So there we were at the entrance to the exhibition at the National Gallery when the Management looked up at the sign. “Hang on!” she says. “This is an exhibition of portraits. You hate portraits! I have to drag you kicking and screaming into the National Portrait Gallery!”
True, I am very reluctant to go into the National Portrait Gallery, and true I do ask where the National Landscape Gallery and the National Still Life Gallery are, and true I hate the current vogue for celebrity of which I feel ‘a portrait of …’ rather than ‘a portrait by …’ is one aspect. I recently saw an exhibition of portraits by Jonathan Yeo at the Lowry at Salford Quays and, while I enjoyed his style, I still felt it was ‘portraits of’ rather than ‘portraits by’. However, I do like the work of certain artists and if the paintings happen to be portraits where the artist is more important than the subject then that is fine by me.
One way in which the artist can be regarded as equal in importance to the subject is in a self-portrait. Most artists have painted self-portraits at one time or another, however the reason for them varies with the artist.
Probably the first great self-portrait was the 1500 portrait by Albrecht Dürer. He paints himself looking almost like Christ, with a similar hand gesture and even a similar hair falling over his forehead as found in earlier representations of Christ.
The 1500 Self Portrait by Albrecht Dürer
An image from a church near Athens c 11oo
Why Dürer chose to represent himself as Christ we will never know for certain, but his images were reproduced as prints in their thousands. He seems to me to have been an arrogant self-publicist who could make the Damien Hirsts of the modern world appear as shrinking violets. Even his first self-portrait which he drew at the age of 13 shows this self confidence. Self Portrait at the Age of 13 – Albrecht Dürer
The exhibition at the National Gallery I mentioned earlier was Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900. I’d taken the Management there because I wanted to see the work of Egon Schiele and his compatriots. In the catalogue for the exhibition there is an interesting essay by Gemma Blackshaw about self-portraits:
“In his self portraits, Schiele used his body as a medium of artistic expression, approaching it as another material to be manhandled. In an image of the artist of 1912, paint is applied in thick, expressive strokes with brush, finger and thumb from a highly coloured palette of reds, blues and browns.
“The body is manipulated: the exaggerated slightness of Schiele’s frame – the hollowed cheeks and narrow jaw – and the thrust of his truncated shoulder out towards the viewer combine to create the depleted yet dynamic body type that was so central to his portrait practice. Critics interpreted this physique as the outer manifestation of the artist’s tormented inner life. For example, … Arthur Roessler described the artist’s representation of the body as ‘born from the tortured shudders of a suffering soul’.”
One of my favourite paintings from the exhibition was The Family from 1918.
The egon-schiele.com website says this about the painting:
“His final masterpiece, The Family, was not an autobiographical statement, but rather a metaphor for what Schiele called “earthly existence”; the male figure (a self-portrait representing the life force) hunches over the female (the vehicle) and the infant (the creative outcome). The three figures encompass a nested cycle of decay and regeneration.
“Although The Family is not autobiographical (and the woman is an anonymous model), Egon and Edith did in fact conceive a child shortly after the painting was finished… In the autumn of 1918, an early cold snap and pervasive fuel and food shortages provided a fertile breeding ground for the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic that would eventually sweep Europe and the United States, claiming more victims than the world war. Edith, in her sixth month of pregnancy, contracted the disease a few days before her husband. She died on October 28; Egon followed on October 31.”
I thought nude self portraits like these of Schiele were a new phenomenon. I was surprised therefore to come across this drawing while researching Durer’s self-portraits:
Nude Self-portrait (c.1503-5) – Albrecht Dürer
Pen and brush, black ink with white lead on green prepared paper
On leaving the National Gallery, the Management and I did indeed go round the corner to the National Portrait Gallery to see The Great War in Portraits. I ignored the official portraits of Haig and such, and looked at the pictures of the ‘ordinary’ soldiers. Two highlights of the show for me both featured the artist. One was Self-portrait as a Soldier painted by Ernst Ludvig Kirchner in 1915.
Kirchner was one of the founders of the German Expressionist group Die Brücke, but at the outbreak of war in 1914, he volunteered for military service. However he suffered a nervous collapse and was discharged. This self-portrait was painted during his convalescence. He portrays himself with a severed hand, an imagined injury expressing the crisis in his existence. Therapy through art is common nowadays but this must be an early example of it.
The other piece was by a compatriot of Kirchner. Max Beckmann, like Kirchner, was discharged from the medical corps after a nervous breakdown in 1915.
Die Holle: Der Nachhauseueg (Hell: The Way Home) (1919)
Lithograph – Max Beckmann
This lithograph belongs to a set entitled Hell which chronicles the lawlessness and turmoil that engulfed Germany as a result of military defeat. Beckmann depicts himself confronting a soldier, one of the many disfigured amputees returning from the front.
Back at the National Gallery there are two self-portraits by Rembrandt, two of many self-portraits produced during his lifetime.
In the Self Portrait at the age of 34 (1640), Rembrandt presents himself as wealthy, successful and confident, adopting a pose from Titian’s A Man with a Quilted Sleeve. This was thought at the time to show a famous Italian poet. By striking such as pose, the National Gallery suggests that Rembrandt was making ‘a plea for a higher status to be given to painters in Holland’. This is possible. It is also possible it could have been a publicity shot – look at me, how successful I am, get your portrait done by me!
Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669) was painted in the last year of the artist’s life, and shows him as heavy-featured and simply dressed old man. The style has changed from careful modelling and descriptive brushwork to bold heavy brushstrokes.
Some have suggested that Rembrandt painted his self-portraits as a kind of visual diary. He certainly produced a large number on a regular basis during his life. His early self portraits though often had a specific purpose. If he needed a particular expression in a painting, he would often sketch himself with that expression.
This etching is in the newly reopened Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. As it dates from 1630, when Rembrandt was a young man, it will not be featuring in Rembrandt: the Late Works, an exhibition organised by the National Gallery in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum this autumn. I think the Management and I will be attending – even if it does contain a lot of portraits! After all, there’s going to be another Schiele exhibition just down the Strand at the Courtauld as well!
This piece, as with all my work, is a Bridgeman-Education-Free Zone!