Updated on 22 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and some contents).
17 November 2016. The period of Fauvism (The Art Story, n.d.(a)) was a brief interlude in the history of painting, lasting a mere nine years between 1899 and 1908. Initially inspired by (post)-Impressionist painters Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin and Cézanne, pupils of symbolist painter Gustave Moreau established a group following common interests led by Henri Matisse. Their main interest was in using intense and pure colour in the transportation of emotion while ignoring aspects of perspective and thus proved groundbreaking for the emergence of Expressionism and means of abstraction. Colour was no longer used in a purely representational way, but was chosen to transport emotion in an overall strong, balanced composition. The most influential work of art belonging to this period is “Le Bonheur de Vivre” by Henri Matisse (1869-1954, France) (The Barnes Foundation, 2017). Other well-known examples are “The Mountains at Collioure”painted by André Derain during a holiday with Matisse in 1905 (National Gallery of Art, 2017) or “Le Viaduc de l’Estaque” by Cubist-to-be Georges Braque (1882-1963, France) (video discussion by Harris and Zucker, n.d.).
Fauvism was to provide the initial spark also for German Expressionism, a movement lasting from 1905 until about 1937 (Museum of Modern Art, n.d.(a)). Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Wassily Kandinsky were some of the founding fathers of the movement, which emerged more or less simultaneously in Dresden and Munich (Encyclopaedia of Art History, n.d.). The members of the group shared a humanistic worldview and “ambivalent attitude towards modernity” (Museum of Modern Art (n.d.(a)), thus was not only an artistic endeavour like Fauvism: besides striving for a means of making visible the emotions felt by the artist while painting th emovement reflected an all-encompassing position borne by a number sub-movements (Encyclopaedia of Art History, n.d.) such as “Die Brücke”, “Der Blaue Reiter” and somewhat later “Die Neue Sachlichkeit” (Museum of Modern Art (n.d.(a)) within the 20th century. Over the many decades of its existence, a great number of artists were members of German Expressionism, who before that and/or after its end were representatives of other art movements as well. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), for example, was a founding member of the “Die Brücke” group (1905-1913) (The Art Story, n.d.(b)), which was pioneering in leading the development of painting in Germany towards Expressionism. A good example of Kirchner’s style is “Snow Over Davos” (Fig. 1).
Among Kirchner’s “Die Brücke” colleagues were e.g. Erich Heckel (1883-1970), who contributed a large selection of prints (Museum of Modern Art, n.d.(b)) or Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), see e.g. “Village Square” painted in 1919 (The Athenaeum, n.d.). Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc were the pioneers of the loose “Blauer Reiter” group (The Art Story, n.d.(c)), which ended, when Marc and colleague August Macke died during World War I.
Fluctuation seems to have characterized the movement of German Expressionism overall, reflecting the troubled times in the first half of the 20th century. It was then only another cruel twist of fate that the movement as a whole should in the end fall victim to the Nazi regime, which in its notorious “degenerate art” campaign either destroyed or sold the works of art “in exchange for foreign currency”. The expulsion from the Prussian Academy of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), one of the most influential formative forces of the humanistic momentum within German Expressionism (Awad, 2011), appears to mark the imminent end of “official” German Expressionism. Many artists either emigrated or decided to continue working in seclusion, thereby continuing to exert their influence on the development of painting either via non-public channels or else from outside Germany (Museum of Modern Art (n.d.(a)).
8 August 2016. This task was relatively specific with a set of questions to be answered while looking at five or six self-portraits with a special appeal to me. As with my research for exercise 1 of this project I decided that I would concentrate on more unusual self-portraits.
The questions are:
1. Does the artist portray himself or herself as an artist?
2. What is the purpose of the self-portrait?
3. What impression is the artist trying to convey?
4. What impression is actually conveyed?
To set the stage for a complex subject: Jeanne Ivy , researcher at the University of Maryland summarizes her own findings as follows: “Self-portraits, we have found, can be carefully staged to show the audience only what the artist wishes to project, or deeply revealing, inadvertently displaying feelings of anguish and pain. Self-portraits have been used to test new techniques, make a signature mark, launch into self-study, remember the past and as a way to release emotion … What do artists find when they search the mirror? For some, the self-portrait is a cathartic experience, a letting go of pent-up emotions. For others, the process reveals new insights about themselves and their work. For all artists, the self-portrait is an exploration, an opportunity to see beyond the image in the mirror and begin to search into the soul.”(Ivy, n.d., the paper has unfortunately been taken off the web).
Which is not a big surprise really.
So, setting off to see what some famous artists did in that respect.
Between 1888 and 1889 Paul Gauguin (1848-1903, France) went through, what it seems, a self-conscious phase of self-portraiture, a corresponding quote of his on the National Gallery of Art website reading “the face of an outlaw . . . with an inner nobility and gentleness,” a face that is “symbol of the contemporary impressionist painter” and “a portrait of all wretched victims of society.” (National Gallery of Art, 2016), as expressed with great skill in his 1889 “Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake” (Fig. 1a). Vincent Van Gogh produced a portrait of his friend in 1888 (Van Gogh, 1888) (Fig. 1b). While the chosen angle is completely different, it appears to me that not only characteristic facial traits like the hooked nose and moustache were seen by them both in a similar way, but also the perception of Gauguin’s personality as described in the above quote seems to be shared by both of them alike. Both paintings do not show Gauguin at work, but his own piece seems to serve as a caricature removed from a certain time or place, while Van Gogh seemed more interested in capturing the mood of the moment. Without the background information I might gain the impression of a certain kind of arrogance, which is especially visible in the self-portrait. But when I look at what I produce myself in a similar situation, this impression may be false and a result of the particular circumstances self-portraiture comes along with.
In 1906, Henri Matisse painted his “Self Portrait in a Striped T-shirt” (Fig. 2a). Although Matisse often depicted himself as a correctly attired artist, if not overdressed for the occasion, he appears quite relaxed here – focused on the task while not visibly at work (I have a shirt like that myself and I associate it with holiday feelings :o)). The website published by the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhangen describes the attire as that typical of the fishermen in Southern France (Aagesen, 2017). As co-founders of Fauvism, Matisse and André Derain (1880-1954, France) painted each other in 1905/1906 in Southern France (Tate, 2009). When comparing Matisse’s piece with that of his Fauvist colleague, one might guess that the relaxed attitude seems to have been part of Matisse’s nature.
When doing the vice versa experiment, comparing a self-portrait by André Derain (c.1903) and a portrait by Matisse (1905), (Fig. 3a and 3b) the same seems to be true. Both are full of movement, quite loose and relaxed, but probably not overly joyful.
Despite the deplorable brevity of Egon Schiele’s life (1880-1918, Austria), a multi-layered relationship pervaded the artist’s friendship with Gustav Klimt (1862-1918, Austria). His famous “The Hermits” (Schiele, 1912) (Fig. 4) includes a whole world of emotion between the two (Leopoldmuseum, n.d.). Klimt on the other hand never painted a self-portrait in his long life, he is quoted to have explained this thus: “I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women.” (Blatty, 2015).
The above examples are of artists, who shared the same experiences and interests over a long period of time and seem to have known each other extremely well. This might explain the consonance. In order to see whether the opposite might turn up in one place or another I tried to find for my final example a pair of painters, whose views of themselves and each other appeared to clash.
10 August 2016. Francis Bacon (1909-1992, UK) and Lucian Freud (1922-2011, Germany/UK) appear to have been one such pair, although they seem to have spent most of their lives in very close contact before their friendship ended (Gayford, 2013). On the Metropolitan Museum’s website Francis Bacon is mentioned to have said, in 1975, of his intention behind painting self-portraits: “I loathe my own face. . . . I’ve done a lot of self-portraits, really because people have been dying around me like flies and I’ve nobody else left to paint but myself.” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d.). This is quite evident in his “Three Studies for a Self-Portrait” (Bacon, 1979-80) (Fig. 5a). Lucian Freud on the other hand had a very realistic and friendly view of Bacon’s face (Freud, 1952) (Fig. 5b). Although the two artists shared their wild social lives and many views of the world, Bacon’s own life seems to have been shaken by tragedy more than Freud’s, which may make the difference.
And, once more, the vice versa experiment (unfortunately no larger public domain images are available): Bacon seems to have seem not just himself, but other people in the same light. First, a detail of Bacon’s drastic portrait of his friend in “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (Bacon, 1969) (Fig. 6a) and Freud’s kinder view of himself, despite the black eye (Freud, ) (Fig. 6b):
Not surprisingly, there are as many reasons for, and approaches to, self-portraits as there are in any other field of art. The only difference may be that our cultural background makes the access to oneself difficult for some. It is not everybody’s cup of tea to lay bare one’s soul for public scrutiny.