Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Research Point: Self Portrait- Part Two

Why do artists paint self portraits? (continued Self Portraits - Part One)

Demontration of Technical Skill

Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524
The young Parmigianino painted this self portrait to demonstrate his skills as he was seeking a wealthy patron (which he succeeded in gaining). Flat mirror were not common at this time and this painting describes the distortion of the reflection in the mirror with its unusual composition with the magnified hand in the foreground. The painting in fact is painted on the context surface of a wooden hemisphere which was of the same dimensions as the mirror he used.

Proclamation of Status

In part one I describes how Dürer was concerned with raising the status of the artist going to the extreme of portraying himself as an icon of Christ. 

In the portrait below the artist seems to be 'showing off'. It strikes me as being similar in character to many of the 'selfie' photos on social media sites these days documenting life events but contrived to look gorgeous in the process. Here Sir Anthony van Dyck (who was court  painter to Charles I) is proudly displaying a chunky gold chain while gesturing towards a sunflower. He seems to be saying 'look at me! I'm such a fabulous painter that I won a big chunky gold chain for painting these golden sunflowers'. He's wearing red satin - all very 'bling' and ostentatious - If he were around today he's probably be a rapper!

Sir Anthony van Dyk Self Portait with a Sunflower
In contrast - I will look briefly at Las Meninas (Velasquez) seen below - but the brief description will not do it justice as this is avery complex painting:

Las Meninas 1656 - Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez
Clearly this is not 'just' a self portrait showing Velázquez as the court painter. It is a complex and carefully planned composition. The little infanta and her maids look out at us but Velazquez himself looking gravely out at us seems really to communicate and make the views part of the scene. it's almost as if he is painting us as part of the scene across the centuries. (Although he may actually be painting the king and queen who are reflected in the mirror at the back of the room). This is a lll a construct, an inclusion but a very compelling one.

Practising Facial Features and Experimenting with Techniques

Rembrandt clearly did some of this as I referred to in part 1. Van Gogh may have been forced to repeat his self portraits, not necessarily because he was exploring his state of mind (although we might like to think that after the subsequent publication of his letters and his premature death to promote the idea of the tortured genius). It may have been expedient because he was short of money and could, therefore not afford to pay a model. The results are spectacular and the artis recognisable for those brush strokes and those spectacular colour schemes rather that for consistency in the facial features.

Portraying the artist in the process of painting

One of my favourite self portraits of this section is that of Artemisia Gentileschi. This female artist  is a touchstone for may female artists given that she triumphed over adversity (she was raped as a teenager and underwent the indignity of a trial which made her ineligible for marriage but went inn to become a very successful artist at a time when female artists were very rare).

Self Portrait as La Pittura 1638
(Self Portrait as an Allegory of Painting)
Artemisia Gentileschi
What I like about this is the energy that she shows. She is leaning forwards looking round an enormous canvas as she paints her subject. The act of painting uses her whole body which seems believable. Compare this with the ridiculous image below in which the lady in all her fine satin is teaching pupils how to paint in oils. 

Adelaide Labille-Guiard 1785
Self-Portrait with Two Pupils
Notwithstanding the virtuosity of the painting of the folds and sheen of the satin, my immediate reaction to Labille-Guiard was contempt.

At another extreme comes Philip Guston with his 1960 painting "the Studio" Click Here for Link to Image. The artist looks like a faceless member of the ku-klux clan or a halloween ghost with a sheet over his head. He paints a crude likeness of himself under a bare electric bulb (late at night) with a paintbrush that seems to smoke because of the cigarette he is smoking with the other hand. His hands are stubby and clumsy- he casts himself as a clumsy and un-creative buffoon. But to those in the know there are a number of references to previous high art in this picture.

Reference Material used: 
"A Face to the World - On Self Portraits" by Laura Cummings (Harper Press 2010). 

The Oxford History of Art "Portraiture" by Shearer West (Oxford University Press 2004) 

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