ARTIST ROOMS: Self Evidence Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe

6 APRIL – 20 OCTOBER | SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) Francesca Woodman, Untitled, 1975-80 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 15.60 x 15.60 cm (paper 25.20 x 20.30 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

‘If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.’ Diane Arbus

In the 21st century, the Selfie has become an extended form of advertising and validation, increasingly in step with corporate interest. People are the app for 24hr addictive consumption of who they aspire to be, driven by market demand, or perhaps more accurately, corporate engineered desire for the next upgrade. Rapid fire clicking and scrolling is the order of today, in how photography and images of self are consumed, liked and followed. The idea of ‘self-evidence’ in this Artist Rooms exhibition is extremely compelling and timely, examining ‘three of the twentieth century’s most influential photographers’ and reactions to their work from a younger ‘Snapchat’ generation. It’s a moment to take stock of the extraordinary work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, what photography is in human terms and what it really means to take a shot.

2. FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) Space 2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1978 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 13.90 x 13.90 cm (paper 25.20 x 20.20 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

The work of Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) provides a quietly subversive sucker punch opening to the show. This series of beautifully layered photographs are on an intimate scale, naturally inviting closer inspection and defying narcissistic, grandiose expectations of self-portraiture.  From the telling age of thirteen, to her untimely death by suicide aged 22, Woodman explored an ever-shifting state of being and becoming. Using long exposures and slow shutter speeds, she retains a fluid sense of movement and obscures identity, effectively blurring the fixed time and truth certainty of her chosen medium. Woodman’s work is often described as “experimental”, however there is more deliberation and thematic consistency in her work than this label suggests. The way her photographs are staged are technically adept and complex, rather than angling towards brilliance by randomly shooting at it. As a student taking part in the Snapchat element of the exhibition very accurately observed, ‘Woodman has power over her own image.’ It’s an enviable position, given the state of unrelenting judgement and self-censorship metered out via the internet / smartphone in your pocket.

Woodman illuminates in Black and White what it is to be female, the dilemma and desire of being seen, which is still so socially/ culturally loaded, with the resistance of being an enigmatic, ghostly presence. That tension at the heart of photography, between fixing the moment, (becoming immortal, documenting or memorialising the subject) and acknowledging human mortality, is particularly poignant in Woodman’s work. I’ve always felt that she was “fixing the shadows” in her own heart/ mind, dancing death and the maiden style towards photographic illumination, as a statement of self-worth. With over 10,000 negatives and 800 prints, Woodman’s output was prolific, though only a small fraction of her work has ever been seen publicly, demanding further study and exposure.  She’s a fascinating feminist, vulnerable before the camera certainly, but entirely on her own terms. Woodman resists reductive definition in fleeting glimpses, becoming one with a medium that reaches for permanence whilst standing on a cliff edge of mortality with every momentary shot. She effectively haunts her own images, using her body as a prop and vintage clothing to ambiguously alter time. Tonal shifts in her work have a psychological edge of loss, a sense of disintegration and elusiveness in striving to know who you are that is universally human.

In Space 2 Providence, Rhode Island 1976, Woodman evades identification as an individual, grappling with herself inside the frame, turning her head during a long exposure so that what remains is movement where we expect her face to be. This idea is attached to a body in relative focus, gesturing forward, hands open and semi-outstretched towards the viewer. Her work reveals how self is realised, grasping for something (and someone) just out of reach. In Woodman’s hands, photography is an act of control for the female protagonist/ artist, usually in decaying, abandoned building surroundings. An image that exemplifies this dynamic comes from the Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island 1976 series, where Woodman is seen semi crouched on the floor in a polka dot dress. One hand is raised to her mouth as if something has just happened in a gasp, the other held to her chest. A residual patch of patterned wallpaper against bare, plaster wall is echoed in her clothing, semi unzipped at the side, revealing a pale gape of flesh. Debris on the floor adds to the sense of unease, glancing sideways, somewhere between dark glam fashion shoot, personal recognition and implied violation. There’s knowing in the setup of the shot, and in Woodman’s eyes, that pose questions for the viewer about what they are seeing or witnessing. It’s a halt to the screen swipe that hits you between the eyes.

There’s nothing accidental about how Woodman simultaneously hides and reveals herself. This residual presence means that the viewer can never own or possess the subject completely. It’s a quality that feels like a psychological imperative of self-preservation and discovery in her work. Vintage dress and decrepit setting toys with youth and beauty. The gaze is self-determined and positioned ambiguously within the set. The photograph is a dialogue, not an answer, about who the subject truly is. Images taken as personal communications with her boyfriend are more fixed in terms of the designated viewer, but still float as enigmatically as Woodman’s handwriting before our eyes. She’s playing with what it means to take an image, with photography as mechanism, mirror and conscious choice.

1. FRANCESCA WOODMAN (1959-1981) From Angel Series, Roma, September 1977, 1977 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 9.30 x 9.30 cm (paper 9.80 x 9.80 cm) (framed: 45.80 x 40.20 x 2.00 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Courtesy of George and Betty Woodman

We have only begun to examine the work of Surrealist photographers such as Lee Miller, Claude Cahun, Dora Maar and Florence Henri in recent years. Woodman is an interesting inheritor of the inward facing camera in that respect. In From Angel Series, Rome 1977, we see the female protagonist, a shadow presence enveloped in large sheets of white paper, through a doorframe that reads like a proscenium arch. Another smaller door prop with a hand reaching round like a handle is as curious as Alice in Wonderland, drawing the eye further into the photograph. The overall framing is slightly skewed, like the geometric tilt of the figure, feeling to the edge of her paper costume with a bent elbow. The naked body/ self is screened by abstract form and tonality. What casts the eye across the foreground layer and deeper, through the doorway into the space beyond, is a tonal shift from left to right, from beached light to progressive darkness. This isn’t just physical or aesthetic but psychological. That emotional gravitas dances uneasily with the comic, play element of staging to create heightened, internal realism, or Surrealism. The shift in tone also evokes the passage of time inside the composition and in that moment of seeing.  It is imaginatively fluid, rather than presenting an absolute image of self. This is one of the smallest images in the show, so you are compelled to approach it closely, like seeing through the crack of a door left ajar. In historical terms the door left ajar that Woodman is stepping through is Surrealist and conceptual.

As I’ve suggested in previous posts on Lee Miller and coverage of the Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) [i], Surrealism as a concept, rather than a movement, gave women unprecedented latitude for exploring Self. Woodman’s use of the female body embraces the essential negotiation between seeing and being seen, exemplified in the work of Miller. Contrary to popular belief, Surrealism isn’t about the dreamy fantasy, but confrontation. ‘The free form craft of association, placing contradictory ideas beside each other in denial of the absolute,  asserts the political right to freedom of expression.’[ii] In the 1970’s, an era of activism, Woodman conceptually grasps the mettle and beauty of Surrealism in its purest form, which ‘brings us into confrontation with ourselves on an intensely psychological level; individually and collectively.’[iii] To photograph the self, disappearing and emerging in the same frame, celebrates that free, associative tension and also expresses an existential crisis of being.  There’s a feeling of profound liberty and isolation in Woodman’s photography, the idea that ‘You cannot see me from where I look at myself’, as she expressed it. We are confronted time and again with her essential mystery and our own as human beings.

In the popular imagination, photography is the ultimate proof of existence- that we have lived, yet it documents a singular moment of life and the loss of that moment, for the individual, generation and era. Woodman’s Untitled, Concord, New Hampshire,1977, taken after the death of her grandmother, brings us to a moment of profound silence and lengthening shadow. It’s a spectral image of the living and past generations, in the framed family photographs illuminated on the table and in the seated female presence, defined almost entirely by shadow. Light is cast on the side of the face, hands and into the corner of the room. Influenced by the sequential, emotive work of Duane Michals (b 1932), Woodman creates a self-portrait grounded in observance of loss. Although it is a deeply personal response to her grandmother passing, what we are confronted with is our own mortality. At its birth photography was described as a process of ‘fixing the shadows’, a metaphor in tune with Woodman’s singular command of the medium.

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971) The King and Queen of a Senior Citizens’ Dance, N.Y.C. 1970, 1970. Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper. 37.20 x 36.90 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm). ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

The work of Diane Arbus (1923-1971) is defined by her approach to portraiture, the essential relationship between artist /photographer and subject. Her congruence in making images and identification with her subjects remains compassionate and contradictory. Arbus presents alternative ways of life to the white picket fenced American dream and her eye to eye stance behind the camera continues to introduce audiences to taboo subjects. Debates still rage about whether her depiction of marginalised individuals constitutes empowerment or exploitation. The argument in this show unfolds empathically as ‘a de facto self-portrait,’ in the form of her Box of Ten Photographs (1969-1971). These images convey how Arbus saw herself and how she wished to be remembered as an artist. The self-evidence in this self-edit is significantly greater than the individual, revealing aspects of American society and humanity that still resonate very powerfully today. However you regard her images, here the box is semi opaque and articulates her signature loud and clear.

These 10 original prints are her intended legacy and proof of life. They expand her enduring statement:  ‘My photos are proof that something was there, which no longer is. You can turn away but when you come back, they’ll still be there looking at you.’

What seems to strike people, looking at the photographs she is famous (or infamous) for, those of disadvantaged people, perceived social outcasts or “freaks”[iv], is a combination of shame and pity, not coming from the subject, but as an aspect of self-projection on the part of the viewer. Photography as a medium is meant to reassure us, Arbus explodes that abject sentimentality completely. ‘I would never choose a subject for what it means to me. I choose a subject and then what I feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold.’ There is a sense of detachment in her initial approach, but also a powerful sense of connection and agency that endures in her work.

Images from Two American Families, published in the Sunday Times Magazine, Nov 1968, are a great example. It’s a revealing, uncomfortable juxtaposition that establishes where real tenderness lies. In A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, NYC, 1966 we see the family unit dressed proudly for a day off, though it is far from being carefree. The baby in a white playsuit and bonnet, gravitates towards the photographer with a hand semi outstretched. Her mother is naturally glamourous, offset by a weary, faraway expression that extends beyond the frame to what might have been. Her dark bouffont hair, Liz Taylor style eyeliner and flash of leopard print coat lining are contrasted with the baby held in front of her and the idea of motherhood experienced aged 16. The young father’s soft, serious gaze meets Arbus’s/ the viewer’s, holding the hand of their older child. There’s a feeling of youth confronting aged responsibility in the care of a child with learning difficulties. There’s also an edge of fractured separation, in individual familial gazes that do not meet each other. The descent of stairs creates an emotional trajectory, caught in the trap of the camera. We feel the unease of being brought so close in contemplation of someone else’s family unit, because it naturally causes us to reflect upon our own. This isn’t a private family snapshot, but documentary with ethical implications. That precarious line between viewer as witness and complicity of the gaze, in appreciation or ridicule, is part of Arbus’s potency as an artist. The human subject is unapologetically left open to scrutiny. Thankfully Arbus honours the complexity of that exchange.

The companion photograph, A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, NYC, 1966 widens the social commentary in comparison. It’s a we want what they have capitalist dream turned on its head, an indictment of American values where humour and tragedy collide. The expanded view is of aspirational property and status. The Mother, father and child are depicted at leisure on a lawn so large it feels more like a swimming pool they could collectively drown in. The mother resembles a Barbie doll, lying on a banana lounge in a swimsuit. It’s impossible to tell if her eyes are closed, or watchful beneath the fake lashes. Lying on a parallel sun lounge Dad looks like he’s having a breakdown, hand raised to his brow, like the cost of this upper middle-class suburban dream is all too much. The child in the background is bent over a paddling pool, which in relation to his parents, feels like a well he’s destined to fall and disappear into entirely. As Arbus stated; ‘They are a fascinating family. I think all families are creepy in a way.’ Western consumer/ popular culture engineers the desire for this lifestyle. Looking at Arbus’s take on identity, family and success, my first thought is seriously?! If there’s an aspect of absurdity and potential ridicule here, then its wrapped around a lie, rather than the human subjects. Arbus received two John Simon Guggenhiem Fellowship grants, to examine ‘American rites, manners and customs’ which I’d say was a perennial investment.

Arbus brings us face to face with the licence a camera gives you, prompting questions about how it is used, directed towards the self and/or others. Sometimes the closeup takes us to places that mainstream culture, or the powers that be, don’t think it should go.  A Young Man in Curlers at home on W20th St, NYC, 1966, was a daring imagewhen it was taken and in many countries around the world still is. Arbus’s photograph of a Boy in a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, 1967 with his “God Bless America” badge, could be straight out of Trump’s America if it weren’t for the period clothing. The irony being, that this face of youth, aged by forefathers’ ideals, is wearing a hat from an earlier period, popular in the 1920’s and 30’s- otherwise known as the Great Depression. Nostalgia and nationalism go hand in hand before the camera in a wholesome march towards aggressive dominance. The war in question is Vietnam, one of many invasions on foreign soil in the interest of putting “America first.” That plain belief is presented as an honest portrait, however as part of Arbus’s self-portrait it is deeply subversive. The problem with being hardwired for subversion is that you don’t achieve that level of awareness without digging the earth out from under yourself, acknowledging that you don’t belong to the status quo, even if “success” depends upon it. A photograph as Arbus described it is “like a stain.”

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971) Xmas Tree in a Living Room, in Levittown 1963, 1963. Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper. 36.80 x 37.60 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm). ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit Arbus’s work as a self-portrait. The complete immersion of Retired Man and his wife at home one morning, NJ, 1963 (gelatine silver print) which is such a homage to normality, despite the nudity of both subjects and photographer and Xmas Tree in a Living Room, in Levittown 1963, reveal underappreciated facets of her personality. Xmas Tree never ceases to be both horrific and hilarious. It is devoid of any obvious human subjects, apart from the viewer, who is positioned in the foreground armchair, virtual reality style, with the viewer/participant’s hands resting on the edge of both arms. The discomfort is ours, seeing the celebratory, festive gaudiness of the tree, shoved into one corner of a disconcertingly clean and orderly suburban living room, which feels more like an internal void. Arbus is an artist who confronts us with belonging (or not) and this collection of self-evidence cements her legacy as a socially conscious artist, rather than a sensationalist, ghoulish collector of souls.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1983 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 37.40 x 37.50 cm (framed: 50.80 x 40.60 cm) ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Driven by ego and craft, the work of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) presents a face to the world through role play and extreme duality. Mapplethorpe’s controversial S&M lifestyle and his death from Aids tends to draw focus away from his undeniable skill and sensitivity as an artist. Whatever attendant beliefs the viewer might bring to consideration of his work, the value of experience and the life of the photographer were of paramount importance the artist. This self-belief permeates all his work. The viewer may see it as destructive, immoral or offensive if they choose, however an image such as Self Portrait 1978 confounds notions of obscenity or moral judgement, because it asserts the individual’s right to be so powerfully. In this case, and in the context of the exhibition, the act is entirely self-directed. The photograph is an extreme confrontation and explicit provocation, in profane defiance of his Catholic roots, yet employing all the theatricality of a devotee. There’s no doubt that the play enacted between good and evil is dangerous, but for Mapplethorpe that’s the attraction- in art and in life. There’s no escaping that fact in his oeuvre. It’s woven into everything, from the delicate interplay of masculine and feminine in Self Portrait 1983 (printed 2009) to Self Portrait 1978 where the bullwhip reads like a devil’s tail. He’s a master of role play, perhaps best summed up by Self Portrait with Knife 1983, where we see him posturing with polarities- one hand raised, palm flattened in gesture of defence, while the other is extended to attack. The choreography could belong to no one else.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1980 (printed 2009) Photograph on paper, 35.20 x 35.00 cm; framed: 68.40 x 66.20 x 3.10 cm ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 2014

There is a right to self-expression which Mapplethorpe asserts throughout his career, in all his varied personas and this is perhaps where progress has been made in the 30 years since his death. In the late 1980s, his retrospective The Perfect Moment was cancelled in one venue, while another found itself at the centre of an obscenity trial. This is the first time Mapplethorpe’s work has been displayed in the dedicated photography gallery at SNPG that bears his name, originally established with assistance by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. This is cause for celebration, as is the recent news of a patient in the UK who due to advances in Aids treatment is now free from infection. I imagine that had Mapplethorpe lived, he’d be enjoying the spoils of a culture that elevates the artist as celebrity, building his legacy and continuing to unashamedly explore every facet of himself.

Although we see his declining health in the later self-portraits, above all else it’s the sheer force of his personality/ego that remains to the last. In Self Portrait 1988 we see that self-possession in action, despite his dishevelled hair and pallor. The hand on his knee appears to grasp mortality, the other clenched purposefully by his cheek. Sitting cross legged on a black leather armchair in a silk robe and embossed slippers, he resembles an aging tycoon. A Hugh Hefner type, slightly tainted by scandal, the kind of entrepreneur so revered in American popular culture as a model of success. The ripple in his brow and questioning mouth, partially open as if about to speak, issues an underlying challenge to, and affirmation of, white middle-aged male dominance.  It’s a fascinating image of wealth, respectability and mortal decay.

ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE (1946-1989) Self Portrait, 1988 Photograph, gelatine silver print on paper, 57.70 x 48.10 cm ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

In a later Self Portrait 1988, he delivers one of his most iconic images, the head of the artist receding into a dark ground, while his hand rests steadfast on a walking cane, carved with a skull. It’s a universal memento mori, an individual confronting death and Mapplethorpe making a statement of power in composition and tonality, even as he fades. He’s become the force that’s stalking him, that stalks us all, and he does so with immense dignity. Seeing this image always makes me think of Shakespearean tragedies like King Lear, Hamlet or Macbeth. The immensity of darkness engulfing the protagonist is absolute, yet Mapplethorpe still rules the frame. Immortalised in a signature moment of brilliance, something he never doubted possessing, he sits hand in hand with God and the Devil, between the darkness and illumination of his craft.

The final ‘Snapchat’ section of the exhibition, where school students, photography and art students have responded to the exhibition with images, text and filmed interviews was incredibly moving and insightful. What struck me most was the element of shock and surprise in relation to photography as a discipline, rather than tool and the degree of artistic agency identified in the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe. The concept of ‘making the image instead of taking it’ felt like a generational penny dropping. I also felt an acute sense of loss, in terms of how human creativity and expression is being indiscriminatingly shaped by technology. I was left wondering if a Woodman, Arbus or Mapplethorpe would even be possible today, whether their bold self-determination would be too easily quashed beneath an avalanche of self-censorship.

As the students described; ‘technology has made us less free.’ ‘Everyone is able to see us’ and it has become more difficult to approach life online and day to day on your own terms.’ Examining the work of Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, there’s a more audacious sense of identity in play and techniques that demand greater deliberation, in their handling of materials and negotiation with the subject. Taking the kind of portraits and self-portraits seen in this exhibition requires expanded self-awareness beyond the trigger- happy selfie.  In the case of Arbus, you have to admit something other than your carefully censored self into the equation/ workflow. Self-portraiture comes with humility and admission of the ‘other’, rather than simple self-gratification or promotion of the individual. Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe, don’t just vainly declare ‘I am’ in their photography, but significantly alter our perception. They stand uniquely for themselves and for humanity in the process, in all its darkness and light. The beauty in this exhibition is self-reflexivity, realised unapologetically and with compassion through craft. Advancing technology has made photography available to more people than ever before, however it’s not the tool that creates art and critical self-reflection, but the human being standing behind the camera. I say standing, because that stance or attitude of self-awareness is so critical in framing the subject in the mind’s eye, before the image is taken. In a world awash with rapid clicks, evidence of that vital human faculty appears to be rapidly diminishing.

It’s a great pleasure to see this work brought together and to consider the responses of students to such unexpectedly radical images. This is a deeply affecting show, for the ways that Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe confront their own truths about being human and for the questions the exhibition raises about ‘self-evidence’ in the 21st Century. This is photography as a matter of survival and in the words of one student, art that ‘makes you keep looking.’

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/artist-rooms-self-evidence-photographs-woodman-arbus-and-mapplethorpe


[i] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous, June 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/ Georgina Coburn Collective Action, article for the Times Literary Supplement July 2016 https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/collective-action/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller and Picasso June 2015 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-and-picasso/ Georgina Coburn Blogpost Lee Miller A Womans War IWM, London Jan 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/lee-miller-a-womans-war/
[ii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Encounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016 http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iii] Georgina Coburn Blogpost Surreal Ensounters Collecting the Marvellous June 2016http://georginacoburnarts.co.uk/surreal-encounters-collecting-marvellous/
iv] I use the word ‘freaks’ here in the context of Arbus’s statement which indicates an attitude of respect on the part of the artist; “There’s a quality of legend about freaks.Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Looking Good : The Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

24 June to 1 October 2017

David Williams (b. 1952) Michael Clark. Dancer, 1989. Silver gelatine print, 35.2 x 35.4 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland. Commissioned by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1988. © David Williams.

What attracted me to this show initially was the whole idea of turning the tables. We are so habituated to seeing the male gaze directed at women in the history of Art, Photography and popular culture in general, I was intrigued to see what the nature of the masculine gaze turned inwards might look like. Or to be more accurate, what the exhibition curators might do with the overarching theme of “male image, identity and appearance from the 16th century to the present day”, selecting 28 works from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, London. Kate Anderson (Senior Curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) assisted by Ola Wojtkiewicz, have created an interesting show, exploring changing “attitudes to status, wealth, sexuality, masculinity and beauty.” The exhibition is part of a national tour of Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s final Self-Portrait c.1640, recently acquired for the nation by the NPGL with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund. For a relatively small exhibition it packs some punches, contains some fascinating work and gave me a lot to think about, particularly about inferred narratives through curation.

Jonathan OWEN (b. 1973) Untitled (Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta), 2013. Sculpture (bust), marble, 58 x 30 x 56 cm. Collection: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, © Jonathan Owen
Photo: © National Galleries of Scotland.

At the entrance to the exhibition Jonathan Owen’s Untitled (Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta) (2013, Sculpture (bust), marble, 58 x 30 x 56 cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) is an appropriate metaphor for masculine reconnaissance and the deconstruction of enshrined ideals. Taking the historical white marble bust of a bearded aristocrat, decorated for military service, Owen abstracts the head, re-carving and excavating marble until the individual face is transformed into  an arrangement of geometrical hollows, resembling an architectural atrium and guarding an inner sphere.  Traditionally the marble bust elevated on a plinth celebrates and memorialises ideals of masculine power, duty and nobility, reinforcing social hierarchy and individual status, but here the artist takes a sculpture from an age of Empire and critically reimagines it. The rigid Neoclassical form of masculine authority becomes something much more ambiguous, an interplay of positive and negative space, expanding form and ideas in the imaginative cavity of the head. Strangely there’s a cyber quality to this human form without an individual identity, potentially a new code of etiquette at work in a face composed as a structural framework. It has that sinister Dr Who feeling of something familiar and seemingly benign, comfortably relegated to history and yet alive in its altered form, as cold and intellectualised as marble so often is in the hands of men and state. It’s a portrait bust lacking humanity and individuality, focused on the power of intellect. The artist’s psychological archaeology conceals as much as it reveals about masculine identity past, present and future, which is an incredibly interesting position for the audience in terms of projection.

The intimacy of the exhibition space, accompanying soundscape and video by Mercury prize winning band Young Fathers (AKA Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and ‘G’ Hastings) encourages deeper contemplation of the works on display. The looped sound accompaniment to the show operates as an undercurrent of provocation, informing the images in unexpected ways as you encounter them. The timing and associations for each viewer will be different as they move through the space  and within their own connective loops of sound, image, memory and meaning. The visitor meanders through fragments of haunted piano, natural sounds like wind moving through aged buildings, human breath, voice and chanted commands conjuring the playing, athletic or military training field. The video by Young Fathers, which is the final statement in the show and by far the edgiest work, is a brief, edited sequence of young men half in shadow, illuminated momentarily in the heat of red light, being directed in the manner of a photoshoot to express emotions or adopt a certain stance for the camera/ director/ viewer. The male voices in charge of the camera prompt the sitters; “snarl”, “laugh”, “batter your eyelids- you’re pretty, really pretty”, “have you given enough?”, “be a man, cry for me!”  “look over here- smile”, “who loves you?”, this last question unsettlingly underscored by the kind of cheering background chorus you’d hear at a competitive sporting event. It’s survival of the fittest, the threat of being prey to whoever holds the camera and what that means in the political arena of gender. There’s the contradiction of public intimacy and the power differential between the filmed subject and film makers, provoking questions about the nature of the dialogue. I liked what this added to the visual/ auditory interpretation about what masculinity means, individually and collectively, in the 21st Century and in the context of the whole show. Although the directions given by male voices are not to female models or sitters, they are very familiar as such. It’s a dynamic of inequality which plays out terms of self-worth through dominance or submission to the commanding voice over. It’s a dialogue we’re not used to seeing between men in this kind of setting, but very telling in human terms. The real point is not just “Looking Good” but how the gaze is directed and to what ends socially, culturally and politically.


Francois-Xavier FABRE (1766–1837) Portrait of a Man, 1809. Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 50 cm.
Collection: Scottish National Portrait Gallery Purchased with the aid of the Art Fund (Scottish Fund) 1992. Photo: © National Galleries of Scotland.

The works on display are incredibly varied from the dashing, highly Romanticised Portrait of a Man by Francois-Xavier Fabre (1809, Oil on canvas, Scottish National Portrait Gallery), John Pettie’s haughty, highly coiffed portrait of Sir David Murray (1890, oil on canvas, Scottish, National Portrait Gallery), in which facial hair becomes as potent a calling card as the artist’s signature, to much rawer, more confrontational works by artists such as Lucian Freud and Robert Mapplethorpe. What I found myself doing, going through the exhibition rooms several times, was reimagining the signposted hanging sequence. The five exhibition themes: Dress Code, Good Grooming, Men in the Mirror, The Male Icon and Modes of Manhood were provocative for me because they proved a bit too safely boxed. Less obvious labelling/ hanging, with works juxtaposed in more challenging ways to actively interrogate different themes or underlying questions, rather than comfortably illustrating them, might have been a better overall strategy. For example, why place Richard Ansett’s image of Grayson Perry (2013, chromogenic print, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) in the status of “other” by hanging it in what is essentially the alternative “Modes of Manhood” section? Give the man his due and challenge public expectations of masculinity by placing Perry in the Male Icon section! Not just to disrupt the perfume ad portraits of brand Beckham and super broody Gerard Butler, but because Perry’s status as a contemporary artist, social commentator, journalist and television documentary maker is Iconic. Single handed he has done more than anyone in recent years to encourage debate about what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Although visitors are free to draw their own conclusions about the Male Icons VS Modes of Manhood face off on opposing walls, this relegation seemed strangely at odds with the open stance towards masculinity present in individual works and in the aspirational nature of the show.

Richard Ansett Grayson Perry, Commissioned for BBC Radio 4’s Reith Lectures 2013 © Richard Ansett/BBC. National Portrait Gallery, London

The image of Grayson Perry dressed as his alter ego Claire is one of a “plethora of masculinities” forming his identity and a vision of what masculine and feminine outside the box might look like. Hung adjacent to Robert Mapplethorpe’s Smutty (1980, Silver gelatine print, Artist Rooms, National Gallery of Scotland & Tate) and an exquisitely beautiful, melancholic portrait of dancer/choreographer Michael Clark by David Williams (1989, Silver gelatine print, Scottish National Portrait Gallery) notions of masculine and feminine become more visibly fluid through the lens, despite being thematically confined in the exhibition space.  Ansett’s portrait of Grayson Perry/ Claire speaks resoundingly of the Self as masculine and feminine. Claire’s gaze meets the viewer’s, her red drawn eyebrows raised in confident punctuation, silently addressing the camera/viewer with a mature, worldly gaze. Standing steadfast in orange platform shoes, the exit door in the corner of the plush, red room appears too small, giving an Alice in Wonderland shrunken quality to the surroundings and heightening Claire’s dominance in the room. This photograph, taken for the BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, is a vibrant, unmissable statement in recoding dress and viewer expectations. The pattern on Perry’s dress incorporates his childhood teddy bear “Alan Measles”, it’s colourful and intensely psychological, an element that speaks of the formation of identity in childhood.  Claire’s flamboyant style combines youthful bobbed hair with middle aged 1970’s party host dress, a contradiction of doll-like red lips and intellectually loaded “blue stockings”. Claire launches a “so what?!” stare to the viewer/ photographer, the playfulness of the outfit in tandem with the artist’s impending public address. Perry’s everyman status integration into the mainstream comes through in his TV appearances. All of his work raises a mirror to Self and society, never shying away from the complexity of being the masculine/ feminine humans we all are psychologically. Perry/ Claire is not just about fashion, grooming or being outrageous, he/she’s about being visibly him/herself, a living, creative force for reflection, empathy and positive change; a true male icon acknowledging the Feminine within himself.

A portrait that feels real amongst the pumped-up sport/ rock/ film star “Male Icons” wall is Nadav Kander’s image of Tinie Tempah (Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu), (Ink jet print made in 2011, National Portrait Gallery, London.) What shines through is masculine beauty through self-possession. Tempah is a rapper, singer, songwriter, with his own fashion and independent record labels. The portrait exudes confidence, pride and ambition but without aggressive dominance. He’s a man looking beyond the viewer and the confines of the frame, rather than measuring himself against them. Dressed in a white shirt, bow tie and diamond earing, his groomed success is refreshingly stained with shades of purple spray paint from the street. The fine paint splatter isn’t makeup, but identification and strength in the knowledge of where you come from. It feels like the foundation of the man and his character inhabiting the image. Tempah exudes the beauty of self-possession not in posturing but from his pores, nuanced with the purple sheen of nobility, the anti-establishment spray of graffiti and a natural blue/black lineage of pride. Although the head a shoulders image is traditionally composed, the introduction of different hues and attitude of the subject subverts this, becoming a much more layered statement of gender, class, race, artistic intent and individuality. The adjacent photographs of actor Gerard Butler and footballer David Beckham seem doubly one dimensional by comparison, simply selling a celebrity line on masculinity in black and white, as if the name / brand/ macho snarl were enough- and perhaps they are for a two second hit. However, in the Art and specifically portraiture, it isn’t just about looking good, flattering the sitter or selling a product, but being human and vulnerable on some level- traditionally considered a very un-masculine trait, especially for men in the public domain. In that respect, the relationship and trust established (even in a single sitting) between the artist/ photographer and the subject is critical. Individuality and identity are often about revealing that which is hidden, because in the words of T.S Eliot we all “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet”. For men, being strong is often a necessary part of that self- projection to the world, but strong doesn’t have to be overly aggressive, physical and in your face. It can be found in quiet, contemplative dignity, as we see in Kander’s very masculine, equally beautiful image of Tempah, subverting the super machismo normally associated with the Rap music industry. The independent spirit of this portrait is about more than the ego or status of the sitter, displaying layers beneath his worldly success, sprayed onto his skin and clothing, not to conceal who he is, but to reveal something about his core self, not just as a man but a human being. It’s exactly that kind of insight that sorts out the men from the boys; a level of understanding, integration, mutual respect and sensitivity in collaboration between the artist and subject.

Gerard Jefferson-Lewis. Untitled (Butcher Boys) Portrait Number 472. Photograph, three framed C-type digital prints, each: 59.4 x 84.1 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, gift of the photographer 2013. © Gerard Jefferson-Lewis.

A very ambiguous, intriguing collaboration between artist and subject unfolds in Untitled Man (Butcher Boys) Portrait No 472 by Gerard Jefferson-Lewis (Digital chromogenic print, made 2012, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Gift of the photographer 2013. NB/ in the exhibition this consists of one image only rather than a sequence of 3)  The butcher’s white frock becomes a generic uniform, intensifying our sense of the individual face emerging from the ground of white and grey. The young man’s sensuous lips, eyes in mutual exchange with the male presence behind the camera, coupled with his “unfixed identity” in uniform is a compelling exploration of power, or perhaps the illusion of it. The series “Butcher Boys” has homoerotic undertones, of youthful, raw meat and (at least to this female viewer) the ironic suggestion of how women are often posed for the male gaze in a very different type of uniform. Jefferson-Lewis’s portrait is arguably more understated and complex. The male subject here is clothed in a metaphorical blank canvas, a frock of service and the purity of white. On one level, he can be whatever the viewer imagines him to be and yet his individual face stands out from the adopted costume with an expression that contains and projects his own desire. There is conformity and individuality in this image of a masculine presence that is seductive without resorting to clichés of rippling muscles and obvious physical virility. Here the proposition and exploration is sensuously cerebral.

Daniel MYTENS (1590-1647) James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649. Royalist, 1629
Oil on canvas, 221 x 139.7 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased with help from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Pilgrims Trust 1987. Photo: Antonia Reeve.

Daniel Mytens’ portrait of James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649. Royalist, (1629, Oil on canvas, 221 x 139.7 cm, National Galleries of Scotland) presents a face to the world befitting Hamilton’s status as chief advisor to King Charles I. It’s the theatre of the portrait flanked by drapery on one side and an Italian marble column on the other. This richness becomes opulence in the silver threads and bobbin lace of his clothing, soft kid gloves, fine shoes and spurs. His eyes meet ours as sharp points of light like the tip of the rapier which hangs at his side. The background suggests dominion over sea and land. We are clearly faced with calculated masculinity, standing above us in the context of the royal court and the nobleman’s sovereignty over his own estate. Nearby is Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Lord George Stuart, 9th Seigneur of Aubigny (1618-1642), (Oil on canvas, circa 1638, 86 in. x 52 1/2 in, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) displaying an equally opulent but almost mythological persona in union with nature. The spring of flowing water, roses, foreground plants, together with the hoe or fork he’s carrying  symbolically hooking into the tree in the background, position the male figure at the centre of the composition, but there’s a twist. Stuart is leaning on an ancient stone in this pastoral idyll with the inscription; “ME FIRMIOR AMOR” (Love is stronger than I am), an encoded admission of personal vulnerability from a member of the ruling class, harking back to the Classical world of Gods and nymphs. He’s not showing us his whole hand though, one is hidden beneath his robes of ochre/ gold and blue, as if holding something back from the viewer and this mysterious air keeps us on the backfoot as spectators. His luxurious hair and embroidered boots make him look effeminate to contemporary eyes, but this is a heroic image of manhood and learned passion which commands the space he occupies.

Sir Anthony VAN DYCK (1599–1641) Sir Anthony Van Dyck, circa 1640. Oil on canvas, 56 cm x 46 cm oval. Collection: National Portrait Gallery, London.Purchased with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund in honour of David Verey CBE (Chairman of the Art Fund 2004-2014), the Portrait Fund, The Monument Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Aldama Foundation, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation, Sir Harry Djanogly CBE, Mr and Mrs Michael Farmer. Matthew Freud, Catherine Green, Dr Bendor Grosvenor, Alexander Kahane, the Catherine Lewis Foundation, the Material World Foundation, The Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust, Cynthia Lovelace Sears, two major supporters who wish to remain anonymous, and many contributions from the public following a joint appeal by the National Portrait Gallery and the Art Fund, 2014

Anthony Van Dyck’s final self-portrait (circa 1640, Oil on canvas, 56 cm x 46 cm oval, National Portrait Gallery, London) speaks of masculine confidence in maturity, secure in his position as one of the most celebrated court painters of the age. Although dressed as a gentleman, the loose painterly handling of his clothes suggests that fashion isn’t the focus of the image. He’s reached a stage of life where he doesn’t have to accentuate the finery to know or tell the world who he is. What he sees in the mirror is his skilled accomplishment as an artist in his own right. His stature emerges in the presence of the man, his head turned towards the viewer in a three-quarter pose. He’s utterly composed and assured; intelligent eyes acknowledge his self-regard in the mirror and address the viewer. His turbulent hair gives him a strong, independently spirited air. He’s not playing at being anything, he’s just convincingly painting himself. The clothes he wears feel unfinished, almost abstracted from his conscious being. The man in the mirror can be the truth or a lie and here the former triumphs over the latter in an image that feels sketched, unfinished and imperfect. The focus is very much on capturing the face and identity of the artist as an individual and it continues to speak across the ages.

Lucian FREUD 1922-2011. Self-portrait, 1963. Oil on canvas. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

The artist’s touch also speaks volumes in Man’s Head (Self Portrait III) by Lucian Freud (Oil on canvas, 1963, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London). Rendered entirely in potently, earthy flesh tones, the artist’s furrowed brow of impasto hides his eyes as he squints to perceive the truth in himself. It’s a visual statement of Freud’s belief; “As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as the flesh does.” We can feel that physicality in animated strokes defining cheeks, brow and chin and in the caress of his parted hair. This life in paint is contrasted with the horizontal linear pattern of marks in the uniform brown background. He makes himself stand out, in an audacious and highly accomplished visual statement, making the most of a reduced palette and the immediacy of brushstrokes which have their own distinctive rhythm. Hopefully how various rhythms and themes harmonise, contradict or clash, leading to examination of the viewer’s underlying beliefs, stimulating debate about the nature of masculinity, will be triggered by the works on display. It is wonderful to see, even on a small scale, collaboration and exchange between national collections so that audiences can experience works which may not have otherwise toured to different parts of the country. On one level I can’t comment on what it means to be a man in the 21st Century, but this exhibition provides a window to the complexity and interconnectedness of masculine and feminine and the need for both definitions to be expanded, in our own minds and in the wider world. Portraiture is above all else the study of humanity, faces which are public, private and potential agents of change in how we perceive ourselves.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/looking-good-male-gaze-van-dyck-lucian-freud

Facing the World

Self-portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei

19 July – 16 October, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ernst Ludwig KirchnerThe Painter (Self-Portrait), (1920Three-block linocut in grey-blue, yellow and red. © bpk / Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe).

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.

Art Must Be Beautiful

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

John Byrne Sitting Ducks

14 June – 19 October, Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

1-29 November, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery.

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John Byrne American Boy (Oil on Plywood, 1971).

I recently attended a talk by James Hall at the Inverness Book Festival promoting his latest work; The Self Portrait, A Cultural History and emerged incredibly incensed and frustrated. Much like the proliferation of selfies all over the net, the scope of the talk amounted to scratching at surfaces, the emphasis on narcissism, costumed props and the artist displaying their genius. When I look at a Rembrandt self-portrait I don’t see an artist proclaiming his genius to the world, although artistic genius is certainly present. What brings people to his work time and again is its honesty and humanity. The artist painted himself unrelentingly warts and all, vulnerable, aging and fallible. It is a face onto which we may project ourselves. What makes Rembrandt great is that in the self-portrait he transcends time and himself, he communicates the universality of human experience. To look at Albrecht Dürer’s famous self portrait of 1500 and see only a Christ- like figure completely misses the complexity and contradiction of the image. When I saw this work in Munich a few years ago after a lifetime seeing it in reproduction, what struck me most was the intimacy of scale and expression. It is invested with tremendous subtlety, a face conveying age in spite of youth and myriad of expression. The artist’s hand points resoundingly to the centre of his chest. It’s the ultimate “I am” statement by any artist or human being in any century, an image of self-determination and self -possession, resolute and uncompromising. Equally Dürer’s eyes communicate a deep sadness and knowing of the limitations of what it is to be human. It is simultaneously an image of divine aspiration and earth bound mortality, timeless in relevance.

When I had the pleasure of seeing John Byrne’s exhibition Sitting Ducks at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this week I also perceived an artist and a man, acutely aware of what complex and contradictory beings we are, both to ourselves and to each other. Typically Byrne caricatures himself in many of his self-portraits, he isn’t about celebrating himself but revealing all that we are by default. Some of the most beautiful works in the exhibition are also the most uneasy, ambiguous and unflattering.

In an early work Self Portrait with Red Palette (Oil and Acrylic on Plywood, 1974/5) Byrne’s flawless composition is matched with uncertainty. The diptych is an expanded space of vivid turquoise, the artist pushed into the right panel, steadfastly meeting the viewer’s gaze, red palette in one hand, cigarette in the other. The shadow cast by the figure is mirrored by the shadow of a black palette on the floor like another self, the edge of the palette disappearing tonally like the elusive nature of the painter’s art. A later work Self Portrait on White (Oil on Board, 2012) shows the artist pushed to the bottom of the frame, with what feels like a dead weight of white ground above. It is an image of self and of the human condition of aging, confrontational in its honesty, the exposure of white revealing strength, resilience and ultimate frailty.

John Byrne - Self Portrait on white

Self Portrait on White (Oil on Board, 2012).

In Self Portrait in Camouflage Jacket (2001) the artist’s face is emotionally in shadow, eyes rolled back heavenwards, two palettes hung round his neck like dog tags.  A white palette hangs in front while the other black, rectangular and smeared with paint hangs behind it, the whole image infused with conflict and vulnerability. The camouflage pattern merges with the recurrent motif of thorns, a snake coiled round the artist’s arm, his hand upturned in the foreground as if begging the viewer for human recognition. A pen pierces the artist’s breast, a tear in the flesh like the open wound of a confessional canvas, an internalised, psychological war being waged at cost to the individual. Awareness demanding its price. Byrne’s Self Portrait (Oil on Canvas, 1988) depicts a moment of reflection and distortion which lies at the heart of all portraiture, playing with certainties of self, painted object and genre in Magritte-like fashion in Ceci n’est pas un Auto PortraitThis is Not a Self Portrait (mixed Media on Paper 2003).

In his portraits Byrne demonstrates dazzling sensitivity and superb draughtsmanship. John With Saxophone (The Artist’s Son), (Graphite and Pencil on Paper, 1986), Celie Watching Television (the Artist’s Daughter), (Pastel on Paper, 1972) and Portrait of Honor, 19 May, (Pastel on Paper, 2001) are particularly fine examples. Standing in a dress of soft pink the watchful stare of the artist’s daughter feels like a person in the process of becoming, the outlines of her feet and large shoes spilling into the viewer’s space at the edge of the picture frame. It is a deeply personal and universal image of innocence and recognition. Has she just stopped crying? We can’t be certain, but we can see and feel a growth of awareness, a shift in perception- in the artist, the subject and in the mind of the viewer.

John Byrne - Honor

Portrait of Honor, 19 May (Pastel on Paper, 2001)

A Pair of Drawings; Honor and Monkey (Artist’s Daughter) and Xavier and Cat (Artist’s Son) (Watercolour and Crayon on Paper, 1999) return to a naïve handling of the figure seen in American Boy (Oil on Plywood, 1971). Both children are doll like, in oversized oriental costumed dress, half pyjamas, half ceremonial, flanked by hostile animals baring their teeth directly at the viewer’s gaze. As an image of childhood there is primitivism in the stage of development and in the treatment of the figure, the personalities of both children still being formed subject to immature, instinctual drives and emotions. They are fascinating drawings with a wealth of associations and ambiguities, lovingly observed in all their truth. The same may be said of Janine With Flowers (The Artist’s Wife) (Oil on Canvas, 2010) a Kahloesque vision where roses and thorns equally define the sitter.

Coinciding with Sitting Ducks at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Dead End at Bourne Fine Art, Dundas St, Edinburgh until 1st September celebrates Byrne’s prolific work and his unique, evolving iconography. In The Huntsman and the Snowy Owl (Casein on Paper) the figure appears blinded by the moon, pushed to the edge of the image, trying to see. Acidic yellow light illuminates the hollows of the uneven ground on which he stands, framed by a signature cloud and a bare, thorn like tree, at once brutal and poetic. In Big Selfie (Casein on Paper) Byrne’s age and experience are written in the hollows of his eyes, his still quizzical hair and smoke from his cigarette drawing elusive forms in the air. Unlike most selfies the image isn’t composed to flatter or project the ego of its maker for viral mass consumption. At 74 Byrne continues to do what he has always done, peering into the core of ourselves.

Short film introduction to the John Byrne Sitting Ducks exhibition featuring works referenced above:

 http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/john-byrne/john-byrne-film

All images and film link by kind permission of the National Galleries of Scotland.