Self-portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei
19 July – 16 October, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.
Ai Weiwei Illumination,2014. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei
In the words of T.S. Eliot; we all “prepare a face to meet the faces that [we] meet”. Beholding oneself is a complex act of intentionality and judgement, whether it is standing before the bathroom mirror in the morning preparing to face the world or standing between a mirror and an easel creating an image to face the world with. In both cases the instrument of self-appraisal is a doubled edged sword of truth and deception. Unravelling intentionality is one of the great pleasures of this show, because ultimately my appreciation of any human image, portrait or self-portrait, hinges on the ability of the artist to transcend the sitter, their own time and themselves. The visualised self must connect in some way to something greater than the “me” of that moment and I have to feel it that it does, otherwise I cannot believe in it as Art. Although that might seem like a critically limiting statement, it’s simply meant as an expansion in terms of seeing the Arts as Humanities. Humanity is most certainly the foundation of self-portraiture for the artist/maker and the viewer; the perception or identification with universal human traits, characteristics or frailties collectively shared, coupled with the profound need to understand who we are in an existential sense.
Facing the World, Self-portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei is an inspired collaboration between the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and the National Galleries of Scotland features over 150 works by over 100 artists, spanning six centuries. The exhibition juxtaposes artist’s self-portraits from different eras through the media of painting, printmaking, drawing, photography, sculpture and video, arranged in thematic sections; Up Close and Personal, The Artist at Work, Friends and Family, Role Playing and The Body of the Artist. The range of attitudes towards the Self contrast and interweave in fascinating ways, with the lack of chronology creating new connections between artists not usually seen beside each other. It is particularly exciting to see work from different European collections and pieces held by private collectors brought together and there are many works that UK audiences will not have had the opportunity to see before. A diverse range of artists including; Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sarah Lucas, Marina Abramović, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Ai Weiwei, James Ensor, Paul Klee, Gustav Courbet, Antione Watteau, Allan Ramsay, Lee Miller, John Bellany, Douglas Gordon, Henry Raeburn, Ken Currie, Alison Watt, John Byrne, Ulrike Rosenbach, Helen Chadwick, Imogen Cunningham, Jan Fabre, Henri Fantin Latour, Lovis Corinth, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchener, Max Klinger, Angela Palmer, Cecile Walton, Georg Scholz and Simon Vouet, Palma Vecchio (Jacopo Negretti), Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita and Ludwig Meidner, provide significant opportunities for discovery and rediscovery.
Rembrandt Self-Portrait, Aged 51 (c.1657, Oil on canvas: 53.00 x 43.00 cm, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery, Bridgewater Loan, 1945)
Among the many exhibition highlights is Rembrandt Van Rijn’s Self-Portrait (c.1657, Oil on canvas, 53 x 43cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.) In relation to self-portraiture Rembrandt feels like the visual embodiment Socrates’ credo; “know thyself” and in this respect he remains unequalled in the history of Art. Rembrandt‘s extraordinary realness in facing himself never fails to move me every time I am confronted by it. The trajectory of his 80+ surviving paintings, etchings and drawings in the genre resoundingly depict a man, rather than a Romantic projection of the artist/ genius. This is the source of his timeless appeal, in being one of us; warts and all, transcending his artistic identity to speak to any human being who meets his gaze, regardless of the century they’re standing in. In this Self-Portrait of 165[5?], we see the artist clothed in a modest brown velvet cap. His eyes absorb and contain the entire depth of the background. In the ground of all his works is that defining search, undertaken by all enduring artists; grappling with their chosen medium and with themselves. Lines of age, experience and the concentration of his furrowed brow are rendered out of darkness, brought into the yellowed light of illumination and decay. He looks within himself and the viewer simultaneously, careworn and intensely human; the layered paintwork of his skin and the fragility of individual hairs catching the light conveying the vulnerability of mortal flesh, magnified with age. He is as we all are, marching towards an inevitable fate. This sense of a real life lived rather than the artifice of a painted surface; skin deep, is one of the most compelling elements of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Self-delusional vanity simply isn’t part of his grammar. It is impossible for me not to feel reverence in the presence of such honesty, especially in the context of contemporary Western culture which denies age, human frailty and death. There is something achingly beautiful in the dignity, awareness and knowing within this self-portrait, something which reaches powerfully across time to acknowledge the eternal human condition. This is Rembrandt wrestling with the unknown, trying to see into the dark, to find out who he is ithrough a lifetime’s work and who we are as a conscious species in the process. What makes his self-portraiture “Great”, in the fullest sense of that word, is not the prolific outpouring of images or the canonised label of “Master”, but the psychological depth of exploration and the artist’s emotional intelligence. This isn’t a singular emoji of expression but a myriad of hopes, knowing and sorrows, everything the artist has experienced to that point brought to bear in a single image of brilliant complexity and poignancy. Rather than returning to his own image for self-gratification, we are faced with Rembrandt’s essential humanity which shines through even his darkest paintings, acknowledging forces greater than himself.
Nearby Sir David Wilkie’s Self-Portrait (About 1804-5, Oil on canvas, 76.5 x 63.5cm, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.), painted when he was only twenty years old, walks a knife edge between self-doubt and self-assurance. Superbly modelled in an economic, loose handling of paint, his pensive features are half lit and half in shadow. The warmth of his lips, cheeks and locks of tousled red hair are contrasted with the crisp line of his white shirt, vibrant yellow waistcoat and the porte crayon poised in his elegantly refined hand. There is Romanticism and sophistication in the modelling certainly, but there is also a young man finding his way in the world. It isn’t Wilkie the handsome, the fashionable or the rising star that dominates, but the tension between human aspiration and fallibility- or is it the fact that the face of Rembrandt is so close by? In this self-portrait Wilkie reveals himself as an appealing presence of highly focused mind and action, grappling with his Art and who he is, presenting a strong statement about his artistic intent and creative process. Another Self- Portrait by Louis Janmot (1832, Oil on canvas, 81 x 65.1, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon.) extends this idea further, with the eighteen year old artist holding his brush like a surgeon, the white tip like the piercing light in his eyes, unwaveringly focused and ready to attack the canvas. The full frontal positioning of the artist places the viewer in an intriguing position- as if we are both the canvas and the mirror in a shared moment of introspection. It is a supremely balanced composition, with opposing forces of red and green cutting a swathe of energy and shadow through the image. Janmot’s squared collar belonging to a distant age mirrors the form of his forehead as he protectively cradles his palette. It is an arresting portrait of youthful Romantic energy but with a devout sense of purpose; sculpted in paint like a living neoclassical marble of artistic ideals, about to reach dynamically beyond the foreground and into the viewer’s space.
Louise Janmot, Self-Portrait, (1832, Oil on canvas. Image © Lyon MBA – Photo Alain Basset)
Reaching directly into the viewer’s space in examination of self is one of the definitive qualities of the Up Close and Personal section of the exhibition, beginning with a slide show of Selfies by Ai Weiwei,and an adjacent series of three selfie photographic prints taken during and in the aftermath of his violent arrest on 12th August 2009 in Chengdu, China:
(Cats 143-5, https://media2.wnyc.org/i/620/465/I/80/1/Ai_Weiwi.jpg, accessed 11 August 2015, http://hyperallergic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/WeiWeiHospital-CourtesyFreizeBlog.png, accessed 11 August 2015, http://blog.art21.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/aiww-hospital-01.jpg, accessed 11 August 2015).
In the context of what James Hall describes in his Facing the World catalogue essay Why Self Portraits? as our contemporary “selfie pandemic”, Ai Weiwei’s use of technology and the internet as an agent for awareness, political activism and social change is in stark contrast to the habitual daily use of smartphones and selfies that dominate popular culture. The disposability of these images; buried in memory cards, Facebook posts or in endlessly scrolling tweets, chasing viral popularity and demanding instant attention / response, significantly differs from the intentionality of the artist. In using his mobile phone to capture moments in his own life and share them online, Ai Weiwei documents many lifetimes of intimidation and brutality at the hands of a repressive regime. What he shares with the world is arguably greater than himself, his individual identity, feelings or predicament in any given moment. This means of connection and communication is also a mode of survival. The irony is that in the relative freedom of the West, where the vast majority of people have freedom of access to technology and the internet, these privileges are used primarily to say nothing other than look at me! Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame in the age of the Polaroid has shrunk to mere seconds of rapidly passing interest in the era of the Smartphone. In our celebrity obsessed age it would be easy to confuse Ai Weiwei’s fame with his Art, but it is the depth of exploration in his work and its essentially critical nature which ultimately define it. His declaration that; “I want people to see their own power” doesn’t hinge on our ability to purchase the latest upgrade, but on how we use that technology –either to expand the world or to shrink it.
The first image of the photographic selfie sequence (Cat 143), (Ai Weiwei Illumination,2014. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei) posted on Twitter following his 2009 arrest, reimagines everyday technology and the self within the selfie. The artist is seen standing in a lift, capturing his own image, flanked by police and the rock musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou in an intensely ironic self-reflective triptych of surfaces. Holding his phone aloft to take the shot, dressed in a torn red t-shirt, he is an everyman in the sense of Jesus. The light and illumination of the camera, its connection to global networks and the presence of the image in the gallery space makes this a dangerous moment framed for timely contemplation. The third image of the series (Cat 145); of Ai Weiwei in a hospital bed in Munich, recovering from the cerebral haemorrhage caused by his arrest, is grounded in a similar way. Here the artist utilises the blood bag tube as a looped frame around his eye. Curiously the photograph doesn’t feel self-consciously posed, but immediately confronts the viewer with the connectivity of the human eye; experiencing (directly for the artist and empathically for the viewer) suffering, vulnerability and the question of justice in the viewer’s role as witness. In many ways it’s an anti-selfie in the popular sense, because it’s an act of defiance and survival, rather than vanity or conformity. Getting people to like him or fitting in clearly isn’t the artist’s intention.
In the hands of Ai Weiwei the concept of self-image, social networking and having “followers” represents political will and the universal Human right to freedom of expression; not merely the product of having a phone in the hand, but possessing the presence of mind to compose the critical shot in the midst of life threatening circumstances. At the dawn of instant messaging Ai Weiwei understood what the rest of the world is still slow to grasp; that understanding the grammar of visual language is more influential and ultimately valuable in human terms than simply reinventing the alphabet. The artist’s selfies constitute more than the classification of self-portraiture might initially suggest to a Western audience, groomed in the Romantic myth of the artist/ genius and collective worship of celebrity. For most of us these images are acts of activism that we can scarcely imagine the necessity of. In his Facing the World catalogue essay; The Global Language of Selfies, Wolfgang Ullrich makes reference to the myth of Narcissus and Alberti’s question in On Painting (1435/6); “What is painting but the act of embracing by means of Art the surface of the pool?” In an increasingly globalised, digital age one might well substitute the words; “instant messaging” in place of “painting” and “digital technology” in the place of “Art”.
The self-referential /autobiographical also provides far reaching illuminations in the work of Symbolist Edvard Munch. In his Self-Portrait (1895, Lithograph, 3rd state, (about 1915) 73.2 x 52.6, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, on loan from the The Brochs of Ciogach Art Collection) the artist himself is a Memento Mori, his head isolated, stark white in an encircling black ground. The puritanical, austere collar contrasts with the fluidly delicate sweep of his hair and the skull-like contours of his cheekbones. Subtler still is his expression- one eyebrow raised, the other downturned, like a fused mask of Greek Comedy and Tragedy; his eyes rendered with the barest suggestion of marks, but endlessly questioning the viewer. Nearby is his Self-Portrait with Wine Bottle (1930, Lithograph, 42 x 51.5cm, Statliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe), which drew me first due to its relative unfamiliarity, then to the rediscovery of his singular Self Portrait . Self-Portrait with Wine Bottle is an image of loneliness, desolate isolation and the disease of alcoholism. However as in many of the artist’s paintings and prints where stages or cycles of human life, desire, decay and death are invoked, Munch bears the torments of his individual soul together with a baseline of human experience. The intimately attendant figures in the far distant tunnel of background suggest the ghostly presence of a featureless, bald old man looking on and the silhouetted figures of a man and woman turned away from each other, seemingly growing out of Munch’s shoulder and his unconscious. There is a wider frame of reference than self-consciousness or wallowing in the bottle here, but the universal suggestion of aging, rejection and separation that we all feel at different points in our lives, establishing an intimate emotional connection with the isolated spirit of the artist. Seeing this work, where Munch face is being engulfed by twilight shadow after a long day into darkness, made me re-examine the more familiar Self-Portrait (1895) more closely, not for its immediate starkness but for Munch’s innate sensitivity – a quality often underappreciated in the heightened anxiety of his iconic works.
I was elated to find works by German artists such as; Ludwig Meidner, Alexander Kandoldt, Wilhelm Scharrenberger, Karl Hubbach, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and a set of exquisitely sharp and insightful woodcut and drypoint etchings by Max Beckmann included in the show. Beckmann’s compression of an entire society into the frame is masterful and the artist depicts himself both as a complicit protagonist and a witness. The power of his mask-like 1922 Self-Portrait (Woodcut, 22.2 x 15.5cm, Statliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe) achieved with the psychologically and physically gouging marks of the print method and the inference of primitive, instinctual drives, is contrasted with the palpable sense of vulnerability and loss in the ironically civilized attire of his 1921 Self-Portrait with Bowler Hat (Drypoint etching 32.2 x 24.2cm, Statliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe).
One of the most delightful inclusions in the show are three etchings on Chine-collé from a series of ten by the Austrian Symbolist Max Klinger : A Glove Sheet 1: Place, Sheet 2: Action and Sheet 7: Fears. (Fantasies on a Found Glove, Dedicated to the Lady who Lost it.1881, 4th edition, 1898, Statliche Kunsthall ). Based on an autobiographical experience of unrequited love and desire, the frozen moment of Action where figures teeter on an unstable brink of awakening emotion, gliding elegantly across the skating rink, reveal elongated shadow selves of the unconscious. The fallen glove is picked up by the artist, who loses his hat in the process in a symbolic precursor to Surrealism. The emotional centre of gravity in this richly expressive work is instantly relatable and as a stream of consciousness projection of “fantasies” by the artist, an intriguingly fascinating variant of the self-portrait. Fears is the most revealing of the three in the fantastic revelry of horror and dreams, sex and death. Marooned and drowning, natural sources of light are eclipsed in the radically upturned, box-like composition, a turgid unconscious world where the slit of the open glove dwarfs the sleeping artist, who is contracted against a wall, whilst reaching into the frame on the far left a pair of ghostly gloved hands ominously reach across the emotionally conductive element of water. The artist is depicted beset by his own fears and desires, in a way that transforms the heightened imagination of the scene into tangibly real feelings. The strikingly elongated horizontal composition of unconscious sleep reveals painful truths and Freudian dreams, states of human denial and desire. It’s a doorway into Klinger’s mind which the viewer can wander into and the ultimate self-portrait; tantalisingly still as an object of contemplation and self-reflexivity.
One of the most extraordinary, mesmerising and multi-layered works in the show is Ulrike Rosenbach’s Don’t Believe I’m an Amazon (1975, Black and white video, soundtrack, 15mins, PAL, made during a live video action. On loan from the ZKM, Karlsruhe.) In this recording of a live performance, Rosenbach uses two closed circuit cameras; the first focused on a circular enlargement of Stefan Lochner’s Madonna of the Rose Bower (1440-2, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne) and the second set within a square opening at the centre of the painting. What we see on screen are these two views combined, superimposed over each other as the artist takes aim to shoot fifteen arrows into the image / mythology of the Madonna, the Amazon and herself. At points in the performance Rosenbach’s eyes become those of the Madonna, shifting uneasily between iconic reverence, platitude and violence. The artist shooting arrows into her own face and that of the ultimate Mother is an incredibly potent act with the tension of each arrow, strained then released as part of the aural and visceral tension of the work. The concentration as she takes aim, the focus of her art, charged with serenity, rage, faith and intellectually sharpened emotion is stunning. The view of the action and the penetrative result are seen powerfully in what feels like a living/ live feed of resonant imagery. There is a feeling throughout of realness in the performance, rather than staging. In the video Rosenbach beholds the reproduced painting of the Madonna, herself and the viewer. During this trajectory of thought and action she has tears in her eyes, bites her lip; the action is mindful, considered and emotionally fraught. The conflict is in Femininity regarding itself and the intense complexity of this artist’s performance is wonderfully unexpected and incredibly beautiful. A student of the much venerated Joseph Beuys, it would be wonderful to see the full scope of Rosenbach’s work exhibited here in Scotland. One of the first artists in Germany to embrace the possibilities of video and electronic images, “not burdened with art history like painting”, Rosenbach’s choice of media is aligns superbly with her intentionality, examining the traditional roles of women from a Feminist perspective.
Marina Abramović. Art must be Beautiful, Artist must be Beautiful, (1975, ZKM | Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2015.)
It is extremely interesting to see the work of Marina Abramović Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must be Beautiful , (1975, Black and White video, soundtrack, 23 mins 38 seconds, PAL SD Performance 1 hour, Charlottenburg Art Festival, Copenhagen, 1975. On loan from ZKM, Karlsruhe and the archives of Marina Abramović. Courtesy of Marina Abramović and LiMA.), Helen Chadwick’s ; Self-Portrait, ( 1991, Photographic transparency, glass, aluminium frame and electric lights, 50.9 x 44.6 x 11.8cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) and Angela Palmer’s Brain of the Artist (2012, Edition two from an edition of five, engraved on sixteen sheets of glass, 34.7 x 29.2 x13.9cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.) side by side in The Body of the Artist section, each raising important questions about self, artist identity and gender in the reduction of self to an act of self-mutilation in performance or to cerebrally isolated body parts. In some ways both Chadwick and Palmer’s visions of self are liberated from the Feminine by being distinctly human and on the other hand this reductive choice, insisting on being seen as a brain, completely disconnected from potential projections onto the face and body, still feels like a troubling necessity. Chadwick’s photograph of a disembodied brain is reads as a universal self-portrait in that it could belong to anyone and Palmer combines the scientific/ diagnostic techniques of MRI scanning with the fragility of glass in displaying the physical and associative workings of her inner self. Unless one is a neurosurgeon and then only in part, the self does not surrender its mysteries and is completely divorced from the face/ identity of the individual. We only read this as Brain of the Artist because the label tells us to believe that it is a precisely mapped rendering of Palmer herself, it’s a beautiful construct in three dimensions. Marina Abramović’s performance assaults the notion of Beauty with “the static video camera serv[ing] as a mirror” and the mantra she recites; “Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must be Beautiful” provides the rhythmic impetus of belief behind tearing open her skin and the hair from her head. The statement feels like a cross between religious doctrine, an advertising slogan and self-help psychology. Self-mutilation is part of the acknowledgement of what Beauty has become and also what it is not in Feminist terms. Although Abramović’s performance lacks the subtlety of Rosenbach’s , her uncompromising vision of self in the process of injury and deconstruction also presents the possibility of reimagining the self and it is this aspect of the work that I find most compelling, existing beyond the shock of the moment.
My experience of the original work made the interactive elements of the Facing the World exhibition redundant in terms of feeling the need or the desire to add my own selfie to the mix. However the exhibition extends beyond the gallery space into its dedicated website and into the classroom. Education teams at the National Galleries of Scotland, the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon have been working with young people to explore self-portraiture and the touring exhibition’s interactive elements including FLICK-EU and FLICK-EU Mirror, capturing images of visitors in its various locations and broadcasting them within the exhibition and online. Post Brexit I wonder if collaborations like this, enabled by the European Commission’s Creative Europe funding programme, will continue to be possible. Being able to bring together works from European collections is a vital position which encourages connection, understanding and reflection; seeing ourselves in a new light, doubly so in the wider thematic context of Facing the World. In the words of Max Beckmann;” Since we still do not know what this self really is … we must peer deeper and deeper into its discovery. For the self is the great veiled mystery of the world. “
Dedicated website for the Facing the World exhibition: www.i-am-here.eu
Scottish National Portrait Gallery: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/visit/scottish-national-portrait-gallery-23553