The Magazine

Mirror, Mirror

The changing instinct for self-depiction

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By HENRIK BERING
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In the history of art, self-portraiture constitutes a world of its own, presenting us with moods ranging from the lighthearted to the sordid. There is sheer delight in Rubens’s painting of himself and his first wife Isabella Brant in a bower of honeysuckle bliss; acute menace when Caravaggio decks himself out as Bacchus, looking like some exceedingly poisonous rent boy, and veering into grisliness when he lets the severed head of Goliath carry his own likeness. Self-mockery is on offer in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (1536-41), in which the artist has given his own melancholy features to the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew. Edward Munch’s androgynous self-images are exercises in toe-curling exhibitionism.  

'Self-portrait in a fur-collared robe' by Albrecht Durer (1500)

'Self-portrait in a fur-collared robe' by Albrecht Durer (1500)

Here, James Hall provides a lively cultural interpretation of the genre from the Middle Ages to today. But rather than provide a series of “greatest hits,” he is more concerned with the reasons why artists create self-portraits, pursuing themes such as the role of the self-portrait as a vehicle for self-promotion and self-exploration; its use as therapy; and sex and the self-portrait. Whereas a portrait painter often has to conform to the wishes of his client, the self-portrait leaves him free to do as he pleases. 

Almost until the end of the 15th century, self-portraits were rare, notes Hall. The medieval artist might insert a vignette of himself in an illuminated manuscript, or include himself in a biblical crowd scene (he is the one who looks directly at us). But things change dramatically from 1490 onwards, when sculptors and masons started calling attention to themselves, as did painters such as Parmigianino, Raphael, and Giorgione in Italy and Dürer—the most prolific creator of self-images in the Renaissance—in Germany.  

Known across Europe for his engravings and woodcuts, Dürer proved an expert in self-advertisement and status affirmation. No mere artisan he! One oil portrait shows him as a fashion plate, clad in the finest fabrics; another shows him as a Christ-like figure. In both, his hair gets special attention, hair being regarded as indicative of the brain activity below. This marks Dürer “not as a proto hippie, but a supremely fertile and versatile thinker,” writes Hall.

Common to Dürer and his Italian colleagues, Hall believes, is the fact that they subscribed to the notion of the child prodigy popular in the Renaissance: the idea that genius is something innate rather than acquired. They positively reveled in their youth and their gift. To an early drawing of himself, done at the age of 12, Dürer later proudly added, “This I drew myself from a mirror in the year 1484, when I was still a child.” To Dürer, a gifted artist’s quick sketch “on half a sheet of paper” or engraving on “a tiny piece of wood” will always beat the painting of a poor plodder who works “with the utmost diligence for a whole year.” 

After this outburst of youthful exuberance, notes Hall, a shift occurs with Michelangelo and Titian. Decades before bestowing his own likeness onto St. Bartholomew, Michelangelo produced the first-ever self-cartoon sketch, next to a sonnet grumbling about the working conditions in the Sistine Chap-el. (As Hall notes, the ability to mock oneself is the hallmark of the supremely confident.) Titian, on the other hand, had the courage to portray himself in extreme old age, the first to do so. Of his two late self-portraits, the second shows Titian in a mood of “punitive piety,” with a faraway gaze and translucent, parchment-like skin; he is a man no longer of this world.

With Rembrandt, the genre reaches a high point, both as a vehicle for self-advertisement and for self-examination: One of every five of his productions is a self-portrait. In The Artist in his -Studio (ca. 1628), Rembrandt presents his credentials as a prodigy, a tiny figure “swallowed up by his voluminous working clothes and wide-brimmed hat, and dwarfed by the giant wooden easel with its elephantine legs.” In his etchings, he experiments with expressions and grim-aces, while his oils, featuring himself in fancy costumes, prove to costumers what he is capable of doing.

However, it is in the self-portraits produced in his last decade (which included his bankruptcy) that Rembrandt goes further than any of his predecessors in subjecting himself to intense scrutiny. No longer the hot name in art, his 1665 self-portrait with palette and brushes, and arm on hip, shows him magnificently defiant—the very coarseness of his style a taunt to smoother newcomers. 

Self-portraiture can also serve as therapy: A 1793 exhibition in Vienna of a series of busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt provided a glimpse of the dark side of the mind and a foretaste of things to come. Because of his “deranged behavior,” Messerschmidt had been refused a professorship at the Viennese Academy; as a therapeutic exercise, he created a series of 69 busts of himself engaging in various grimaces. After his death, most of them were bought at auction by a collector and displayed as a freak show in Vienna’s municipal hospital. Given titles such as Grief Locked Up Inside, The Incapable Bassoonist, and A Man Vomiting, Messerschmidt’s heads are seen today as precursors of Expressionism, as is Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799), which shows the sleeping painter assailed by a host of creatures of the night—bats, owls, and a cat. It is van Gogh’s self-studies, however, that provide the most striking premodern voyage into madness. As Hall notes, van Gogh detested photographs, claiming that an artist can reach depths the camera cannot. During 1886-89, he painted more than 30 self-portraits, characterized by a quivering intensity, the scariest of which is dedicated to Paul Gauguin and has a reptilian quality about the eyes. 

Before 1900, artists would only rarely paint themselves naked. The modern body cult Hall ascribes to Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which extolled the Dionysian over the coolly rational, and Freud’s ideas about the suppression of man’s deep seated urges. The result has been self-portraits in unprecedented numbers in our time, displaying cringe-inducing degrees of intimacy. And while mental illness in itself does not disqualify an artist—Van Gogh was mad, and he could certainly paint—problems arise when we automatically equate madness and exhibitionism with art, ignoring the need for skill.

Henrik Bering is a journalist and critic.