written a four-line prayer in which he asks by name for divine absolution and protection.
Self-portraits continued to make sporadic appearances in western art, but by the 1490s these images of self, whether displaying social standing or spiritual frailty, had turned into something more unequivocal. Albrecht Durer, for example, painted 16 self-portraits, the first at the age of 13; on one of them, showing himself standing before a window, expensively dressed and with tumbling golden curls, he inscribed: 'In 1498 I painted this from my own form. I was 26 years old. Albrecht Durer.' It is a painting of self-confidence: here is an artist who knew his worth and was stating it matter-of-factly. The painter - beautiful, wealthy and talented - has made himself into a hero figure.
If Durer and other painters including Raphael and Giorgione saw themselves in this way, other artists chose to portray themselves in a less heroic light. In 1594, for example, Caravaggio painted himself as a sick Bacchus, complete with unhealthy pallor and dirty fingernails - a rent boy playing at being a god. Later he used his own features for the severed head of Goliath held by David: his mouth agape and eyes still open in death as blood pours from his neck. Michelangelo, meanwhile, put his own face on the flayed skin held by St Bartholomew in The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Since neither artist suffered from false modesty, these unflattering depictions may be expressions of supreme self-confidence but it is hard not to read a degree of self-disgust into them, too.
Rembrandt, the greatest of all self-portraitists, painted 40 pictures of himself over the course of 40 years, as well as 31 etchings and six drawings. They are usually seen as the ultimate expression of humanism - profound statements of man as a sentient, ageing and complex being. Hall, however, also points out that his self-portraits 'created his fame as much as they reflected it'. He was the first artist whose features were recognised in his own lifetime and, as an independent artist, the self-portraits were also a shop sign, reminding potential patrons of his skills as well as his continued existence. What they were not was a private autobiographical project: when he was declared bankrupt in 1656 and his possessions auctioned, none of his self-portraits were on the inventory; all had already been sold.
As Hall rolls his history forward the uses and meanings of self-portraits multiply. In 1820 an ailing Goya painted a tender self-portrait showing himself being tended by his physician Dr Arrieta; it is an image of both human fragility and altruism. Van Gogh's 20 self-portraits were painted partly because he was unable to afford models and he frequently scared off voluntary sitters. Where Egon Schiele chronicled his adolescent sexuality through a series of self-portraits showing himself masturbating, Tracey Emin is a career self-portraitist who finds relief through trite confessional splurging. Hall notes, too, that 'surprisingly few of the best artists from around 1910-70 have made a big contribution to the genre' (Picasso's self-portraits are largely early works).
The point that Hall reinforces throughout this elegant study is that, for all its mutability, the self-portrait has rarely been simply a depiction of the artist who painted it. In holding up a mirror to themselves artists have held one up, too, to the human condition and reflected all its aspects - from doubt to certainty, a sense of belonging to alienation. The self-portrait is invariably a double portrayal - of the painter and of Everyman.
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