11 August 2016. Although I had initially planned to do a self-portrait here, I decided that I would ask my husband again, sitting at the dinner table, with his head resting on his arms. I thought that in this way I would be able to avoid the changes in posture mentioned on p. 86 of the study guide (Open College of the Arts, 2011), also I love my husband’s profile and I could include some silent communication with an object placed on the table in front of him. Since this was going to be a highly arranged senario, I tested a number of varieties in my mind.
12 August 2016. In the end I came up with something, which has been on our minds all summer. We will not go on a holiday this year, because the medical expert reports for our son cost an absolute fortune. Until the hospital is prepared to take the responsibility for this sum there will be no holidays for us, at least not for some time to come. Also, we have had a piggy bank the shape of a cat sitting on a shelf in our kitchen ever since we started planning a trip to Hawaii a decade ago. So this was going to be the object on the dinner table, the two of them dreaming of a holiday together.
First I had a look at several profile portraits and had a closer look at two of them, which share the type of backlight I was thinking of for my own setup (coming from behind a curtain), one by Edgar Degas (“Study of a Girl’s Head”, oil on canvas, 1880) and the incredible self-portrait by Paul Gauguin, which he had painted on Tahiti in 1896. Then I drew an inkpen thumbnail image to identify the main tonal areas (Fig. 1):
After that I repeated the sketch with acrylics painted directly on an ochre background in my sketchbook, mixed from vermilion red, oriental blue, cadmium yellow and titanium white, the only colours I have so far of my new brilliant quality paint. The dreaming part was done with a lot of commitment on the part of my husband, since he managed to even fall asleep at one point :o) (Fig. 2).
13 August 2016. For the actual painting I prepared the background (56 x 42 cm acrylic paper, with a strip on the right side to be removed after finishing the painting to give a square) with great care to give a believable impression of dim, warm light shining through a curtain. The third image in the following sequence was not quite dry when the photo was taken, so there is a difference between then and when I started painting on it. The later photos are closer to reality (warmer orange) (Fig. 3-5):
On this background, when dry, I painted in a style similar to my sketchbook image, but – being the proud owner of some Paynes grey now – paid a lot more attention to tonal details. The day was split up into several short sessions of about 20 minutes each to make the position bearable for my husband. The intermediate result shown below was quite successful with regard to the cat and my husband’s face, but leaves some work to be done on the left side, in particular on the arms, hair and T-shirt. The lighting conditions were deliberately dim again, which makes the accurate representation of skin tones a challenge, but I think that the arrangement is interesting to look at (Fig. 6).
Here is a close-up of the cat (Fig. 7):
I was not sure at that point whether I should cut off the white strip at all. It looked as if it belonged there and in reality there is a piece of wall in exactly that place, so I kept the option open for the moment. In the end I extended the table somewhat and left the strip intact.
Again it was immensely difficult to get a correct representation of the colours on the photo. The truth sits somewhere in the middle between the image above and the final one below (Fig. 8):
I am very happy with the result. The likeness is good (confirmed by my husband, who is very anxious in this respect) and I think that I did succeed in conveying the impression of an intense eye communication between the two and the mood associated with not being able to pack our suitcases. I also like the righthand side of the painting, glad to have extended the table in a rough manner and leaving the “wall” untouched (paper white).
Open College of the Arts (2011) Painting 1. The Practice of Painting. The Bridgeman Art Library, London, New York, Paris, p. 86.
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.