Tag Archives: Self-Portrait

#Selfie – Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Vincent Van Gogh Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

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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First Impressions: Giovanni Giacometti (1868-1933), Autoportrait, 1899

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In my latest ‘First Impressions’ post, I paid a visit to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.  The First Impressions pieces are intended to be a faithful record of my thoughts on being confronted with an artwork.  They are written in situ in front of the piece, and without further research.  The longer you sit with an artwork the more you get out of them, and these pieces are in a sense exercises in ‘slow looking’, as well as close looking.  I would highly encourage you to pick a painting that appeals to you, and sit with it for an hour or so, and discover what you see.  Comment below if you do this too!

Situated in one of the smaller rooms on the second floor of the museum, this painting immediately caught my eye.  It has such an audacious composition.  He stares out at you in a way few paintings achieve, it is a truly piercing gaze.  He has chosen to situated himself within a bright winter landscape, the kind with fast moving clouds and a little warmth from the sun balancing the cold gusts of wing.  The composition is essentially that of a bust, almost superimposed over a landscape painting.  This gives the work a great sense of immediacy, and intimacy.  One can’t help but feel that the interaction which brought us so close to him, and with him bearing such an expression, would be a somewhat socially awkward one, but it gives the work an almost photographic sense of modernity.  This is a type more familiar to us from photojournalism than from paintings of late Nineteenth century Switzerland.

It’s hard not to compare self-portraits of red-heads with that other, most famous of ginger artists, and it is possible that Giacometti was familiar with the work of Van Gogh.  He certainly does seem to be familiar with new approaches to colour and brushwork that were being explored in Paris at the time.  Geneva was becoming more artistically significant during this period, with a burgeoning art scene, due in part to its close links with Paris.  For the majority of the painting, Giacometti’s choices of colour are fairly naturalistic.  It is in his brushwork that he is more daring, with dense networks of directional brushstrokes giving and undisciplined but effective impression of the craggy, jagged, and snow-covered mountains.  Whereas earlier artists would tend towards hiding their brushwork, smoothing brushstrokes away to focus on careful variations creating depth and volume (such as in the earlier works of leading Swiss artist Hodler), Giacometti chooses varied and visible brushstrokes, which are more evocative of being in 20180617_115942the landscape.  Nothing about the painting is idealised; this is a rough, challenging landscape which tests those who have to live within it. He uses a fairly typical post-Impressionist method in outlining the top of the mountain in long, continuous, and dark brushstrokes.  This adds to the feeling that one is being situated within the landscape; it mimics the silhouette effect achieved by the bright sun.  It is in its way a carefully studied landscape, with the scars of avalanches and snowdrifts creeping their way down through the pines.

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While it is in some ways thus a highly ‘naturalistic’ work, creating an evocative impression of an experience of place, it would be unfortunate to miss the ways in which the artist has asserted himself within the landscape.  Obviously, he has done this quite blatantly in his choice of pose and composition, but we also see this in his choice of colours.  Various shades of green and pink dominate the lower half of the painting, seen in the trees and houses, for instance, and most prominently in the artist’s own face.  Here we see the modernity of his brushwork united with a modern approach to colour.  The use of contrasting green and pink, in very fine brushstrokes, works to bring a vividness to the face, befitting such a frank and confrontational pose.

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I’m not generally one for trying to read too much into the expressions of painted individuals.  This is an area which is too much about reception, and where it is perhaps best to consider the death of artist and the birth of reader(/viewer).  However it is tempting to consider Giacometti’s look as one of almost revelation, it speaks of a sudden awareness of one’s place in the world, not in relation to any social standing, but rather a more Romantic awareness of place within the wider world.  Nothing in a painting is incidental, and from his face we are clearly drawn to the funeral procession behind him, moving inexorably towards the church nested down the valley amongst the trees.  Whether we read this as a reflection of his personal realisation is largely a matter of taste.  The inclusion can be seen to fit with the effect of the painting capturing the essence of life (and therefore death) in the landscape it depicts.  Despite compositionally being placed in front/on top of the landscape, he has positioned himself as part of it.  His dense felt hat comes low over his ears, keeping out Alpine gusts, and his thick woollen coat is buttoned all the way up.  Though he turns to face us, his shoulders are at an angle, and he steps out into the landscape.  The two black figures, stragglers from the funeral, create a sense of movement across the canvas; perhaps he will join them?  The painting fills one with a sense of bearing witness, and becoming part of a way of life, lived from start to finish, in tough conditions.  Thus, Giacometti has not just offered us an image of a place, or an idea of a place, but rather a complete, involved, and honest experience of what it is to exist in that place.  His questioning gaze invites us in, and we are led to contemplate this existence alongside him.  Thus a painting which could come across as egotistical, putting himself, the individual, front and centre in the most literal of senses, gains a degree of universality; rather than being a focus in its own right, the individual (artist/us) becomes part of a greater, human story.

You can read some of my thoughts on the genre of self-portraiture here.

 

Self Portraits: Exploring artist’s use of the Self-Portrait

The self-portrait has an enduring appeal for giving us an insight into how the artist perceives him or herself, or how he wishes to be perceived by viewers.  Here I will consider a number of (largely modern) self-portraits, in a bid to explore the possible uses and aims of the form.  Those included are by no means comprehensive, with some notable absences (I don’t mention a single van Gogh), but have been chosen as I feel they can be interestingly linked, and provide an insight into the varying and developing role of the self-portrait painting.

Rembrandt: Self Portrait with Two Circles, 1665-69

How an artist depicts himself relates closely to the common perception of what an artist is, and what constitutes a great artist.  Older portraits, pre-19th century, tend to focus on the artist as a craftsman, and his technical skill.  For instance, Rembrandt’s self-portrait famously depict him in front of the perfect circle, the ultimate expression of an artist’s skill.  Later artists depicts themselves out of the studio setting, as the definition of ‘great artist’ came to be understood as one with a unique view and understanding of the world around him.  So these later portraits often have blank, non-specific backgrounds, and focus on the artist’s expression, not on pointing out his skill.

This general move away from depicting oneself in the studio setting can be traced alongside the desire by some artists to picture themselves as a continuation of the great tradition of painting, maintaining high standards rather than pursuing any new styles.  Ingres, an artist consumed by the desire to relate himself back to the great classical tradition, depicts himself in the typical setting, draped with a sort of cloak, stood before the easel.

Ingres: Self-Portrait at age 24, 1804

The German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner first depicts himself in the studio, with brush and model, a typical subject.  He is depicting himself as a master of his craft, his authority over the viewer expressed through his wild, staring eyes, and his dominance over the picture space.  But here he seems to use this traditional setting to emphasise the radical differences in his style.  He uses this touch of the familiar to shock the viewer, it is a provocative piece.  But we maintain the emphasis on him as a painter, there is little sense of introversion, we are not being presented with an insight into his mind, rather a manifesto of his movement.  This piece is particularly interesting when compared to his later self-portrait ‘Self-portrait of the Artist as a Soldier’, painted after he was invalided out of the First World War.  Now we see all the introversion, his loss of confidence in himself and his artistic vision.  His hand was not really blown off, but it is the hand which would have held his brush, expressing his loss of artistic voice (although we see that his style is little changed, and no less technically skilled).  This is almost painting as therapy; through it Kirchner is able to express his inner turmoil and trauma.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self Portrait with a Model, 1910

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self Portrait as a Soldier, 1915

This second self-portrait is more typical of the 20th and 21st century approach, when the artist’s world view has become at least as important as his technical skill, and the self-portrait becomes a means of self-exploration.  Munch followed his usual unsettling lines of thought in his self-portrait, his head white, floating in the blackness above the skeletal arm and hand.  We cannot help by search for meaning within the man himself.  He was a deeply troubled man, terrified of feminine control, his family mostly killed by TB, one of his two remaining sisters resident in an asylum.  This is not hard to guess from the portrait, but it remains mysterious and enigmatic, it’s meaning unspecified.  This sense of mystery is often apparent in modern portraits, which sometimes act almost to imbue the artist with a sense of gravitas and mystery, rather than simply being used as a display of wealth and skill as they had been previously.

Munch: Self Portait with a Skeleton Arm, 1895

Exploration of identity is another common theme in modern self-portraits.  Picasso’s self-portrait with ovoid eyes strengthens his Spanish identity at a time when he was one of only a few Spaniards in Paris (particularly among the art scene).  Frida Kahlo has perhaps explored this use of the self-portrait more than any other artist.  The vast majority of her painting are self-portraits, in which she explores her identity as a woman, threatened by her inability to bear children, as an artist, and as an individual.  Although not technically a member of the Surrealist movement (in the European or American form), her work is often called Surrealist due to her exploration of dreams and dreamlike scenarios.

Frida Kahlo: The Two Fridas, 1939

‘The Two Fridas’ explicitly explores her feelings regarding her Mexican identity, after the split between her and her husband Diego Rivera.  The daughter of a Mexican mother and a European father, the piece expresses her feelings of being torn between the two cultural identities.  ‘My Nurse and I’ of 1937, also explores her relationship with her mother, and her Mexican roots, the nurse’s face substituted for a proto-American mask, suggesting the way in which cultural heritage is passed down through the generations, and the strength that it has given her.

Frida Kahlo: My Nurse and I, 1937

Kahlo’s frequent self-portraits highlight another more pragmatic side which has made them popular with artists throughout history: they are cheap.  The model is free, and available whenever the artists wishes.  Kahlo began painting whilst bed-bound, recovering from the bus accident which nearly killed her and robbed her of her ability to mother children.  She was thus the obvious subject for her works.  Taking a short aside further into history, this ready availability seems to have made self-portraits popular amongst female artists.  Largely un-professional, women artists were often constrained by social requirements.  There could be no question of impropriety if the woman were not aiming to paint for material gain, and even better, did not hire models, of either gender.  For instance, Sofonisba Anguissola, active in the 16th and early 17thcenturies,

Sofonisba Anguissola: Self Portrait, 1554

was highly acclaimed during her time, but stuck to portraits, with self-portraits, and portraits of family and close friends making up the majority of her output.  From an aristocratic background, painting such close associates could not raise any suspicions, and she was in fact encouraged by her family to pursue her enthusiasm, albeit at an almost amateur scale.  She did however go on to paint portraits of the Spanish court, including Phillip II and his family.  Modern female artists have not been so restricted, but still return to the self-portrait.  Tracy Emin’s 1998 ‘My Bed’ reads as an auto-biographical piece; a portrait of herself and her feelings seen through the objects with which she surrounded herself.

Tracy Emin: My Bed, 1998

So we see that the self-portrait form is continuing to develop, even to include the abstract forms and installation art of the modern world.  I have considered only a few ideas, any comments or thoughts would be greatly appreciated, it is an area which really fascinates me, and I think will continue to fascinate audiences due to the insight it gives us into the mind and feelings of the artist depicted.