Long before the selfie became too ubiquitous for its own good, the self-portrait reigned supreme, the ultimate way to artistically explore the ever-perplexing and elusive idea of self. Facing the World: Self-Portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei, on view at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, chronicles 600 years of artists turning the camera (or paintbrush, or pen) on themselves.
Among the 150 works included, there are self-portraits by some of the most revered names in art history, from Matisse, Courbet, and Rembrandt, to Warhol, Ai Weiwei, and Marina Abramović. The focus on self-portraiture seems to serve a dual function: to highlight the best examples of self-portraiture throughout time, but also to show us how seminal artists have viewed themselves throughout history. Looking inwardly, does the tortured artist cliché turn out to be real?
There is a strong sensation of psychological curiosity at play here. Does the lack of smiles and expressions of emotional vulnerability visible in many of these portraits, for example, tell something larger about the mythical idea of the artist? Or are they just indicative of the moments artists generally choose to reflect upon themselves? When a very visceral and direct artist like Tracey Emin makes a moody, abstract, and somewhat violent self-portrait, is a hidden truth about her psyche seeping out?
Imogen Gibbon and Michael Clarke, the co-curators of the exhibition, believe that the prevalence of self-portraiture throughout art history is in part due to accessibility and the notion of legacy: “As an artist, the most readily accessible model you have is yourself. If you want to represent the human form or the human psyche, you can just pick up a mirror and represent what you see,” the curators tell The Creators Project. “Also, as an artist, if you are creating works of art, some of which you would hope survive and outlive you, why would you not be interested in creating an image of yourself which you would hope would live on for eternity?”
But the curators also agree that self-portraiture can function as an important vehicle for the authentic self-expression of an artist: “When done with complete truth, it offers a glimpse of someone’s thoughts and feelings. If you look at John Bellany’s two watercolors featured in the show, they are from his series depicting his time in hospital undergoing liver transplant surgery. One has him hooked up to drips with an oxygen mask over his mouth and the other has him hooked up to hospital pajamas and you can see the scars and stitches from his operation.”
“These works aren’t vanity, but incredibly brave and honest depictions of the pain and fear alongside the fragile balance of life and death. That kind of honesty is what makes so many of these images compelling and why an artist, such as Rembrandt, is still so admired centuries after his death, because he depicts the truth of life and aging,” the curators add. “These self-portraits serve as documents of someone’s life.”
Check out Facing the World: Self-Portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Wei Wei at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh until October 16th, 2016.