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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

In the Eye of the Beholder

National Post, 2 October 1999

“Whenever I start something,” the French painter Édouard Manet (1832-1883) once complained, “I’m always afraid the model will let me down.” Manet’s models had a habit of showing up late, or not at all, then demanding “improvements” in their portraits. “Look at my portrait of the poet [George] Moore,” Manet protested. “Is it my fault if Moore looks like a squashed egg yolk and if his face is all lopsided?”

Alas, painters have always complained about their models. When you’re busy seeking divine inspiration to create those ageless masterpieces, how frustrating to be at the mercy of the exhibitionist and the vain. But what other choice does an artist have?

An upcoming exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa explores one possible solution: the self-portrait. Reflections on the Artist: Self-portraits and Portraits of Artists, opening on 8 October 1999 and running to 2 January 2000, provides a fascinating survey of artists’ most intimate portraits. “It examines ideas that artists have about themselves,” the curators explain, “about creativity, about their roles as creators.” Taken together, the 150 prints, drawings and photographs in the exhibition also demonstrate that artists can often probe the remotest depths of the human psyche simply by looking into a mirror.

So why didn’t artists think of this sooner? “Self-portraits were essentially an invention of the Renaissance,” says Richard Hemphill, curator for the prints and paintings section of the exhibition. Hemphill concedes that certain medieval artists occasionally included images of themselves in larger paintings or sculptures, but these were “so rare as to be exceptional,” and invariably modest. “They would disguise themselves, for instance, behind highly decorated foliage,” Hemphill explains, with the artist’s face barely perceptible to the untrained eye. The full-blown artistic self-portrait as a genre, on the contrary—paintings or sculptures in which the artist claimed a stature equal to his usual subjects—was really only invented in fifteenth-century Italy, and flourished in the sixteenth century.

Scholars usually explain the proliferation of such images by something like “the rise of modern Western notions of individualism.” Let’s just say it looks an awful lot like a massive ego trip. Take Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), the Italian sculptor and goldsmith whose bronze self-portrait was, according to art historian Joanna Woods-Marsden, “likely the first created since classical antiquity.” In 1401, Ghiberti competed against the great Filippo Brunelleschi and other artists for a commission to make a pair of bronze doors for the Baptistery of the cathedral of Florence. Emerging victorious, Ghiberti triumphantly wrote in his autobiography (another first for a professional artisan in the modern era): “To me was conceded the palm of victory by all the experts and by all those who competed with me …. universally and with no exception.”

And the self-praise didn’t stop there. Ghiberti inserted the bronze bust of himself peering out from the left door (equal in size to the prophets and saints surrounding him) just above the eye-level of passing citizens, then he threw in a matching bust of his son on the right side. Just for good measure, he inscribed the second door “mira arte fabricam”—”made with admirable skill.” Take that, Brunelleschi.

But it was the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) who single-handedly transformed self-portraiture into one of art’s most profound personal expressions. During his lifetime Rembrandt was to depict himself in eighty or more individual paintings and etchings. He showed himself laughing, smirking or scowling. He dressed himself up as a beggar or a saint. He wore an absolutely bewildering array of hats. But he returned again and again to a theme that is captured in one of the etchings in the National Gallery exhibition: Rembrandt as a Renaissance nobleman. “Rembrandt modeled himself after famous portraits of ‘Renaissance men’,” explains Pamela Kachurin, who lectures on art history at Northeastern University in Boston, “men who embodied ideals such as erudition, self-possession, and elegance.” Once just a lowly artisan, the artist was now demanding to be recognized as the equal of a nobleman!

Rembrandt’s influence has seeped into virtually every self-portrait made since. Edgar Degas (1834-1917) explicitly includes a Rembrandt image in one of the earliest prints he ever made, a self-portrait also on display at the National Gallery. “Here he is at 20-something,” laughs Mr. Hemphill, “allying himself with the greatest print-maker of all time.”

Of course, not all artists paint themselves for reasons of self-promotion. American artist Milton Avery (1893-1965), whose work is included in the exhibition, was so shy that he rarely drew anyone but his wife, his daughter, and himself. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) created dozens of self-portraits during the last years of his life partly because he couldn’t afford to pay his models. In 1889, van Gogh, now with a ragged beard, haunted eyes, and a mutilated ear, sent one of his last self-portraits to his mother for her seventieth birthday. The painting shows a young, clean-shaven (and unscarred) man with carefully combed hair—just the sort of picture you’d want to send to your mother for her mantelpiece. And, although there will be no van Gogh self-portraits in the exhibition, some fine works by Lovis Corinth (1858-1925) and Max Beckmann (1884-1950) display the same painful psychological self-probing pioneered by the Dutch artist.

Nor does ego-gratification play any role in one of the most striking displays at the exhibition: an installation of fifty-four photographs entitled Genetic Self-Portrait, by American artist Gary Schneider (b. 1954). It was inspired in part by the Human Genome Project, the massive American-led effort begun in 1990 to map out and identify each of the estimated 80,000 genes in human DNA. Schneider expresses his misgivings about the Project’s implicit erosion of privacy by using scientific photographs of specimen samples from his own body: sperm, chromosomes, fingerprints, and eye. It’s as though the artist has pinned himself down on a specimen table, daring viewers to peer into an individual’s most intimate secrets—as scientists and private investigators do on a daily basis. “The subject is so fraught with controversial issues that I could only do it on myself,” Mr. Schneider explained from his Long Island studio. “How could I perpetrate this on someone else?”

Indeed, self-modeling can allow artists far greater creative freedom. “Unlike commissioned portraits,” Mr. Hemphill points out, “where an artist might have to flatter his benefactor, these works have more interest, more excitement, more edge.”

And, it’s clear, far more pure silliness. In an 1888 print by James Ensor (1860-1949), the Belgian artist has given himself the body of a beetle, while his patroness, Mariette Rousseau, dances beside him with her head attached to a dragonfly’s body. Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the prankster par excellence, has attached a Man Ray photo of himself covered in soap suds to an official-looking document purportedly for use in the Monte Carlo casino. The images remind us that one of the first things we learn to do with a mirror as a child is to stick out our tongues and make funny faces.

What Reflections on the Artist proves beyond doubt is that self-portraiture is no empty exercise in narcissism. As Lord Kenneth Clark once observed about the mature Rembrandt, if an artist wishes “to penetrate more deeply into human character he must begin—as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust and Stendhal began—by examining himself.” The mirror can often be a window into the human soul.