In Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits, last night on BBC4, Laura Cumming, the Observer art critic, presented an absorbing survey of the self-portrait. She began with Durer’s compelling study of himself in 1500, aged 28, Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe (above). Durer was the first European artist to produce a self-portrait. That alone is remarkable, but in total Durer created at least ten: three paintings, a watercolour and around six drawings, including the portrait of himself at age 13 (below). Laura Cumming began by recalling the personal significance for her of Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe:
One summer of my childhood was spent in bed with measles. A family friend braved the quarantine bearing what she called her portable museum, dozens of old master postcards in a shoebox. Among the many portraits were some that stood out, having that intensity about the eyes that even a child recognises as the sign of a self-portrait; one was this Dürer. Too modern to have been painted so long ago, too vital to be trapped behind ancient varnish, the picture captivated me with its coldly glowing stare. It made me aware for the first time that people in paintings could be as exciting as people in life, that art could be as powerful as reality.
‘The self-portrait is quite unlike any other form of art, for it reveals the most intimate truths’
In her film Laura Cumming argued that self-portraits are a unique form of art – one that reveals the truth of how artists saw themselves and how they wanted to be seen by the world. The self-portrait has a ‘special look of looking’: the artist looks into our eyes with an intense gaze – though, of course, the artist is looking not at us, but at his own image in the mirror. Cummings examined self-portraits by, amongst others, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Courbet, Messerschmidt, Warhol and Wallinger, tracing the development of the genre. I’ve chosen some highlights here.
Raphael: Self-Portrait 1506
Tintoretto: Self-Portrait c. 1546
‘He was an insomniac, painting through the night – note the pink-rimmed eyes.
Rembrandt: Self-portrait as a Young Man, 1629 (age 23)
Rembrandt: Self Portrait 1659 (age 53)
Rembrandt: Self-Portrait 1661 (age 55)
Rembrandt: Self-Portrait 1669 (age 63)
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638
Head tilting, body kiltering, Gentileschi rises to the creative moment like an action painter three centuries in advance. She could have shown herself sedately doing nothing, like most women before her. Instead she embodies her own legend as the most celebrated female artist of her time. Gentileschi wastes no time on eye contact, on social introductions, but gets straight down to work: a painter of strong women, a strong woman painter.
Jacques-Louis David, Self-Portrait, 1784
David is oppressively alone, not quite recognising himself immediately or completely in the mirror. There is a trace of bewilderment, even grievance and one imagines he has lost all sense of the brush and palette he grips so tightly. Imprisoned for his association with Robespierre in the French Revolution, David is literally in solitary confinement.
Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1889
A Starry Night in daytime, dazzling yet solemn, this is Van Gogh’s final self-portrait. He is of a piece with his own painting, speaking of himself in the same language he uses for fir trees and stars. The artist never quite explained how his colour effects should work, but the strange outcome of so much blue radiance here is uplifting calm. Sane and free of self-pity: the opposite of Van Gogh as clichéd martyr.
Laura Knight: Self-Portrait,1913
Laura Cumming explained that this painting was a first for a woman artist, showing Laura Knight with a nude model (fellow artist Ella Naper was the model).
Lucien Freud: Reflection (self portrait), 1985
Lucien Freud: Reflection (self portrait), 2002
Lucian Freud, Painter Working, Reflection, 1993
Lucian Freud casts a cold eye over his body in its mortal condition. Confronting his own reflection at 71, heavy workmen’s boots unlaced and flapping like the fetlocks of some hooved animal, he is a bare King Lear of the studio, a satyr or perhaps something more devilish. There is no reliance on the usual combination of pose, clothes and expression to put oneself across; identity emerges even naked. Whatever we are as human beings, we are infinitely more than our bodies. Freud brandishes his palette knife like a baton – maestro, subject and audience of his own solo performance.