Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Art of The Self Portrait.

When exactly does an artist decide it's time to paint themselves? I can tell you from my experience that it is a hard endeavor that I have done only two times in my life. I have posed for four other paintings, but anonymously.  
Is it easy for an artist to be subjective with their own face and body? My mother... yes, here we go again with my mother. I know it seems like a lot on my blog is written about her but there is so much of her life that I have not even touched on that is so monumental, so historical. One day soon I will need to write a book about her and our story. But I digress, so let me get back on point... my mother had this little song she used to sing that roughly translated from Italian says " Who cares if I'm not that pretty, I have a lover who is a painter and he will paint me beautiful!" Well, that is the question, isn't it? Does a painter go to truth or does he/she go to vanity. How does a painter want to see themselves on canvas? Can they paint themselves with complete honesty and candor? I have seen many examples of self-portraits that have done just that. And some that you sense a discomfort with the truth and therefore see a certain "Make-Up" application to the self-portrait. The artist puts in something that makes the artist feel less vulnerable to the viewer. And thus the viewer leaves feeling as though they have just seen a ghost and not a real person. Here are some examples of self-portraits that are stripped bare of vanity to the point of brutal honesty. 

Vincent Van Gogh,  Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889
In Van Gogh's work shown above, there is a calm resignation as though cutting away a part of himself has given him a serenity that escaped him in his previous self-portraits. He is not documenting his torment but rather his determination to get some peace, at any cost. His love of painting is still very much a part of his bliss as seen in his depiction of the beloved Japanese print that he places on the wall behind him. He does not let go of the parts of life that give him joy. Where there are those who look at this work and think of sorrow and desperation, I see a triumph of the human spirit. Van Gogh painted until the very end. He found bliss in spite of the demons that haunted him and eventually devoured him.

Lucien Freud, Reflection (Self Portrait), 1985
Lucien Freud's self-portrait above was done when he was 63. He is looking at a man in the mirror who is no longer young and with many years ahead of him. This is a time in life that is transitional, from mid-life to the threshold of old age. Freud decided to step over that threshold into that last portion of life with this self-portrait. He paints it with a gusto. He exaggerates each and every wrinkle and dip in his face. In a way he is painting his soon coming future. And that my dear reader takes enormous courage. Because it's not vanity that he is overcoming but death itself.

Atemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1630's
My final example is a self-portrait done by the pioneer female painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593 to an artist father, Orazio Gentileschi. He had sons but his daughter Artemisia is the one who showed exceptional ability worthy of taking her in his successful studio. The very fact that she was the one chosen among her brothers shows just how amazing her talent was. She was one of the major painters of the Baroque period. She was accepted as a major talent by all in the art elite of the time. She was the first woman accepted into the Academy of the Arts of Drawing in Florence in the 1620's. She had patrons like Cosimo de' Medici, Queen Henrietta of France and was the court painter for a time to England's King Charles I. And in between this very glorious career, there was drama. Her father had his apprentice arrested and tried on rape charges against Artemisia. The trial lasted longer than his sentence, one year. And he did not even serve that. Artemisia was put through Hell during the trial. She was slandered and she was tortured with diabolical means to confess that she was a wonton whore who seduced the apprentice. She stayed strong and he was found guilty even if he didn't serve any time. So knowing all this, when I look at Gentileschi's self- portrait above I see a painter who wants us to watch her at work. There is a need, no, a hunger to make the viewer see that she is indeed the painter who makes these incredible paintings that most male painters could not even imagine to do. It's as though she does not trust history to keep her in the story of art. And in a way she was very correct in that fear, if she did indeed fear this. She was overlooked for the most part for the master that she was because of her sex. But in this self-portrait she demonstrates with entire body and head just how much she and her work are one. This self-portrait is a shot across the bow in the war of the sexes in the art world.  And it will forever be a shot that will hit it's target.

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