Look me in the eye

James Hall

  • The Artist's Body edited by Tracey Warr and Amelia Jones
    Phaidon, 304 pp, £39.95, July 2000, ISBN 0 7148 3502 1
  • Five Hundred Self-Portraits edited by Julian Bell
    Phaidon, 528 pp, £19.95, November 2000, ISBN 0 7148 3959 0
  • Renaissance Self-Portraiture by Joanna Woods-Marsden
    Yale, 285 pp, £45.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 300 07596 0

According to the catalogue for the National Gallery exhibition of Rembrandt self-portraits, the artist’s portrayal of himself is ‘unique in art history, not only in its scale and the length of time it spans, but also in its regularity’. But Rembrandt’s production of self-portraits – at least forty paintings, 31 etchings and a few drawings – is unique only if we ignore the last fifty years. Nowadays, it is not unusual to find artists whose oeuvre consists of little else. Indeed, the mounting of the first big exhibition devoted to Rembrandt’s self-portraits is symptomatic of our fascination with the genre. Rembrandt by Himself opened within a few days of the announcement that Tracey Emin – whose etchings, collages, installations and performances constitute a lurid confessional – had been shortlisted for the Turner Prize.

The postwar upsurge in self-portraiture is amply documented in Tracey Warr and Amelia Jones’s anthology of texts and images, The Artist’s Body. The serial stuff-strutters include the photo-artists Gilbert & George, Cindy Sherman and John Coplans; the sculptors Jeff Koons, Antony Gormley and Marc Quinn; the painters Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Jenny Saville; the performance and video artists Joseph Beuys, Rebecca Horn, Bruce Nauman, Arnulf Rainer and Matthew Barney. Their work commonly involves the display of the artists themselves in extremis: Orlan’s increasingly drastic bouts of plastic surgery; the stages of Hannah Wilke’s death from cancer; Stelarc’s self-mutilation (he hung himself face down from the ceiling by inserting meat hooks into the skin on his back).

So ubiquitous has self-portraiture become that we take it for granted. Art historians are forever claiming that an image by an Old Master is in fact a self-portrait. In September a skull found in Florence Cathedral was reconstructed and said to resemble a supposed self-portrait by Giotto in the Arena Chapel in Padua. We find it almost impossible to conceive that many artists have felt indifferent and even hostile to the genre, or regarded it as inappropriate.

Julian Bell is untroubled by this in his elegant introduction to Five Hundred Self-Portraits, a slickly packaged picture book. Bell says that by 1500, ‘when Dürer searches in himself for the likeness of Christ, self-portraiture moves from the margins of Western art to centre stage.’ He offers various plausible explanations: the availability of better mirrors; a rise in the status of artists; and a new religious emphasis on ‘the emotions and judgment of the solitary soul’. Yet the history of self-portraiture is less straightforward than this account would lead us to believe. A quote from Leonardo (‘The mirror, above all – the mirror is our teacher’) is printed on the book’s mirror-finish cover, but Leonardo left no self-portrait. The drawing of an old man reproduced in Bell’s book is now thought to be at best a portrait by Leonardo and at worst a fake.

Joanna Woods-Marsden’s Renaissance Self-Portraiture is the most intensive and scrupulous study of the subject so far, but her otherwise excellent account ignores the sophisticated theoretical debate about self-portraiture during the Italian Renaissance. As a result, she is baffled by the failure of Benvenuto Cellini to produce a ‘visual self-image of any kind’. She still devotes a chapter to him, however, because he wrote ‘the most famous literary self-portrait of the entire early modern period’ (although it was not published until 1728).

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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