The Magazine

Mirror, Mirror

The changing instinct for self-depiction

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By HENRIK BERING
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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.