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 first sustained discussions of self-portraiture took place in late 15th-century Florence and were a result of the growing interest in the lives of particular artists and in the idea of signature styles. It had traditionally been assumed that there was only one ‘correct’ style, but now there was an increasing acceptance that artists could work in a variety of distinct, but equally valid styles which were in some way expressions of their personalities. ‘Every painter,’ it was said, ‘paints himself.’ This catch-phrase, noted by Cosimo de’ Medici, needn’t be interpreted as encouraging self-portraiture – if each person had his own style there was no cause to make actual self-portraits. The belief that a painting could be a surrogate self-portrait is expressed in a letter written in 1543 by Claudio Tolomei asking Sebastiano del Piombo, the leading portrait painter in central Italy, to paint his portrait. If Sebastiano accepted the commission, the result, Tolomei gushed, would act as a ‘divine mirror’ in which both men could be seen: ‘you, because I will perceive in my image your singular ability and your marvellous skill; me, because I will see my image … which will constantly stimulate me to purge my soul of its many shortcomings’. Every portrait was in effect a double-portrait, a disguised conversation piece. No self-portrait by Sebastiano is recorded, though some art historians have tried to argue, without any evidence, that a battered picture of a foppish youth is a self-portrait.

For many, the idea that every painting might be an unwitting self-portrait posed serious problems. In Sermons on Ezekiel (1497), Savonarola cited the axiom that every painter paints himself, but went on to observe that it was heretical and arrogant for painters to depict animals, men and even God according to their own fancy. Leonardo believed signature styles were inevitable, but pointed out that the painters’ own imperfections would be manifested in their work: ‘if the master is quick of speech and movement his figures are similar in their quickness, and if the master is devout his figures are the same with their necks bent, and if the master is a good-for-nothing his figures seem laziness itself.’ Leonardo’s belief in the inevitability of pictorial self-exposure may explain why no self-portrait by him is recorded, as well as the reason for his difficulties in completing work. He was searching neurotically for a perfection beyond personal idiosyncrasy. He wouldn’t have approved of a recent contention that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait in drag. Michelangelo had similar qualms about self-portraiture. On being asked why the most lifelike part of one painting was an ox, he quipped that ‘any painter can make a good portrait of himself.’ He, too, had difficulty finishing work, and his only widely accepted self-portraits date from late in his career, and are self-portraits by proxy. According to Vasari, St Bartholomew in the Last Judgment and Nicodemus in the Florentine Pietà were furnished with approximations of his own physiognomy.

The almost total eclipse of the sculpted self-portrait between the 16th and the 19th centuries is mysterious. The 15th century, as Woods-Marsden demonstrates, offers numerous examples of innovative and prominently placed sculpted images, such as the two busts by Ghiberti on the doors of the Baptistery in Florence; the self-portrait medals made by Alberti, Filarete and Bramante; and Mantegna’s funerary bust. Yet when Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici started to collect self-portraits for the Uffizi in 1664, with the intention of building up a comprehensive collection, only painted self-portraits were included – a policy that wasn’t reversed until the first decade of the 20th century. The sculptors who were included had (with just one exception) painted their own portraits.

One possible reason for the eclipse of the sculpted self-portrait is that the increase in the use of canvas as a support for paintings in the 16th century made it easier to associate painted self-portraits with the most celebrated self-portrait in Christendom – the one made by Christ on his way to Calvary when he wiped his face on a cloth belonging to Veronica. Many churches had what they claimed was the original cloth, or ‘sudarium’. The close association between painting and the sudarium was confirmed by Gian Battista Marino in his Sacred Discourses (1614). The section on art was entitled ‘Painting, or the Holy Shroud’. The link between painting and the sudarium seems very appropriate for early Baroque, with its brio and visible corrections, and the occasional use of the fingers. Sculptors such as Bernini – represented in the Uffizi collection by a self-portrait painted in around 1635 – did their best to carve quickly, but the fact that sculpture tended to be a laborious process made self-portraiture more difficult. When Bernini visited Paris in 1665 he commented on the limited degree to which sculptors could ‘sculpt themselves’. A painter could make continual adjustments while working on a picture, and if he was asked when he’d finished it whether he had put all his skill into the work, he could ‘assent without hesitation’ for not only had he been able to ‘imbue it with all the knowledge with which he began’, but he had also added what he had learned while working on it. A sculptor had to establish a pose at the outset which could not then be modified. The result would therefore give only a partial and distant account of its maker.

Not only was sculpture more laborious, it was also more collaborative. Even if a work started off as a self-portrait modelled in clay or wax, by the time it had been transformed into a marble or bronze bust, it could just as easily be thought of as a portrait of the artist made by his studio assistants. An example of this is the one pre-20th-century sculpture in the Uffizi self-portrait collection: it was made by Anne Seymour Damer (1748-1828), an aristocratic Englishwoman who was encouraged by Horace Walpole to take up sculpture for therapeutic purposes after the suicide of her dissolute husband, Lord Milton. Her special forte (apart from cross-dressing) was dog sculpture, and Walpole regarded her work as equal to Bernini’s; she also presented busts of Charles James Fox and Nelson to Napoleon – Fox, because of her connection with the Whig opposition and Nelson, presumably, as an object of disinterested admiration now that he was safely dead. Her novelty value as a woman sculptor seems to have secured her entry into the Uffizi collection. Although several of her female contemporaries worked in terracotta, Damer was unique in her ability to carve marble. Yet rumours abounded that a male ‘ghost’ actually carved her work – so the only sculpted self-portrait in the Uffizi might not have been a self-portrait at all.

Another reason for the primacy of painted self-portraits is the importance of eye contact. Profiles and lowered heads were common in 15th-century self-portraiture, but became rarer as eye contact between the artist and the viewer became fashionable. This is why critics of a romantic nature have seen self-portraits as the most authentic kind of art. Nathaniel Hawthorne thought he could detect ‘autobiographical characteristics’ in each of the hundreds of self-portraits in the Uffizi: ‘traits, expressions, loftinesses, and amenities, which would have been invisible, had they not been painted from within’. But this ‘look-me-in-the-eye’ convention is precisely what makes anthologies such as Five Hundred Self-Portraits, and the Uffizi’s collection itself, seem monotonous. The finest self-portraits are only occasionally as interesting and inventive as the finest portraits because they are so often limited by the straitjacket of the searching look. Rembrandt by Himself was a dis-apointing exhibition, with only a handful of masterpieces. The thrill of being buttonholed soon wears thin, and you start to suspect that you may be in the presence of a pub bore rather than a misunderstood genius.

It is more difficult for sculpture to give viewers the impression that we are looking into the windows of the artist’s soul. Not only was it thought to be difficult for sculptors to carve eyes, but sculpted eyes can’t follow a viewer round the room. Canova is represented in the Uffizi collection by a painted self-portrait that shows him in the act of painting. He looks out at the viewer, devouring us with his stare. But when he made his one self-portrait bust, 21 years later, he depicted himself with an averted, up-turned gaze. If you look at the bust from the front, his dainty but shadowy right ear is more prominent than his eyes. As a result, the focal point is an amorphous well of darkness rather than a sharp pinpoint of light. Baudelaire complained about the ‘vagueness and ambiguity’ of sculpture, and its inability to impose a single viewpoint. Painting, he said, was ‘exclusive and absolute’, allowing much more forceful expression.

Since the 19th century, the focus of self-portraiture has been moving away from the eyes and face towards the body and the whole head. There has been a corresponding shift from clothed to nude figures, and from the vertical to the horizontal. The painted self-portrait – which was so often predicated on close-up, face-to-face contact between artist and viewer – has been supplanted by images of the body and head seen from any angle. The relinquishing of the ‘exclusive and absolute’ viewpoint has also opened the floodgates to three-dimensional self-portraits in sculpture and performance art.

This reflects a wider change. Nietzsche called for a ‘new world’ of symbols in The Birth of Tragedy (1872). He believed that once the Apollonian veil of illusion had been torn aside, the ‘entire symbolism of the body would be called into play, not the mere symbolism of the lips, face and speech’. The finest expression of this sensibility in relation to the visual arts comes in Rilke’s essay on Rodin. Rilke claimed that Rodin had imbued the entire human body with an eye-like expressiveness: ‘when he read of the weeping feet of Nicolas the Third’ – in Dante the feet are in fact burning – ‘he found he already knew there could be weeping feet, that there is a weeping of the whole body, of the whole person, and that every person can bring forth tears.’ In Rodin’s sculpture, expression had left the ‘stage’ of the face: ‘Life showing in the face, full of reference to time and as easily read as on a dial, was, when seen in the body, less concentrated, greater, more mysterious.’

Rodin’s conception of sculpture is manifested in The Sculptor and His Muse (early 1890s), a very alarming self-portrait. The sculptor is seated on a rock, his head and torso enveloped and weighed down by a long-haired flying female figure. Both the sculptor and his muse are naked. Her face nuzzles up to the side of his head, shoving it over and down, while her right hand and left foot aggressively interfere with his genitals. It is unclear whether she intends to masturbate or castrate him. It was Rodin’s sculpture (though presumably not this one), and his worldwide reputation, that seems to have persuaded Corrado Ricci, director of the Uffizi between 1904 and 1908, to accept sculpted self-portraits. There is no self-portrait by Rodin in the collection, however, but the earliest acquisitions are works by his followers.

The argy-bargy between Rodin and his muse wouldn’t be out of place in The Artist’s Body, where self-mutilation, castration, sado-masochism and auto-eroticism are amply represented. Here we find Bob Flanagan, a cystic fibrosis sufferer, performing a wide repertoire of S&M acts with his wife in front of an audience. The culmination is the nailing of his foreskin to a wooden board. Then there is Vito Acconci masturbating under a gallery’s floorboards in response to visitors’ footsteps, his fantasies relayed to them via a sound system.

Many postwar artworks have been made using bits of the body as tools. According to Amelia Jones, Jackson Pollock’s ‘action painting’ was the inspiration for this. Other methods have included rolling around naked in paint; using one’s own hair as a paint-brush; attaching a paint-brush to one’s crotch; squirting paint out of one’s anus; ejaculating; using one’s teeth to carve images; casting directly from one’s own body; or using one’s own skin as a canvas, mutilating it to create images.

The Artist’s Body makes huge claims for very slight works, omitting significant art-ists such as Jasper Johns and Francesco Clemente in favour of deservedly forgotten figures. Jones’s introductory essay climaxes with a ludicrous long discussion of Corps étranger (1994), a video installation by Mona Hatoum. This is a journey into the centre of Hatoum’s body courtesy of fibre optic cameras. The viewer enters a Portaloo-like cubicle and a circular screen at their feet projects film of the artist’s skin, orifices and innards. Ironically, a work that is all about penetration (‘Here the naked female body is all vagina dentata, all hole, with nothing phallic/fetishistic left to palliate the male gaze’) is described in impenetrable prose.

What have these artists not suffered for our sake? In 1971 a naked Gina Pane (as fatefully named as Francis Bacon) climbed up and down a ladder with razor blades embedded in the treads. Pane died in 1990 at the age of 54; we are not told the cause of death. The artistic residue of these harrowing, self-sacrificial performances is the modern counterpart to the sudarium, the fragile self-portrait made from Jesus’ sweat and blood.

Around half the artists included in The Artist’s Body are women. The proportion is far higher than for any other book in the Phaidon ‘Themes and Movements’ series. But is all this female navel-gazing such a good thing? Warr raises the issue of ‘the objectification of women’, and brushes it aside by insisting on the impossibility of ‘stabilising’ or ‘fixing’ the language of the body. She echoes Rilke’s argument that when ‘life’ is shown in the body rather than in the face, the effect is more powerful because more mysterious.

Body art could well be the contemporary equivalent of still-life painting, which was once the genre most open to women, as well as one that dealt with a primarily feminine space – the home. My own feeling is that it’s high time for a moratorium on artist-centred art, of either gender. At the very least, there would be no harm in our having less of their bodies and more of their brains.