Browse content similar to Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
If you could leave one image of yourself for the rest of the world to judge you by, what would it be?
Is there one picture that would sum you up?
In the 21st century we make images of ourselves all the time.
We're all self-portraitists now.
We can snap away, trying out various poses, clothes, and characters,
different versions of ourselves to show the world.
It's so common that we don't even think about it.
But for centuries, the only people able to do this were artists.
They could make anything they liked of themselves...and they did.
In their self-portraits,
artists have shown themselves as many things - wounded,
decapitated, pierced with arrows,
as a Turkish prince, even as a flayed skin dangling like a wet overcoat.
But no matter how outlandish the fiction, a self-portrait will always reveal a deep truth,
the truth of how the artist wanted to be seen and known to the world.
Self-portraits show how art and artists have changed over the last 500 years.
They show their creators as they moved from the outside into the spotlight,
from the courts of Europe to the garrets of bohemia and the modern avant garde.
But can they also tell us how we have changed, as we've become more modern, more complex?
The more you look at self-potraits, the more you realise they're actually
a unique form of art with an intimate connection to us all.
They show the artist doing what we all have to do, to some extent, every day,
which is to present a version of ourselves to the world.
My name is Laura Cumming. I'm the art critic of The Observer.
Though I write about all kinds of art, I keep coming back to
self-portraits, which is, I think, just what they want.
It's quite deliberate. Self-portraits catch your eye across a crowded room
as if they wanted to stand out,
and I'm going to argue that they do...
..that art history is wrong to treat them as a remote twig on the greater tree of portraiture.
In fact, I think self-portraits are unlike any other form of art,
offering the most intimate truths.
It was self-portraits that first opened my eyes to the power of art.
I was ill in bed, I think I was about eight,
and a kind adult gave me this shoebox.
It was full of postcards of portraits.
Who wouldn't be interested?
But one of them stood right out.
It had that intensity about the eyes that even a child recognises as the sign of a self-portrait.
It mesmerised me, even frightened me a little.
It made me aware for the first time
that people in paintings could be as exciting as people in real life.
This is the one, the 1500 self-portrait of Albrecht Durer.
The 1500 self-portrait is at the end of a long corridor
in the Alte Pinakothek Museum in Munich.
Going there, I have this mounting sense, very common among visitors,
that Durer is just waiting, ready to transfix you.
Just absolute charisma.
You feel it drawing you across the gallery.
With some paintings there's a sense they're winking at you
or waving at you or they're completely indifferent to you.
But this one is luring you.
When I was a child, I was mesmerised by this painting.
Children are mesmerised by the direct eye to eye look,
the idea that the eyes are following you around the room.
But in fact looking at it now, I still feel quite unnerved by it.
Durer appears in close up, yet he's so remote.
Look at that coldly glowing stare.
The hair is like golden twine,
spreading in a radiant triangle that echoes Durer's famous AD logo.
Geometry, symmetry, order. Not a hair out of place.
With all portraits there's this illusion, sometimes only lasts for half a second,
that what you're looking at is a real person,
before that person reverts to an image.
With self-portraits the claim goes further,
because the two are one and the same. The artist is the picture.
I think you have that sense,
more powerfully with this painting than any other.
Durer IS his picture.
I believe all self-portraits,
no matter how closed, give up innermost truths about their maker.
Evidence of who they were,
what they hoped to achieve, is right there in the picture.
The strangeness of this masterpiece is what strikes first and last.
So what does that reveal about Durer?
Durer was a compulsive note-taker,
recording everything he saw in word and image.
And one of the things he observed,
was his own self changing over the years.
Here he is as a boy. He's only just 13 years old.
Can you imagine any other 13-year-old doing this?
And even right here at the start of his career,
he isn't doing anything ordinary at all.
He's in a three-quarter pose - incredibly difficult to pull off.
He probably needed two mirrors to do that,
and he looks so young,
too young to be doing this, too young to have a sense of his own
posterity, which is what you feel when you see this image.
There's an inscription at the top.
Durer's put this in later, in which he says,
very powerfully, I think, that "I made this when I was just a child".
He's dated it, he's signed it.
He dated and signed absolutely everything he made,
so that nothing should ever be lost to time.
I think that this drawing shows him
even then with a sense of his own self, a strong sense of his own self.
"Here I am, 13 years old, this is what I look like, I, Albrecht Durer."
Durer was the first committed self-portraitist
and even at this early age, he seems to be pointing to the future.
Incisiveness, detachment, a mania for observation,
it's all there to be applied to the world and himself.
In his first painted self-portrait,
aged 22, he painstakingly captures his own androgynous beauty.
But the look is glacial.
He gives nothing away.
Older, naked, he perhaps gives too much away.
Leaning towards the mirror,
he notes the way the scrotum echoes the eyeballs.
He's a strange creature even to himself.
Durer's the first great traveller in art.
He journeyed to Italy, where he was revered,
bringing Renaissance art and ideas back home to Germany.
Here he is as a Venetian gentleman, showing just how far he's come.
In the background you can see the Alps he crossed, back and forth,
as if through the window of a train.
Durer seems to have felt as no other artist before him,
the value of putting a face to one's name.
His self-portraits were mass produced as prints and medals, making his looks famous across Europe.
The 1500 self-portrait was displayed in his native Nuremberg
during his lifetime, and carried through the streets when he died.
But there is another more tangible piece of evidence,
that shows just how much Durer was worshipped.
To see it, I've come to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
When Durer's grave was opened in the 19th century by disciples
hoping to measure his skull, for the divine proportions of genius, the body was gone.
But there is a relic,
handed down from artist to artist for almost 500 years.
And it's here in this library.
Traditionally it was saints whose relics were preserved.
After Durer, it could be artists.
Can't believe I'm looking at this.
I certainly can't believe I'm holding it.
It's so long and wavy and blonde.
It was snipped from Durer's head
a couple of days after he died in 1528
and given to his assistant Hans Baldung as a memento mori.
I can see why he was famous for it.
He had this long, long hair, right down over his shoulders,
in an age when everybody had collar-length cuts.
Even he teased himself about it.
There's a letter in which he refers to himself as the hairy painter.
He'd touched it, combed it, washed it...
and painted it, of course.
He turned it to pure gold in the 1500 self-portrait.
The hair is crucial to this painting.
Even fellow artists thought the brilliant strand by strand depiction supernatural.
And what does it look like, this radiant hair?
A golden veil?
Perhaps even a halo?
People have fallen in love with this picture, but they've also been appalled.
And there is a shock here, a moment where you think your eyes are deceiving you.
It looks like Albrecht Durer, but it also looks like someone else too.
It's a double take.
It looks like Jesus Christ.
We'll never know why Durer deliberately portrayed himself as Christ.
Perhaps he was trying to live up to Christ,
or taking literally the idea that we're all made in God's image.
All we know for sure is that he chose
to show himself as both man and Christian icon.
German artists then and since couldn't get this image out of their heads.
A century later, when Georg Vischer came to paint Jesus,
he gave him Durer's face.
There he is, the Messiah of German painting.
The self-portrait's supernatural power endures.
In 1905 a museum guard noticed that Durer's stare suddenly looked different.
Close inspection revealed something terrible...
Deep scratches across the eyes.
The curators reported that someone had attempted to blind Durer with a hatpin.
Only the thick varnish saved him.
And Durer is what we say, not Durer's self-portrait, as if the painting was the man himself.
This is a public appearance in person.
Standing in front of the painting,
I still feel...
an absolute catch in the throat.
My heart's actually beating faster to stand in front of it.
I'm not sure I can stand looking at it anymore!
It's really drilling into me.
Nobody had ever seen anything like this before. It's the first great self-portrait of western art,
and it played its part in a revolution that was occurring in the status of artists.
In the Middle Ages artists had been mostly anonymous, painters
and sculptors no more important than the apothecary or scribe.
Skilled workers, but hardly in the same league as poets or musicians.
In Florence, fresco artists were even forced to join the same guilds as those who whitewashed the city walls.
But by the 15th century, artists were making cameo
appearances in their own works to let the world know of their achievements.
Their faces look out of some of Florence's greatest paintings and sculptures.
And you can see this quite literally on the doors of the baptistery, where the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti
has posted a self-portrait right out on the street.
Ghiberti spent more than two decades working on the baptistry doors known
as "the gates of paradise", a miracle of gilded-bronze craftsmanship, as he himself pointed out.
In his autobiography, one of the first by an artist, Ghiberti boasts
about HIS doors as if it hadn't taken a huge team to make them.
The doors may glorify God, but Ghiberti wasn't going to leave himself out of posterity.
Ghiberti is among the first European artists to promote himself with such flagrant brass neck.
Here he is, shrewd smile, a certain superiority among the saints
and looking down forever on the people of Florence.
Walking around this place, what's striking is the way self-portraits behave like real people.
You're looking around and suddenly your eyes catches somebody else's.
Straightaway there's a frisson that connects you.
This isn't a common look in 15th century Italian art.
In those days it was usual to show wealthy patrons and sitters in worshipful profile, formal and aloof.
But in Florence's Santa Trinita Church, hidden within a fresco
is one of the first examples of an artist shooting one of those glances that hook you.
The giveaway is that special look of looking that distinguishes the self-portrait.
Two-eyed portraits were rare enough - most were in profile - so imagine what it
must have felt like to be in church looking at a fresco
and find one of the faces staring right back at you.
That's the painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, there on the outskirts of the scene.
Although he's not exactly hiding away. In fact he really stands out
with that swaggering pose, and the eyes are locking directly with yours.
The look that Ghirlandaio gives you, with one eye painted slightly out of
focus using the primitive mirror of those times, will appear in self-portraits down the centuries.
But back in 1485 it must have seemed quite outstanding. Why is he here?
Well, the faces in the crowd are real people, members of the banking family who paid for the fresco.
Ghirlandaio was a successful man too, and churches, as the priests
complained, were turning into portrait galleries.
The patrons themselves were getting in on the act, so why not the man
who created the whole scene, the artist himself?
As the Renaissance progressed and patrons began to sit for independent
portraits, artists stepped free of the crowded fresco as well.
Here's Raphael, painting himself around 1506,
not as part of a bigger picture but deserving one all of his own.
He's an individual, ready for his close up,
eager to be seen and known as something other than a craftsman.
You notice he has no brush for hire.
A few decades later a young Venetian looked in a mirror and painted his
eyes staring back with a look that holds you too in its sights.
This is the face of Tintoretto.
Look at those red rims. Tintoretto was an insomniac, painting all night.
These are eyes that make you stare hard in return.
It's a startling switch. The picture puts you in the artist's position.
You are where he once was, contemplating himself.
You're seeing him through his own eyes.
Centuries before anyone discovered that the eye is an extruded part of
the brain, Tintoretto senses a connection between mind and eye.
To see is to know.
He makes you feel you've entered into his self-awareness.
It's a unique gift of self-portraits.
Self-portraits had become a popular genre,
explored by artists right up to the present day.
But how do you turn yourself into a picture?
What do artists go through when they create a self-portrait?
I've always been interested in the art of self-portraits and taking them as an inspiration.
The latest one I'm wanting to do is this one by Tintoretto.
It's quite an interesting experience
because I am not only painting myself, I'm trying to paint that.
You need to get the midnight hour in Venice into this painting.
It's an absolute gimlet stare, isn't it?
It is an analysing look.
It'd be remiss to say it is looking into your soul, but he's looking at you in a different way.
I'm coming up the nose, I'm going to do the bridge of the nose
and I'm coming over to the far eye,
the eyebrow in,
first the eyebrow, just the shadow, and then the eye approximately.
This side, I've got a very big shadow in the eye socket,
my eyebrow coming in, and then the googly eye here, this is there.
Of course, now I've drawn everything wrong.
Does he look suitably sinister?
I often think that painting self-portraits,
it's not a conscious effort to find out something.
It's a feeling around in the dark and later on things occur to one when one looks back on it.
It's like a
bloody Picasso, not like a Tintoretto. Do excuse me.
I'm going to pop a highlight in here to liven it up.
And you've only got one there, haven't you? Look at your face.
This one has none.
And this is quite a bright one. You haven't got any.
Does Tintoretto have any?
None at all, no, look, he's made the lid do all the work, hasn't he?
In fact he has just made the pupils much darker, to give that sense...
The whole iris peering out at you.
No highlights at all.
-All the highlights are on the nose and the cheek.
So you could go that way at this point.
I could, but I'm going to try anyway.
I want to see what a highlight looks like.
Because I'm cheesy.
OK, so I'm going to just put it in here.
Self-portrait of a man thinking about Tintoretto.
We are all trained to subliminally read micro expressions. A lot of
interaction happens on this kind of instinctive level,
and I wonder whether those tiny adjustments I'm making,
while I'm trying to make the eye more real or the nose come out or the mouth work properly,
they then suggest all these different emotions.
So for you, where other painters might choose to try to transmit
something of their character, for you it's coming through the paint?
Yes, absolutely. It's coming through the paint and it's unconscious.
In a sense, I suppose this is in between
the way I feel and the way I see myself. It's somewhere in between.
Within and without, self-portraits bring the two together.
Artists may not be able to paint their outer appearance any better
than a portrait painter, but they have complete access
to their inner selves, and this shapes the painting.
Perhaps that's why self-portraits have been so prized by collectors down the centuries.
The oldest and most monumental collection of all can be found in Florence.
That's the Uffizi Gallery behind me, and if you can see where tiled roof starts, with all
the windows underneath, that's the Vasari Corridor of self-portraits.
It's the largest collection in the world.
The corridor is over half a mile long.
It was designed by the Renaissance artist, architect and pioneering art historian Giorgio Vasari.
It was Vasari, through his Lives Of The Artists, who made the world see
artists differently - as creative, temperamental, even as geniuses.
People worthy of biography
whose self-portraits were wondrous things to collect.
The corridor is almost never open.
The self-portraits are usually locked behind this door.
This is Cardinal Leopoldo de Medici, who started this collection.
He was really obsessed, collecting them like football cards.
Began with one, soon over 100, and now there are over 1,000.
And I think you can understand his passion.
You love the artist's work, you wonder what the artists looked like.
The self-portrait embodies them both.
Oh, you really feel you are stepping into the past.
And all these eyes staring at you.
There's a real feeling of pressure here,
a force of personality.
There's plenty of famous names - Titian, Rembrandt, Carracci -
but more interesting are some that are now forgotten, like Giovanni da San Giovanni.
Oh, look at that. He's really casting a cold, clear eye on you, and of course on himself.
The wart - every single hair has been spelled out.
He could have painted it from the opposite view,
but he wasn't going to flatter himself.
It's all about the truth, that one. And up here is one I really love.
It's the one comedy self-portrait.
It's Lorenzo Lippi, from Florence, 17th century, and he's making a real
parody of the eyeballing business of self-portraits.
One eye is in shadow,
the other one peeping out as if
he was looking around the corner, terrified somebody might jump out.
He's brave enough to paint himself, but he's too frightened to look.
Beautiful painting. Self-portrait by candlelight, very delicate.
Van Dyke, looking very grand.
Lovely gold chain of office over his shoulder.
And this is by the Austrian artist, Johannes Gumpp,
about whom nothing is known except for this picture.
Here he is, three times over,
the mirror on that side, the picture he's painting on that side,
and he's in the middle. Which is the best of the Gumpps?
Which is the true Gumpp? Is it nature, the mirror? Is is art, the painting?
It's obviously meant to be art because the painting on the easel's got much more animation.
But truly Gumpp is this man in the middle with his back to us.
We'll never really know what he looks like.
He's never going to turn round.
By the start of the 18th century, there were nearly 200 self-portraits.
An engraving shows them lined up like pictures on a boardroom wall.
Eventually, unsolicited donations had to be banned.
This was a select club of the great and good,
hence perhaps a certain pomp and formality.
There's a lovely sequence here of the self-portrait with wig.
You couldn't be on the walls by now,
without being quite grand and receiving an invitation,
and I think the honour of the invitation is really beginning to stifle creativity.
As in life, so in art. Having to make an official public appearance
can suppress one's character.
In the Vasari Corridor, many artists come over as rigid,
remote, even reluctant, as a certain uniformity sets in.
Some of these self-portraits have all the personality of passport photos,
and others, well, they're so buttoned up,
they might as well be portraits.
Such conformity is a disappointment to modern eyes.
We don't want our artists to look the same. We're not the same.
In fact we change all the time.
And it's this sense of inner mutability that defines the work of Rembrandt.
self-portraiture's leading light.
About appearances, Rembrandt is notoriously unreliable.
In over 80 self-portraits his eyes and hair colour change,
his nose waxes and wanes.
But as for his inner self -
never fixed, altered daily by experience -
these pictures are revelations.
Or so it seems to me.
Others insist that this cannot be true,
centuries before the Romantics and Sigmund Freud.
It's a debate that hung over a tremendous exhibition
in 1999, at the National Gallery, when, for the first time in history,
the self-portraits were all brought together.
I remember that show so well.
This powerful presence of Rembrandt all around you
and this extraordinary sense of not just a life,
but a man's whole inner being, unfolding before your very eyes.
It began with the young Rembrandt hiding in the shadows.
He's not so easily pinned down, this guarded soul,
though the painting is pure performance -
a dazzling play of dark against light.
Moving through that show, you'd have encountered him here, at the age of 34.
Rich, busy studio, a huge and international reputation,
and he's wearing the opulent clothes of the previous century.
And the pose is also from the past.
He's declaring himself to be one of the old masters.
A decade later, he is on the verge of bankruptcy.
His wife has died,
his kind of painting is beginning to go out of fashion.
He's full of pain. But look at him.
"I'm still here in the darkness, I'm still standing."
This is one of Rembrandt's last paintings.
He's 63 and in a few months
he will be dead and buried in an unmarked grave.
It's the seventh age of man, really.
He's returned to childhood,
though not, of course, as an artist.
But how perfectly he sees and describes what it might be like
to be at the end of your life.
Every self-portrait in the show convinced you that this
was the truth about Rembrandt, the faithful expression of himself,
but the curators completely disagreed.
They insisted that a sense of self did not exist in Rembrandt's day,
that artists didn't explore their inner selves, because they didn't have them.
Rembrandt's self-portraits were just product for the market, his personal stock in trade.
When Rembrandt stepped to the mirror, he saw money.
But I believe that paintings are their own form of evidence.
Surely here, in his last days, Rembrandt is showing what it is like to be facing your end.
Look again at this one.
It really teaches you what it's like to be old, to be puffy and worn,
tired, your eyes sunken, maybe you're a little bit absurd to yourself.
And all those lessons are there in the art, in the brushwork itself.
It's veined and knotty, a bit haphazard, a bit gnarled, in some places it's fading.
It's as if the painting itself were on its way out.
Rembrandt's depth is not an illusion.
JAZZ SWING MUSIC
But here's where things get complicated.
In the way Rembrandt puts across the inner man, he 's something of an actor -
playing himself, as if he were on the stage.
I've come to ask the actor Simon Callow
if he is can shed any light on Rembrandt the performer.
-It's often said that great actors have almost - or can have - anonymous faces.
They have, as an attribute changeability,
unrecognisability, almost. Do you see that with Rembrandt?
Very much so. He's got a wonderful actor's face,
actually, because it's not distinguished,
it's not a handsome face, particularly -
small eyes, rather bulbous nose,
thick lips, a tendency, as he got older, to be rather jowly.
It's almost a face made up of Plasticine or dough or something.
And, because of that, he's able, somehow, to be possessed
by an idea or a person
or an image or some sort of organic sense of something other.
Self-portraiture is sometimes described as an inturned art, the artist alone with the mirror.
But Rembrandt is magnificent proof of the opposite, putting on a one-man show for our benefit.
It's a real character performance, there's no doubt about it.
Even up to the upturned moustache, with wax at the ends.
And there's a question over whether he is slightly Orientalised his own features. What do you think?
I would think he has just done that by thinking about it. He's thinking Turkish.
What about this dog?
The dog's not thinking Turkish, at all.
The dog's thinking, "When can I have my supper?", quite clearly!
What expression is that?
He is doing a low-life expression, is what it is - "Eurrargh!" -
rather like a member of the chorus of Les Miserables.
It's a, sort of, a rather drunken dirty laugh, actually, is what that is. "Hur-hur-hur!"
"You old tosser!"
Oh, God, we know that looks so well.
That's just... Terrible things have happened to our faces, these nobbles
and the bagging of the eyes and when the upper part of the eyes starts to hang over the eye.
All these things unsparingly caught.
Yes, there's no mercy, is there?
No mercy at all. And his expression completely reflects that.
But it is this
incomprehensible capacity of Rembrandt
to penetrate into
what it is to be human.
We live life forwards, it's been said, but we understand it backwards.
Rembrandt was one of the first people in history who could,
literally, see his life passing - the self-portraits were stacking up around him in the studio.
Nowadays, we all have the bittersweet experience of looking at old photographs,
of seeing our past and unrecoverable selves.
Rembrandt must have had the same very modern self-knowledge,
these time-lapse images deepening his understanding of life.
Rembrandt's self-portraits were known and seen far and wide during his lifetime.
They set a standard, which is perhaps why his century, the 17th,
sees some of the most inventive and original self-portraits in art.
Gerard ter Borch has one foot on the edge of the stage, like a dancer about to begin.
And that foot's like a fuse that sends the eye up the black-cloaked body to the artist's face.
It's a public performance, but he's a riddle.
The Italian painter Sassoferrato appears against
a pure blue background, his signature colour, known as Sassoferrato blue.
Leaning forward deferentially, as if listening to your views, a camera-age pose three centuries in advance.
Salvator Rosa comes on like a rock star, a lone crag of a man against a shelterless sky.
He's got something to say, but since this is a picture, he's given the lines to a stone.
Those words roughly translate as, "If you've got nothing worth saying, then shut up."
Which is exactly what he's not doing in this cunning picture, of course.
And Rosa was famously garrulous. As always with self-portraits, the truth will out.
What pose to strike, what expression to show, what to do in a self-portrait?
Big questions and none of them simple.
For instance, do you show yourself in the act of painting?
Here's one that does.
It's Artemesia Gentileschi, in a dynamic self-portrait, at Hampton Court.
Sleeves rolled up, getting down to work, she's like an action painter, three centuries in advance.
Except, of course, that unlike Jackson Pollock and co, she's not a man.
To be a woman painter in the 17th century was the opposite of easy
and Gentileschi endured unusual cruelties.
She was raped by her painting tutor and at the subsequent trial, she was publicly humiliated and tortured.
Yet she survived to have a very successful 40-year career, her paintings were prized
all across Europe and her self-portrait was the first by a woman
to appear in a royal collection.
It's actually very startling when you stumble across her in a dark corner of Hampton Court,
still hard at work, three and a half centuries after Charles I invited her to England.
She's showing herself doing something quite ordinary and traditional - painting herself at work -
but what an original take on the theme.
She's making this extraordinary kind of wild kiltering gesture up there to make her mark,
and the sleeve is falling away, so you see the naked forearm, the dirty fingernails,
lights flashing across her bosom and forehead.
This is Exhibit A in any history of women's art.
It's the first self portrait by a woman to be internationally famous
and it shows something that was very rare for the 17th century,
in fact, it was regarded as a freak of nature -
a woman who paint and showed herself doing it.
I love the fact that Gentileschi could be painting anything, large or small.
The canvas is so far a promising blank and that she isn't wasting time making eyes at us.
This artist is getting down to work.
Showing yourself at work is the simplest way to declare your profession
and it's no accident that it was frequently women painters, down the centuries,
who chose to show themselves palette in hand, brush at the ready,
even if they were dressed as if they were on their way to the ball.
These are self-portraits that say, "Look, I'm an artist.
"This is what I do."
But the working self-portrait can also be used to make the personal political.
That's certainly the case with a 20th century work in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Here's Laura Knight's wonderfully provocative self-portrait, it's called Self With Nude.
Couldn't be clearer than that. And Knight is showing herself doing the very thing that hadn't
been allowed for centuries - painting a nude figure, no drapes and no accompaniment - on her own.
Even at this point, in 1913, this was controversial.
In provincial art colleges, you still couldn't do it and even later in the century it wasn't allowed.
So she's turning her back on tradition, snubbing tradition,
and, of course, turning her back on us, as well.
What I love about this painting is that it's absolutely of its political moment.
This is the time of suffragettes and here she is doing indoors,
in a sense, what they were doing on the streets.
And I think she's asserting her women's rights in doing this.
And she puts them on equal footing -
the model, the artist - as if they both had the right
to be in a painting and they both had the right to autonomy.
To the vote, you might say.
She's voting for women's art.
It's clear that Laura Knight has a campaign in mind,
but the motive behind many self-portraits is far less obvious.
With portraits, you know that someone wanted a likeness of that person and probably paid.
But self-portraits are not often commissioned, there's little money or glory involved.
So why do artists make them?
For all sorts of deep and surprising reasons.
This is Murillo, portraying himself at the prayers of his children, that he may be with them after his death,
as it says in the inscription scrolling out like a fax.
Children were Murillo's subject and his passion.
He raised 12 on his own, when his wife died.
Those words express paternal love, but so does the gesture -
the hand appearing to reach out of the frame, to quicken, as if still alive.
The father no longer leaving his children in dying.
Here's Michelangelo in The Last Judgement, in the Sistine Chapel.
Not the magnificent Saint Bartholomew, but that ragged epidermis,
dangling like an overcoat from his hand, the skin of Bartholomew, who was flayed.
Michelangelo was in his late sixties, much preoccupied with death and resurrection.
The only way to be redeemed was to shuck off the mortal flesh
and be reborn at the last judgement, as this self-portrait shows.
Here's Michelangelo, the famous broken nose is the giveaway,
offering up his old skin to God, who's just above.
It's the visual equivalent of a prayer.
But in Vienna is a collection of self-portrait sculptures
that have a purpose so strange it even eclipses this.
This is the Austrian sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt,
caught in a complete revulsion.
His eyes are screwed up, his mouth's pursed tight, the whole face is a kind of rictus.
And it's a head that makes you want to move your own in recoil.
Real force of personality.
The academic title they give it is Revolting Odour, as if what he was feeling and experiencing was simply
a nasty smell, but I think there's something much worse going on here.
Why would anyone want to portray themselves like this?
Messerschmidt had the most troubling motive of all self-portraitists.
His sculptures are, literally, a form of exorcism.
If self-portraits could behave like real people -
staring, acting, showing off - they can also descend into madness.
Once, Messerschmidt had been a man with a golden career,
winning prestigious commissions from the Habsburg Court, that are all 18th-century perfection.
His abilities put him at the heart of the artistic establishment.
In his time, this handsome building was the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.
Here on the second floor is where Messerschmidt studied and where he eventually became a teacher,
with the written promise that he would one day get the job he really craved, Professor of Sculpture.
This is the world that Messerschmidt lived and worked in.
It's an incredible place and he must have seen it every day,
because it's just along the corridor from his studio.
Miles of neo-classical marble and cherubs and gold, and up here on the ceiling, this immense fresco,
celebrating the arts and the sciences and, right in the middle, the two people who supposedly
have helped them most, the Emperor and his wife, in a real kind of beautiful medallion there.
It's unthinkable to me that anyone who could have lived in such a world,
so rigid and formal and ceremonial,
could have broken out and produced such wild self-portraits.
Messerschmidt's series of so-called "character heads" rank among the strangest figures in art.
It's impossible to believe they were made in the 18th century,
they seem so modern, so out of kilter with their times.
Around the time he started to work on the heads, Messerschmidt's life began to fall apart.
In the archive of the Academy of Fine Arts is evidence of a crushing professional disappointment.
This document is a report, by the supervisor of the
Academy of Fine Arts to the Empress. Can you tell us what it's about?
It is about who is going to succeed some Professor of Sculpture,
who has died recently,
and Messerschmidt, he was intended to get this position.
And here it says why it's not such a good idea.
"So he has been very confused in his head for the past three years."
So do you think they're implying that he's mad?
Yes, I do.
There are other documents in which he's described as believing
-his colleagues to be his enemies and so on.
-So paranoid, as well?
Yes. The Chancellor here asks for a pension.
He gets a pension, in the end.
-So they pay him off?
-Yes, they do.
Messerschmidt left Vienna,
but many of the heads he spent the rest of his life working on are still here.
We do have an account of how and why Messerschmidt came to make these heads.
A visitor to his studio in 1781 found the sculptor pulling violent faces in the mirror.
He was pinching himself until he grimaced, he was yawning convulsively.
He was swallowing so violently his eyes closed involuntarily.
Messerschmidt told the visitor that he was being physically tormented
by a demon he called the Spirit of Proportion.
He had angered this spirit, he said, but had figured out a system
to drive it away, that involved pinching himself and grimacing.
The heads are a record of the expressions he used to exorcise this demon.
My sense, looking at the heads, is that they are kind of stand-off.
A real head-to-head, if you like.
A way of beating off the spirit that was tormenting him.
Imagine making your own head.
You know, this is a really ephemeral expression and he's carved this
in alabaster, which is one of the hardest of stones.
It must have taken him months and months to get something that lasts half a second.
And you just don't know I'm here, at all.
You've just gone, haven't you?
Even this one is meant to represent something...like a smile.
It's just, sort of, horrifyingly vacuous.
This one's the most alien of them all.
It just feels as though he's turned into his own bone.
Just one bone, it's like bird's beak.
It's really a horrifying thing.
And it's a thing, you know. You feel he's turned his own being
into an object.
It's just too frightening, really, to look at.
I can't really bear to look at it.
These heads were first shown here in Vienna as a sort of medical freak show, forensic evidence.
But even in his lifetime, people felt their power, their expression
of what it is to be stuck with your own thoughts, your own demons,
to be locked inside your own head.
In Paris, there's a self-portrait that, like Messerschmidt,
is all about about being stuck with oneself and also seems to bridge
the 18th century with our own neurotic, modern world.
It was made by a painter working at the time of the French Revolution
and who was part of that revolution himself.
This is Jacques-Louis David.
Even if you don't know the dramatic back story to this picture,
it still stops you dead in the gallery,
this painting of a man who seems strange, even to himself,
and with, I think, a powerful air of isolation.
When David painted this picture in 1794, he wasn't just alone
in the sense of closing the studio door to get down to work.
He was a man in prison. Here he is, literally, in solitary confinement.
David was the unrivalled propagandist of the French Revolution,
a revolution partly enacted in images.
But more than that, he was a politician himself.
He sat in the National Convention, was a friend and political ally
of Robespierre, and was known as "the fiery terrorist",
even among such extreme company.
He designed enormous public ceremonies,
such as the Festival of the Supreme Being,
in which thousands of Parisians sang songs, while Robespierre
descended an artificial mountain, planted with the tree of liberty.
In July of 1794, Robespierre,
David's great ally and inspiration, fell victim to his own revolution.
David, knowing he might be next, disappeared.
Warrants were issued.
Searches took place.
When they eventually found David, they threw him in a makeshift prison.
He was shocked to find himself there, when all he'd done, he repeatedly protested, was love liberty,
France and the revolution.
It was here that David painted himself, not knowing if the public would ever see his self-portrait.
Captivity didn't turn out to be too harsh for David, physically.
The guard's son turned out to be an old pupil
and they allowed the painter to turn his cell into a studio.
He managed somehow to acquire palette, canvas, paints, brushes, and, crucially of course, a mirror.
Imagine being stuck with yourself, like this. Boxed in.
The mirror's become the fourth wall of your cell.
You cannot get away from yourself.
The reflection is showing you back the injustice of your circumstances.
Here he is, brought low by his own revolution.
Gripping the brush and palette so tightly, he's probably lost all sense of them,
as he tries to come to terms with his situation.
David is just there with the mirror, there's nothing else to do.
He's not allowed to communicate with the rest of the world. And just only with himself.
But when you look at the painting, he seems not to recognise himself
really at all. I think it's an experience one often has.
You look in the mirror, hoping to get a picture of yourself that you really have some familiarity with,
something stable and definite and you look there
and there's this person you don't expect to see. And you're... shocked, bewildered, incredulous.
"Is this really what I look like?"
He's alone with himself, and yet, it's not an introspective painting.
It doesn't have this deep, psychic inner drama.
He's just looking at himself in the mirror, trying to make sense of what he sees there.
And I think that he's baffled.
David would spend six months as a prisoner, waiting for his case to be considered.
Eventually, he was rehabilitated, becoming court painter to Napoleon.
David's painting betrays the great fiction of all self-portraits,
which is that the artist is looking at us when, literally, he's just looking at himself.
None of us really needs a mirror to see ourselves.
The daylight world is a sphere of endless reflections
in which we are caught and held all the time in shining surfaces.
But artists need a more reliable glass - the mirror,
the painter's silent accomplice.
A mirror is a curious object, almost invisible, except when the frame tells you it is there.
Everything in it is reversed, so you never see yourself as others do.
The artist can't see, never mind paint, both eyes at once.
Which is why one eye is very often out of focus.
The artist Patrick Hughes has written extensively on mirrors
and knows the perils of using this tricky tool all too well.
-Here's a mirror.
-Here is a mirror.
Slippery business. It doesn't quite give you reality as it is, does it?
No, we're like ourselves, just like ourselves,
but subtly different, with the...
I'm touching my right cheek, but this guy in the mirror is touching his left cheek.
Just turned around, mirror imaged.
It's like...like a twin. That's my twin in the mirror.
My other self. Or, as Peter Cook wrote in his autobiography,
"Tragically, I was an only twin." It's just me and my twin.
Do you find the mirror induces any form of introspection?
I'm not very big on introspection. I'm rather not.
But you can learn extraordinary things about yourself, can't you?
What a fool you are. "What a nincompoop", is my first impression of me.
But then, what a child, as well.
There's so many different ideas you have about yourself, not all flattering.
Your image is still to me when I am looking at it.
But if I look at myself,
my eyes are moving constantly.
I can't quite see what I look like for all the detail.
We can't really see ourselves in mirrors, can we?
It wouldn't be able to be a self portrait probably without a mirror.
But it's a hard thing to work with, it abbreviates things, doesn't it?
It makes things a lot smaller. My head is much smaller, I believe it's about half the size of me.
And it's all shiny.
It's subtly different.
It's not like a photograph, all flat and ready,
it's shiny and 3D, and, like you say, it moves.
'Patrick's art is like a mirror itself,
'a visual illusion that moves and appears to have a life of its own.
'He's currently working on a self-portrait based on his own death mask.'
Actually, at this stage, you could so easily be turned
into somebody else with a bit of lipstick.
'It's an idea as strange as self-portraiture itself.
'The artist trying to get the inner and outer selves to match up.
'And Patrick's going to go further by turning himself inside out.'
And his face is coming away.
I'm here. This is me.
-And this is me here.
When painted inside, Patrick's face will appear convex and his death mask will become a life mask.
And the real spark of life will come when you presumably put the highlights of the eyes?
The real animation will come.
His eyes are alive. It looks just so different.
That's alive, it comes alive.
Perhaps when I'm dead and gone,
you'll be able to look at this and see, there I am. It's Patrick.
It's still a life.
Do you feel in some way that he is a fragment of you, or a relic of you?
Yeah, he's got some of my hairs up his nostrils.
And I fit him perfectly, you know.
If you were there...
And it's a strange feeling to be at one with yourself, in that way.
-A snug fit.
If I wore him as a head piece, I'd just have a big square head.
Patrick Hughes describes his art as being about the surface of things.
It's not what artists are supposed to say.
By the beginning of the 19th century, an archetype had emerged of the artist
as a man of penetrating vision, capable of seeing deep inner truths.
An outsider with a soul as powerful as the elements around him.
But what's odd is that while you do see this in paintings,
you don't really see it in self-portraits, which avoid this Romantic cliche.
Here's the great Romantic painter Delacroix, formal and withheld.
Here's gentleman Goya in cravat and top-hat.
He's keeping a sharp eye on his public.
In fact, for real Romantic self-portraits, you have to wait half a century
for an artist who saw himself, more than any other, as a misunderstood genius.
The supreme fantasist and patron saint of the avant-garde, Gustave Courbet.
This is Courbet as The Wounded Man, stabbed through the heart,
though the blood looks suspiciously like an afterthought.
He could equally well be waiting to be kissed.
It's sometimes said that self-portraits are vain, all that time spent in front of the mirror.
In Courbet's case, they really are.
It's a tremendously narcissistic painting.
He's had to imagine what he might look like half asleep, rather drowsy.
And I think with Courbet, you really can say that
here, finally, is a self-portraitist who is in love with himself.
He painted himself so often, and if he'd painted any other man
as often as that, people would have said he was in love.
Courbet is the hero every time of his own far-fetched stories.
Here he is as The Desperate Man, all thrilling Hitchcock close-up.
The artist as star.
And then there's this.
This is Courbet's L'Atelier.
The largest and most grandstanding self-portrait I know of.
The scene is Courbet's studio.
Filled with people, he really makes you walk up and down the length of it
to see everybody who's in it. It's 20 ft wide.
L'Atelier is as strange as a dream.
Why is Courbet painting a landscape?
What's the nude model doing there?
As for the crowd, which includes everyone from the street urchins
to the anarchist Proudhon, and the emperor himself, the political allegory remains a mystery.
'The world come to be painted at my studio', declared Courbet.
What the picture shows above all is Gustave Courbet, centre of the world.
'No other painter coined quite so many images of the artist as a free spirit.
'One in particular became a blueprint for future generations.
'In The Meeting, nicknamed Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, the artist is being
'greeted by a new patron and his servant just outside Montpellier.
'With his beard and staff, Courbet is a pilgrim-cum-prophet, and he's met with worship.
'The writer Julian Barnes, an authority on Courbet, believes this
'painting marks the moment that artists tamed their patrons.'
It's a wonderfully free image of an artist and a very new one.
I mean, he's outdoors, he's completely free.
He's wearing his rambling clothes. Nobody owns him.
Do you think he's partly responsible for inventing a new archetype
of the artist, the avant-garde artist?
Yes, he was great at self-marketing, Courbet.
He was the first artist probably to use photographs to promote his own work.
In the Franco-Prussian war, he even had a cannon named after him,
which he used to trundle round the streets, and he'd hand out
the itinerary for when you can see Le Canon Courbet pass.
Erm... Yes. It was...
He was a great self-promoter.
He was naturally, as he said to the head of the Beaux-Arts Academy once,
"I'm the proudest and most arrogant man in France."
It's a painting that's both
simple and grand at the same time.
And you sense there's a lot more going on.
It's Courbet, of course, meeting his patron, Alfred Bruyas, and Bruyas' servant who was a man called Callas.
He's sort of auditioning them rather than the other way around.
I mean, the whole history of painting has been
the patron auditions the artist, and the artist has to come up to snuff.
You look at say, the eyes.
Deeply cast down head.
Erect head but eyes slightly cast down.
Head cocked up,
and a beard that's interrogatory-stroke-aggressive, I would say.
Probing them. Will they do?
Also greeting them is the dog.
And the dog is turning away from its master.
The dog is being, I think, lured towards the new king of the household who was Mr Courbet.
This painting says, from now on, the artist is in charge.
Yes, we need the patron, yes, we need the donor.
But he is no longer the main player.
And I think that's how it stayed.
You know. If in 100 years,
Hirst's Shark is remembered, it will be Hirst's Shark.
And not Saatchi's shark.
Bonjour Monsieur Courbet became an archetype for future painters.
Van Gogh and Gauguin travelled to Montpellier to see it.
Gauguin even painted his own version, Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin,
in which he meets a Provencal peasant woman on rather more equal terms,
showing himself as a roving outsider.
But tradition has decreed that the ultimate outsider is not Gauguin,
but his friend Van Gogh.
A lone genius, unrecognized in his lifetime, poverty-stricken,
driven to suicide by society.
And all these agonies expressed in his art.
The cliche's been hard to dislodge.
Many people still think they experience Vincent's sufferings directly when they look at his works,
particularly a self-portrait in London's Courtauld Gallery.
It begins with the most notorious incident in art.
Christmas Eve, 1888, Van Gogh, after a terrible row with Gauguin,
cut off part of his ear and sent it to a girl he'd met in a bar.
His landlord was trying to have him evicted.
He'd run out of money. He'd very little food left.
The local police were keeping him under observation.
And even with the ear not yet healed, he managed to paint
one of the greatest and most famous of all his self-portraits.
This painting is generally thought to show Van Gogh at his most harrowed and deranged. But I don't agree.
To me, he's at home. And he has all his familiar things around him.
Behind him is the easel with a new work, something promising, the future.
And his beautiful Japanese print here that he's put in.
And this window opening out onto light and not darkness.
And look at the colour in this painting.
It's absolutely magnificent.
The eyes, around the eyes, so beautiful,
it's like water underneath an iceberg. Beautiful blue-green.
This amazing green against the yellow behind,
which is such a sort of encouraging colour.
He always said yellow was the colour of hope and I think that's here in the picture.
And it feels to me as though the storm has passed.
And the painting shows the order and the composure. And the bravery.
There is no self-pity here.
It is not a martyrdom.
Every mark in this painting is laid down slowly, carefully.
You couldn't paint like this if you were just pouring out your inner anguish.
Van Gogh's is one of the shortest careers in art, barely ten years.
And nearly all of his self-portraits were painted in the last four,
from the moment he arrived in Montmartre in 1886.
"What impresses me most", Van Gogh writes,
"more than all the rest of my work is the portrait.
"The modern portrait."
It's not the sunflowers, its not the cypresses.
It's the portrait that drives Van Gogh's ambition.
And it was here in Paris that he first really began to paint faces.
Specifically, his own, because he could not afford to pay for a model.
You can see his style develop,
from the self-portrait made a few months after arrival.
Ordinary brush marks and ordinary colours.
To his departure two years later.
Here, the short sharp lines are like exclamation marks,
radiating around his head like a force field.
Van Gogh's style is indelibly his own
and, eventually, he becomes one with that style in the self-portraits.
'In the Musee d'Orsay is what I think is his greatest self-portrait
'made near the end of his life.
'He wrote that he was working in between bouts of paranoia
'that "spur me on as a miner who's always in danger, and makes haste in what he does."
'It hangs away from the rest of his paintings.'
This is one of Van Gogh's last self-portraits.
He'd already been, for some time, in a mental hospital.
But there's no sense of that when you look at this picture.
It is dazzling, radiant, and so dignified.
He's upright in the middle of the storm.
And all around him it's what looks like the starry night by day time.
All those fantastic whirls and striations and notations
that he uses to describe cypresses and iris trees and stars at night.
They're all here used to describe him.
He's become one with his world of art, with his painting, his style.
He said he was going to revolutionise portraiture through the use of colour, through colour effects.
Nobody quite understands what he meant by that, but standing in front of this wonderful painting,
I feel that the colour effect
is like a sort of clear, pure song.
It's uplifting, calming.
It's Van Gogh in and as a sea of tranquillity.
'Calmness, Van Gogh says in his letters, was what he sought in his art as in his life.
'And it's what he achieved in this tremendous painting.
'Anyone looking for neurosis or self-pity won't find it in Van Gogh's brush marks.
'Ever since Freud's revelations about the psyche, artists turned
'to the self-portrait to display their psychic wounds to the world.'
This is Edvard Munch's Self-Portrait in Hell.
He's bearing up with suspicious bravado.
He'd been rejected by his girlfriend and turned a gun on himself,
strategically nicking only a fingertip.
This is a public 'j'accuse', made for display in an Oslo gallery where everyone, could see it.
It's what you might expect from this exuberant miserablist.
And who hasn't said it, I'm in hell.
A metaphor made literal.
This is Egon Schiele, a fellow expressionist, as Saint Sebastian...
suffering for his art, after being sentenced to only three days in prison
for displaying an image of a naked girl, a very qualified martyrdom.
Hererida Kahlo in The Wounded Deer, self portrait.
She'd endured terrible health, miscarriages, a philandering husband
and she turns herself into a symbol of suffering.
Self-portraits allow artists to put over their side of the story, to campaign, to weep, to protest.
These artists are figurative painters.
But with modernism comes a strange new dilemma.
Not just how to turn yourself into a work of art, but whether this is actually possible.
'In fact, what's interesting about coming to a gallery of modern art
'is just how unlikely you are to find many self-portraits from the first half of the 20th century.
'How are you going to present yourself? In or out of your style?
'What if you are an abstract painter, a futurist, a minimalist and can get over any kind of likeness?
'Faced with this conundrum, some artists just revert to old fashioned naturalism.'
Here's Mondrian's Composition I ...
The characteristic geometry, the characteristic colours.
Now here's Mondrian himself wearing collar and tie in Self Portrait, 1918.
Heitting in front of a Mondrian,
but what the self-portrait shows is a disjuncture between the man and the art.
Mondrian can't do himself as a Mondrian.
The self-portrait disturbs our sense of him as an artist.
There's no cubist Picasso.
There's no abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.
But recognizable likeness doesn't matter.
Perhaps self-portraiture itself becomes redundant,
if like Jackson Pollock you believe yourself to be present
in every drip of Number 6, 1948.
And just as Picasso was claiming that he could no longer understand
what he looked like well enough to make a self-portrait,
a young American got into a photobooth and took a pot shot at the whole business.
MUSIC: "Waiting For The Man" by The Velvet Underground & Nico
Andy Warhol sat down in a photo booth and began to act, putting his hand to
his throat, tilting his head, arching his neck as if he was being hanged.
What kind of man does that?
What kind of man wears sunglasses in a photobooth?
Well, a poseur certainly.
But also a man who isnoing to show himself.
Warhol's self-Portrait 1963-64 showed his two-tone face,
perfect for mass-reproduction: Black specs, white skin, silver wig.
But everything inside is kept out of sight.
For Warhol, the self of these self- portraits is no more substantial
than the paper on which it's printed.
Even in a close-up as enormous as Self-Portrait 1967,
he's able to hide in plain view.
Andy Warhol, the most famous face in 20th century art.
His face is as famous as his art.
But where is he?
You can hardly recognise him in this image.
The painting's enormous, it's about the span of my open arms.
And yet, the size of it just seems to enlarge the one enormous point,
which is that he's not here.
That he's slipped away, that he somehow, whatever trace of him
there is here, is caught between the layers of this silkscreen process.
The orange wiped across, then the red on top, horrible colour scheme,
and then the blue, he's just vanished.
He's a ghost in the mechanised process, I suppose.
And the only thing that really tells you that he was alive at all,
I suppose is that tiny highlight there in the eye,
which quickens the painting, tells you that he was here, he was alive.
He was looking, he was looking at you.
Just one dot in something nearly as big as a billboard.
Warhol's whole image was a kind of vanishing act.
He'd lost his pigmentation at an early age, hence the colourless face and hair.
Loathing his pockmarked skin, he went for primitive dermabrasion,
which in those days involved actual sandpaper.
No artist before had so desperately sought the spotlight
yet been so pathological about disappearing within it.
-Is he here?
-No, he's camera shy.
He repeated himself over and over again
until he became like a kind of trademark for himself.
Like an emblem. And here, six times over, repeating like a pattern.
The work is called Self-Portrait Strangulation.
There's no colon, no comma between the two words, he really means it.
Self-Portrait Strangulation, as if he was doing in self-portraiture.
I think you can see that in the work.
It's self-portraiture coming to a stuttering end here.
Six times over, getting a little fainter every time. It's wearing out.
And you have a sense that the essential self or the soul, he was a Catholic,
has somehow been evacuated from every single one of the Warhols in this grid.
For many artists, the concise "this is me" of self-portraits just doesn't work any more.
We think of our modern selves as complex and multi-faceted.
Self-portraits limit us to one person, one face and that doesn't fit with our modern sense of ourselves.
Moving into to the 21st century, artists show themselves
ever-changing, never-ending, fragmented.
The American painter Chuck Close makes gigantic pictures that
from a distance show his face, but in close-up,
break down into constituent pixels, multi-form shapes.
Close speaks of the man in the pictures as "him, not me".
Distant and impersonal.
Cindy Sherman makes herself up like an actress performing different roles...
portraits of people who've never existed.
But they're also self-transformations,
evidence of how one person can become someone else
with only minimal adjustments of expression, wardrobe and make-up.
While we were making this programme,
there was an exhibition by Mark Wallinger,
one of the most original British artists at work today.
This is the self-portrait in its current state.
Whatever you make of it, we've come a long way from Durer.
This is Self, Times New Roman.
by Mark Wallinger and that is what it is...
A great big enormous capital letter "I".
And in fact, it is scaled to the exact height
of the artist himself, 180 centimetres.
If he was standing up here on this pedestal, he would be this height.
And the reason I think it's really very funny is because it's
obviously about the slipperiness of this letter, this word "I",
what is an I? What does it mean?
What does it signify?
How can one represent themselves with just an "I"?
Mark Wallinger, it's quite clearly not a literal representation of you
in any way, but does it in any sense represent your identity?
It does, in as much as it does everyone else's as well.
It's a conundrum in that respect.
But...personified like this and raised up on a plinth,
I guess there's a sort of, a kind of self-mockery of the idea
that "I am important", it's quietly saying as well.
Which we all like to feel occasionally, yes.
I wanted to make something that was at the same time
so generic as nominally to be almost invisible...
and at the same time, something that was very specifically about my person,
because that's kind of the relationship one has with that word
in terms of language and how one relates to other people.
I don't think that there's, there isn't some essential truth or...
core of my being that's going to be found anywhere there.
'It's the default "I"
'rather than the dregs of my life.
'To be honest!'
This self-portrait doesn't represent the artist's face
so much as his thinking.
What a slippery thing is the self.
How can I represent it? And what I love about it is that Mark Wallinger embraces us all in this question.
It's a self-portrait for all of us.
It's the last word on the subject.
And yet at the same time, self-portraiture has no straight path,
it's constantly circling back to its beginnings.
Wallinger is at work at the same time as Lucian Freud,
who's painted himself almost as often as Rembrandt.
Here he is, naked in the studio, a maestro with a baton,
a bare King Lear.
All a self-portrait can ever be is an illusion,
never the embodiment or the whole story.
Yet Freud keeps on painting, keeps on trying.
Like all of us, he's a work in progress.
From Durer to Freud and Wallinger seems like A to Z,
or at least A to I for self-portraits.
They're all so different.
It may look as if they're not even doing the same thing.
And yet I see a connection.
Each artist is making something that represents his or her thoughts
on having and being a self.
Each artist faces this strange idea of turning oneself inside out,
of representing oneself both in and as a work of art.
And for me, every one of these self-portraits
is in a profound sense, a fragment of the artist's self.
My father, James Cumming, was a painter.
His work took the form of lyrical abstraction,
celebrating the microscopic sources and structures of life.
He never made a self-portrait, or so we thought.
'But years after his death, we found a tiny image hidden in a sketchbook.'
Here he is. Among the...
seed pods and the ice structures and the chromosomes.
All my life, I longed to see him through his own eyes,
the great revelation of self-portraits,
and here at last, I do.
My father saw himself as just another element, a tiny element,
a particle of the universe.
He was very self-effacing, a very modest man.
And that's there in this self-portrait and its diminutive scale, hidden away,
just tucked in the margin of the sketchbook.
And that's the unique thing about self-portraits.
No matter how tiny or vast,
how accurate or fanciful or outlandish,
they always reveal a deep and incontrovertible truth.
The truth of how the artist saw themselves from within as well as without.
MUSIC: "Look At Me" by John Lennon
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Art critic Laura Cumming takes a journey through more than five centuries of self-portraits and finds out how the greatest names in western art transformed themselves into their own masterpieces.
The film argues that self-portraits are a unique form of art, one that always reveals the truth of how artists saw themselves and how they wanted to be known to the world. Examining the works of key self-portraitists including Durer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Warhol, Laura traces the development of the genre, uncovering the strange and various ways artists have managed to get their inner and outer selves to match up.
Laura investigates the stories behind key self-portraits, interviews artists as they attempt a self-portrait, and shows how the history of the self-portrait is about more than how art and artists have changed, it also charts the evolution of the way we see ourselves and what it means to be human.
She also discusses Courbet with Julian Barnes, Rembrandt's theatricality with Simon Callow, and meets the contemporary artists Mark Wallinger and Patrick Hughes, observing the latter making his first ever self-portrait.