In this new series I’m going to be taking a short sharp look at some of art history’s most famous selfies. In the age of social media and the proliferation of digital cameras, it is easy for people to be scathing about the purpose and intent behind so-called ‘selfies’. The shortening of ‘self-portrait’ is supposed to hint at a lightening of content. Those who take selfies are deemed narcissistic, self-interested, and fake. But are these images really being used that differently to how their art historical precedents were? As I’ve explored before on this blog, there are numerous reasons why artists might choose themselves as subjects. But undoubtedly one reason is the projection of self; they wanted to say something about themselves, regardless of whether or not it was true, to their audience. This is not so different to our contemporary love of the front-facing camera (although there is clearly a disparity of skill). So here I’ll be exploring what artists might have been trying to say, both in some very famous examples, and in some lesser-known ones. To kick-off the series, let’s look at one of the most famous self-portraits, Van Gogh’s 1889 painting, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’.
While there has been some speculation as to the authenticity of this work, it is generally accepted to have been painted by Van Gogh shortly after his return from hospital, which he was taken to having severed an artery in his neck, and chopped off part of his ear (and here I am glad of a modern divergence from precedent). We could talk for hours, and produce hundreds of thousands of words of speculation as to Van Gogh’s particular illness, and motivations for these actions. He was clearly not a healthy man, but it is interesting to look beyond just this one aspect of the portrait. He painted himself many times, and this is not the only portrait to feature the bandage. Might one see this painting as a return to ‘business as usual’?
There are certainly many other aspects of the painting which seek to tell us something about Van Gogh as an artist, as well as a man. This event occurred during a particularly fractious period in his life, when he was in Arles trying to establish an artistic community with that ever-controversial figure, Paul Gauguin. It is easy to paint Gauguin as something of a villain (not just on this occasion, but throughout his life), and it is perhaps not always deserved, but it is safe to say that he and Van Gogh were of rather different and not necessarily compatible temperaments. So, this was clearly a time when Van Gogh was more than usually concerned about this artistic identity. His identity as a human, and his identity as an artist, here, as so often in his work, becomes intertwined.
In some ways the painting is quite a traditional one. His pose is typical of portraits, the bust, three-quarter view passed down through centuries of portraiture. It is also utterly traditional for artists’ self-portraits to feature an easel, or some other symbol of their profession. Most usually they are shown in the process of painting. This allows them to further demonstrate their skills, by painting some sort of miniature artwork within the artwork. Van Gogh however has his back turned to the easel. We don’t really get much from his canvas on the easel. It is almost just a freshly prepared canvas, ready to be used to create a new piece. What we do see prominently, perhaps in place of a work of his own, is the Japanese print. Though his style is so different to these works, Van Gogh, like the Impressionists before him, was highly influenced by Japanese perspectives, compositions, and even subject matter, and his paintings owe much to these works. The one we see here is a slightly altered copy of a print by Sato Torakiyo, which Van Gogh had pinned to his studio wall.
The brushwork is very much Van Gogh’s own. At the time no-one else was working quite like this. It demonstrates how different he was to Gauguin. Though they share an interest in the use of non-naturalistic colours, where Van Gogh uses large, directional brushstrokes to depict what he was seeing, Gauguin uses large, smooth swathes of colour. Their brushwork is not the only way they differ. It was perhaps inevitable that the two would fail in their artistic friendship, as their aims were so different. Van Gogh is close to the Impressionists in his interest in depicting nature, even if he goes about it in a more extreme fashion. Gauguin, by contrast, is more akin to the Symbolists, who were interested in allegory, Symbolism, and meaning, and less concerned with nature and representation. They sought a different purpose, and so it is predictable that their results would differ.
But for all the pain he suffered as a result of their project, Van Gogh presents himself here as confidently and clearly accepting of his style and influences. He is not cowed into agreeing with Gauguin’s opinions. So, while it is tempting to view his work entirely in relation to his emotional state, and instability, and there are of course obvious clues to this (the bandage, the overcoat, the hat), it would be a shame if the undeniably intriguing details of his personal life caused us to overlook the elements of his portrait which are more purely about his artistic endeavours. We owe it to him to not be bogged-down in speculation, but to pay as much attention to his artistic as we do to his emotional state.
I hope you enjoyed reading the first in this series. If you’d like me to look at a particular artist’s ‘selfie’ in a future post, let me know in the comments below, or head over to my Patreon!
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