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Serious Selfies



Rob Hardy


Everyone knows now what a selfie is; no one knew before around 2002, the first citation found by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. Before we had easy electronic photography, people might point their Brownies or box cameras toward a mirror for the same effect. And before photography, artists had for millennia looked at themselves and recorded what they saw. There are no webcam or smartphone selfies covered in The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History (Thames and Hudson) by art historian and critic James Hall, but this is a splendidly comprehensive view of all the selfies that have gone before. The variety of expression on display here is amazing; of course there is a range of artistic styles over the centuries, but the themes of these self-portraits are just as varied, as the artist depicts the self with heroic overtones, or sentiment, or self-mockery, or pride. It is no wonder that we think that how the artist displays the form of the self to the world has some special meaning, and Hall carefully unpacks the portraits here, with anecdotes and histories that bring a new understanding to a vital part of artistic endeavor.  




Right at the beginning, in his introduction, Hall wants us to know it is not all about mirrors. There is the "mirror myth" that self-portraiture took off in the Renaissance due to the invention of the glass mirror. There were, however, mirrors of polished metal or even of pools of liquid, so if an artist wanted to depict the self, there was no lack of available images. The Renaissance boom in self-portraits was probably just part of the many booms of the period, and the mirror may have made self-portraits easier, but there had been plenty before. The first one mentioned here, indeed, is a sculpture from Bak, a chief sculptor to Pharaoh Akhenaten, a charming double portrait of the artist and his wife. They both stand facing the viewer, and she has her arm around his shoulder. She is is trim and pretty in a diaphanous gown; he has a pot belly, as if to say he is no mere manual laborer and can eat all he wants.  




There was no tradition of self-portraiture in ancient Greece or Rome (perhaps we think this simply because few such works survive), but despite the "mirror myth," there were plenty in the Middle Ages. They were in manuscript illuminations, the arena within which scribes could express themselves and paint themselves. It is not too surprising that in that age of self-scrutiny and self-salvation artists might be painting themselves, too, although it used to be taught that real self-portraiture had to wait for the Renaissance. Not according to the examples here. In a book about the sufferings of the saints, c. 1180, is an illuminated initial letter R, which Father Rufillus of Weissenau has borrowed to show himself at work. The R itself is fanciful, full of "Celtic" knots, a snake, and a naked woman with one medial leg. The diminutive Rufillus sits under the bowl of the letter, working on the letter's tail, pot of paint in one hand and paintbrush in the other. The artist shown at work will be a frequent theme here. There is another more dutiful picture by none other than St. Dunston of the tenth century, whom Hall says was "the most high-ranking and politically powerful artist in history." He was the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the picture here, he shows himself as a tiny figure in tonsure and robes, at the feet of an enormous Christ.  




St. Luke became a patron saint of painters in the fourteenth century; there is no Bible source for the story, but a legend grew that Luke had painted a portrait from life of the Virgin and Child. The myth was useful for a church that wanted to justify the use of images, a practice in contradiction to the interpretation of certain biblical passages. A painting by Rogier van der Weyden of around 1435 shows St. Luke drawing the Virgin and Child, and it seems that Rogier inserted himself as the saint, here shown doing no simple drawing but the more complicated silverpoint. (Don't worry about anachronisms, for Rogier himself did not; the clothes, interiors, and view from the window are all high-style fifteenth century.) Albrecht Durer, among his other famous self-portraits, did one in silverpoint at age thirteen, showing himself pointing offstage. The pose echoes paintings of the twelve-year-old Christ debating with the doctors of the church: "Even at the age of twelve the artist seems to measure himself against Christ - and does not find himself wanting." The self-glorification continued in Durer's Self-Portrait of 1500, in which he intensely stares out of the picture with severe symmetry except for a gesture of the right hand, a pose familiar in depictions of Christ. Hall enjoys pointing out that Durer has one-upped Christ in stylishness: "His permed hair, plucked eyebrows, waxed handlebar moustache and trimmed beard are a tour de force of the barber's art." They are all also intricately painted. 




There was a sub-genre of the self-portrait in the sixteenth century that went to an opposite extreme. In 1595, Caravaggio painted Self-Portrait as Sick Bacchus, showing the wine god with a wan smile, yellow skin, and dirty fingernails. "This smallish, hunched up sybarite is quite clearly our social and even physical inferior." Caravaggio also used his own features gruesomely for the head of Goliath held up by David. He stuck himself into other pictures of religious proceedings as well, not in the way that artists had shown themselves before as heroic onlookers or even helpful assistants, but as "a grubby rubbernecker, merely glimpsing and ogling." Giuseppe Arcimboldo, most famous for portraits of people made from assemblages of fruit, in 1581 drew Self-Portrait as a Man of Papers in which he pictured himself from pieces of curling paper. This sort of self-debasement is also a show of self-confidence, and even self-aggrandizement. 




There is a beautiful painting by Jan Vermeer from around 1667, The Art of Painting, in which the artist is shown hard at work painting his model, but Hall shows how preposterously idealized an image it is. The model holds a heavy book and trumpet, which no model did, as posing with props was fatiguing, and was not necessary since it was just the face that was being painted. The studio is grand, with an unprotected marble floor, a shiny chandelier overhead, and a huge map of the Netherlands on the wall. Hall reminds us, "Studios were workshops and did not look like this." Vermeer himself sits at his stool before his easel, wearing an impeccable slashed doublet, breeches, and floppy black hat; no artist painted in such fine clothes. The whole exercise in unreality was never sold by Vermeer, and possibly was kept by him so he would have an example of his own work in his studio, or perhaps an enjoyable means of escapism. 




Of course the artists most famous for their self-portraits are here. Self-portraits account for nearly twenty percent of the productions of Rembrandt, drawings, paintings, and etchings. Hall reminds us that for all that the portraits remind us of the painter's humanity, they functioned also as advertisements, informing potential patrons that he was still around and still skillful. They were not a diary or a project in autobiography; all were sold before he was declared bankrupt in 1656. Van Gogh may have painted himself for many reasons, but one of the big ones is that he didn't have to pay himself any modeling fee. Also he scared off other models, so he was stuck with himself. Among the self-portraits here are Van Gogh's paintings of the empty chairs he and Gauguin used in their short-lived tenure of the Yellow House. Hall interprets them with Renaissance ideas of dexter and sinister, and makes the chairs rather personable. Here is also a picture of the stoneware jug Gauguin made in the form of his own head, a decapitation that might reflect on Van Gogh's sliced-off ear. 




Hall is the perfect guide for this wide-ranging tour. His selection of self-portraits is extensive, and while most of the ones he mentions are illustrated here, some are not, so it is handy to be able to look up images on the internet. There seem to be hundreds of reasons an artist might make a self-portrait, and Hall's interpretations are sensible and expressed with clarity and wit. The pictures provide him with a rich field to survey for themes about artists and their societies, and it is a surprise that this is a territory that has been little explored before. Hall might have been lucky with his timing, with selfies continuing to be of interest to everybody, but this is a happy and serious book for anyone interested in art or art history. The selfies we have now from smartphones are simple pictures of the phones' owners; but the point here is that the painted or sculpted self-portrait is never just a depiction of the artist. 




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