A voyage around myself
A collection of self-portraits from Joshua Reynolds to Jenny Saville gives a fascinating insight into how we view ourselves. And it's not always flattering
Sunday 30 October 2005 01.28 GMT
Moralists are always complaining about our lack of self-knowledge, but how can we be expected to know ourselves when it's so difficult for us to see ourselves? We are trapped in our bodies, obliterated by our own flesh; each of us is a subject, though other people see only an object.
The artists in the National Portrait Gallery's Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary exhibition are reduced to shiftily glancing sideways, consulting their reflections in a mirror. What they see, of course, is an unrecognisable stranger with a back-to-front face, which they must helplessly assume is their own. Van Eyck's self-portrait is labelled Jan van Eyck made me, and the caption implies that the face we see is fictional, an actor's disguise.
Chuck Close, who specialises in gigantic blow-ups of himself, refers to the bloated ogre in the paintings as 'him', not 'me'. His eyes are a bleary sunset, his nose a volcanic crater. You can understand why Close switches pronouns: who would want to wear a face like this, which resembles a combustible planet?
Joshua Reynolds shades his eyes with his hand as he stares into an inscrutable distance and protects his face behind a stripe of darkness. It is a modest, sensible scruple: he needs to see us, but we have no right to stare back at him. Cristofano Allori - a gloomy baroque libertine, one of many unusual suspects rounded up by the curators - acknowledges that portraiture is an unnatural decapitation, which separates the head from the body and exhibits a face that is fixed because it is dead. Allori shows Judith holding up the severed head of Holofernes; her woebegone victim is the painter himself.
The truth about a person hides behind the eyes. We are mutable and ambiguous creatures, who can never be reduced to the single, still identity on which a portrait fixes. The poet Rilke claimed that his friend Paula Modersohn-Becker represented both pottery and people 'moulded from inside'.
Modersohn-Becker's severe, funereal self-portrait imitates the Egyptian mummies she studied in the Louvre: an abstracted likeness identifies the owner, but the physical reality is tightly swaddled inside the bandaged body, preserved from view. Her palette is earthy, almost muddy. The chunky amber necklace she wears has been formed from the bedrock, and Modersohn-Becker looks ahead to her own decomposition, when the precarious individual will sift once more into dust.
Flinching from such self-scrutiny, most of the artists in the exhibition play up to their mirrors and give a performance. The impersonation is often allegorical, involving a bold claim for the status of art. Velazquez portrays himself as a nobleman and fondles his sword rather than brandishing a brush; Degas, modelling himself on the leisured patricians of Van Dyck, appears to be an artist who would surely never bother with the dreary chore of making art. By contrast with such smooth assimilation, Salvator Rosa glowers against a stormy sky, taking pride in the artist's outlawry, while Courbet - slumped unconscious on the ground with a sword beside him - has a bleeding wound that advertises the pains and perils of his avocation.
The insipid neoclassicist Angelica Kauffmann chooses to be the embodiment of painting, and takes whispered instructions from a young woman who personifies poetry. Huddled in a confidential embrace, the two figures represent the sister arts. In this narcissistic company, Edward Hopper looks starkly modest. He is dressed for the office, not the studio, with a felt hat and a punctiliously knotted tie. This is the artist in camouflage, pretending to be a bank manager.
At its most intriguing, the exhibition shows painters who use self-portraiture as an excuse to investigate the creative process itself. Is it possible to catch in images the unseen, unintelligible workings of the imagination? Pieter-Jacobsz van Laer, who worked in Haarlem in the mid 17th century, surrounds himself with the occult paraphernalia of his trade: a skull that has toppled upside down, a necromancer's kit, the vials and recipe books of an alchemist. This black magic recalls Leonardo da Vinci's description of the painter as God's rival, the bold recreator of the physical world. But Van Laer opens his mouth in a silent scream that could also be a fit of leering laughter: art, which seeks to overcome mortality, traffics in death and produces only a grim simulation of absent life.
In the 1870s Hans Thoma paints himself with a fat cherub ruffling his hair while a skeleton nestles on his shoulder and chillingly mutters in his ear. Self-Portrait with Love and Death analyses the artist's existential dilemma. The chubby Cupid with the bow and arrow beckons him to live; but the skeleton's laurel crown is a reminder that it's his ambition to join the ranks of the illustrious dead. More happily, Adriaen van der Werff grips his palette, his brushes, and also a framed portrait of his wife, his daughter and a second shadowy child who is perhaps not yet born. Here, the artist pays fond tribute to his muse, and suggests that his paintings are their progeny.
The most impenetrable face in the show belongs to Sidney Nolan. His head is a tribal mask, daubed with war paint; his eyes glare through a shield of bone as armoured as Ned Kelly's home-made helmet. The palette he holds up could be a warrior's shield, and his brushes are like acid-tipped arrows. And the most squashily penetrable body belongs to Jenny Saville, who in Juncture looks at herself from behind and sees a soft mound of pink pulp, its folds concealing secret, unvisited valleys. A wart in the middle of her back serves as the centre of the earth: on this huge canvas, a molehill looks like a mountain. Squeezed out of the frame, the artist's head peers awkwardly over the ridge of flab, still desperate to see what she looks like. But her eye is closed. She knows that the unpaintable truth is inside the head, not in the mirror.