The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History review – 'enthralling'
James Hall's history of self-portraits is particularly illuminating in our narcissistic age of the selfie.
by Peter Conrad The Observer, Sunday 30 March 2014
'Startling': Artemisia Gentileschi's Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, c1638-9. Photograph: Krause, Johansen
We live in an age of addictive self-portraiture – except that the selfies who so unstoppably document the busy banality of their lives aren't really making portraits, and it's unclear whether there is a distinct individual self behind their lookalike grins. A digital camera's gaze is skin-deep, and can hardly compete with the almost surgical penetration of a painted self-portrait. Photographs are instantaneous and ephemeral; it takes time to represent the advance of sagging, wrinkled mortality, as Rembrandt does when scrutinising his own face.
The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History
by James Hall
The images James Hall discusses in his enthralling book are therefore exercises in self-appraisal, not self-celebrations like the happy snaps on Facebook. Unusually, Hall's history begins in the middle ages, because for him self-portraiture emerges as a reflex of Christian conscience, a homage to Christ's imprinting of his agonised face on the Turin shroud. But the imitation of Christ takes courage, and it usually ends in the artist's self-castigation. Previewing the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel,Michelangelo actually flays himself: St Bartholomew grips the painter's empty epidermis, which has been painfully peeled off with a butcher's knife.
Such stark portrayals are averse to vanity. Behind the sedate married couple in The Arnolfini Portrait, Van Eyck includes his miniaturised self reflected in a mirror – a kind of signature, but also, according to Hall, a recollection of Seneca's claim that mirrors were invented as an aid to self-knowledge, not to encourage primping and preening. Even Dürer's florid tresses, waxed into permanent waves when he paints himself as Christ, are more than a fancy coiffure: his hair, growing directly out of the brain, testifies to the efflorescence of his spiritual thoughts.
Scattering insights on all sides, Hall's narrative advances through the centuries with masterly vigour. In his view, Renaissance painters see themselves as heroes. Giorgione assumes the role of David vanquishing the antique Goliath of classical tradition, while Raphael – whose premature death was supposedly provoked by post-coital exhaustion – adopts the pose of a moony, doe-eyed courtly lover. An obscure Milanese artist called Lomazzo actually deifies himself, bedecking his hat with laurel and brandishing steel compasses that symbolise God's regulating of space in Genesis. Even more startlingly, Artemisia Gentileschi – one of several proudly feminist painters treated by Hall – uses her bare arms instead of compasses and, with her body afloat in dizzy space, draws a line to separate light from darkness and thereby makes the art of painting possible.
As Hall's cultural history continues, this mythical idealism gives way to a worried scrutiny of the artist's odd individuality. Dürer's immaculate braids may vouch for his high-mindedness, but in Rembrandt's self-portraits his hair is frizzly, unkempt, almost repellently organic, and his face, surrounded by murky shadow, sprouts, as Hall brilliantly puts it, "like a potato from peaty soil". Identity now seems mutable and mysterious. The Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt portrays himself in a series of alabaster busts which show him grimacing or leering, assailed by bodily twitches or by the mind's invisible tormentors.
Is the head, where these demons are housed, detachable from the workaday limbs below the neck? That seems to be the suspicion of Courbet's Desperate Man, who stares into a mirror with frightened, bulbous eyes as his hands rake through his hair; overcome by existential panic, he is "checking he is still there and not just a figment or a fragment". One of Hall's finest feats of analysis describes Gauguin moulding a likeness of his own severed head into a stoneware jug, "with streams of red glaze simulating blood". Another of Gauguin's ceramic self-portraits shows him squashed into "a foetal baby", whose compressed body is a jar meant to contain tobacco – a remnant of the Promethean creative fire, here stored in a homunculus which was created by firing in the potter's kiln.
In the 20th century, the act of self-portraiture turns nasty and neurotic, a form of self-abuse. The Renaissance theorist Alberti described Narcissus as the inventor of painting, an art that "embraced the surface of the pool". But to the modern understanding, narcissism is a solitary vice, the symptom of a sickly introversion. Egon Schiele draws himself compulsively masturbating, and Frida Kahlo slices open her chest to lay bare a bleeding heart, which drips gore on to her dress. The mock-divine Lomazzo held compasses; Kahlo, by contrast, manipulates a pair of forceps, which snip a cardiac vein and drag it from her bosom to her lap. In the same painting, she holds hands with an identical twin, who wears the extruded heart they share as a brooch or a love token. With startling perversity, The Two Fridas raises the possibility that such self-scrutiny might be an exercise in artificial reproduction. Is art a kind of cloning, which extends the artist's life without recourse to the usual biological routines?
Hall's narrative ends with Tracey Emin taking inventory of her bedmates,Jeff Koons athletically straddling his porn consort La Cicciolina in a series of pornographic sculptures entitled Made in Heaven, Gilbert & George dourly exhibiting "their gayness and greyness", and the affectless Cindy Sherman dressing up as a movie star. For a history that starts by asserting that self-portraiture, as practised by medieval artists, is "connected with personal salvation, honour and love", it's a somewhat diminished conclusion. But the fault is not Hall's: for contemporary artists, self-exposure takes the place of self-knowledge and publicity is a tawdry substitute for salvation.