As a continuation of some of the ideas posted in my last blog post, I started to develop and work with the video footage I’d generated of me touching my own face and head in an investigative fashion. The original video was completely improvised and inspired by Gustave Courbet’s The Desperate Man, a self-portrait of the artist manically holding his own head. I wanted the video to convey this same sense of emotional turmoil; of Courbet’s own existential wonderings. I’m not sure if my own video does this; it feels a little muddled. I wonder whether it would be good to have some distance from the video, for now, and to be able to return to it with fresh eyes in the future. Perhaps it needs to be shelved for the time being. On the hand, I did it feel it might be useful to share what I’d done so far with the footage through this blog even though I’m not completely happy with it. It’s great to have this forum to speak confidently about things I’m doing or things that I’m interested in, but it’s also good to be able to voice doubts and uncertainties too. This particular work doesn’t fully resolved, although I’m glad I’ve wrestled with a bit so I can move on to something else now. I’d be keen to get other people’s views on the video, especially if you’ve read my previous post.
I feel as though I have a lot of balls in the air at the moment – the first time in a long time. My interest in self-portraiture as encouraged me to develop a body of work in various different mediums. I am currently working on an ongoing video piece called Self though, as I mentioned in my last post, I have also started work on a large scale drawing of my own self-portrait in which I used a grid to intimately study the formal properties of my face.
In addition to making artwork, I have also found myself reading a lot and have been indebted to my local library for aiding in my research. One book that I’ve particularly enjoyed reading is James Hall’s The Self Portrait – A Cultural History as it gives very comprehensive overview of the genre, from the Renaissance up to the twentieth century. It also feels like a particularly poignant book to be reading when one considers our own current cultural obsession, and ambivalence, towards notions of identity in the age of the selfie. As Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, Glynn Harrison points out:
‘It has never been easy to answer the question ‘Who am I?’ but increasing social pluralism, the fast-changing world of social media, and easy access to cosmetic surgery make it more difficult than ever.’
Harrison’s descriptions maybe a cautionary warning of how present confusions related to personal identity may affect wellbeing and threaten social cohesion. Though for me, the issue of self-representation has a very tangible link to the cultural history of self-portraiture and, the growing celebrity of the artist.
Hall describes that the genre of self-portraiture did not exist in the Middle Ages or medieval period (lasting from the 5th to the 15th century) though became more prominent during the ‘Renaissance’ of the fifteenth century, an age of exploration and discovery. Prior to this, the ‘science’ of physiognomy – the classical belief that character could be interpreted by a person’s face, had been undermined by the Neoplatonic and Christian belief that the imperishable, invisible soul rather than the corruptible visible body is the true measure of man (2014, 17). Artists of this time were also regarded as ‘anonymous dogsbodies’ whose activities were largely liturgical in subservience to the church and to the will of God.
However, with the artistic renaissance of Europe in the fifteenth century there was a renewed interest in classical learning and values, and the Roman cult of individual fame. At the same time, the middle classes sought to imitate the aristocracy and elevate their own status by purchasing art for their homes. In addition to sacred images, many of these works portrayed domestic themes such as marriage, birth and the everyday life of the family. Artists began to occupy a heightened status in society and with that came a need to endorse one’s unique artistic credentials, or brand identity, amongst potential commissioners. A means by which many artists achieved this was to covertly supplant subjects within their paintings that looked like them or bore their likeness. In the fifteenth century this was particularly true of artists lending their likenesses to characters within iconic biblical scenes or depicting themselves strategically placed amongst the upper social strata (see Little Art Talks).
One particular painting that I feel is deserving of a special mention is Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, a fresco painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. The artist rejected the Vatican’s ideas regarding subject matter, replacing the existing decoration of a simple starry night with something far more dramatic (Farthing, 2010: 178). His design instead depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity. Within the artwork, Michelangelo’s likeness is glimpsed at through the flayed skin held by St Bartholomew, hovering between heaven and hell.
Whilst these artworks might not have been considered self-portraits in the conventional sense, they do at least offer a prelude to how artists would break away from the established order of things – making devotional images and artefacts for the church, having started to garner the kind of autonomy that would enable them to pursue their own self-interests.
Another art work that speaks to my interest in self-portraiture is Gustave Courbet’s The Desperate Man. Like many other artists, Courbet cast himself in a number of his paintings. However, this particular artwork presents a cropped close-up of the artist with bulging eyes and hands clasping his head. It epitomised the Romantic era of the eighteenth century in which it was commonly believed that paintings could convey more than a person’s wealth and social standing. As the philosopher Hegel points out in his Lectures on Aesthetics:
‘…. the Romantic arts of painting and music could not only express ‘the particular spirit of nations, provinces, epochs and individuals’, but also the subjective life of the soul – ‘Grief, agony , both spiritual and mental…. deep feeling fear and emotion’
(1975: 788, 813 cited Hall, 2014: 201)
Inspired by Courbet’s painting, I started to meditate on my own portrait and what that might look like – head, shoulders, facial features – a cropped close-up similar to The Desperate Man. In response, I decided to film myself exploring my own face and head in an improvised fashion, using a stills camera. Initially, my improvisations were slow and tentative – feeling my nose, ears, lips – before eventually focusing on the contours of my face and the weight of my head in my hands. I found that by holding the palms of my hands against my ears (like a vice), or pressing my fingers into the hollows of my cheekbones, I could get a much more tangible sense of my head’s shape and size than by simply looking. I also found that undertaking this rather unusual exercise sparked all sorts of other thoughts about human anatomy and the importance of one’s head, not just in self-portraiture, but in relation to life generally.
From a relational standpoint, our heads and faces are a form of identification and convey to others how we’re feeling through our expressions. No other body part; when viewed in isolation, has this same unique ability. Our heads are also important because of their links to the brain and our sense of consciousness. You can lose any other part of the body (e.g. limbs, internal organs, skin) and still be alive, and inherently you, though no human being can live independently from their head. For this reason, the image of Courbet manically clasping his own head is perhaps as much an existential crisis – am I alive, am I real? – as it is about portraying the archetypal tortured artist. Perhaps I am edging towards this understanding of myself in my own way.
Farthing, S. (2010). Art: The Whole Story. London: Thames & Hudson.
Hall, J. (2016). The Self Portrait – A Cultural History. London: Thames and Hudson.
Hegel, G. (1973). Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Translated by T. M. Knox, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.788, 813.
In thinking about other artists who employ grids to construct portraits, I started to think about the work of American artist, Chuck Close. Close has received international recognition for his large scale portraits and has been instrumental in reviving the art of portraiture as a credible subject matter. His signature style of portraiture has recently featured as the cover art for Paul Simon’s latest album – Stranger to Stranger, released in June of this year.
Close’s own rationale for using grids to construct his paintings is as much pragmatic as it is stylistic. He is affected by a condition known as Prosopagnosia – a psychological condition which impairs ones ability to recognise faces in a normal human way. In 1988, the artist also sustained a spinal injury that left him largely paralyzed. In time, he regained movement in his hands and arms although he would wear a splint that would enable him to hold the paintbrush whilst using a mechanical easel in order to rotate the canvas (Art Factory, 2016). Whilst some critics may read these grid paintings as prescriptive in their construction, I myself have a lot of admiration for these works. Apart from his physical limitations, there is something truly innovative about Close’s appropriation of the grid. Each square seems so abstract in isolation; a myriad of spiralling colours, that suddenly form a unified image when one views the work from a distance. In this way, his work allows for multiple readings.
Close has often acknowledged that applying the grid to his paintings prevents him being overwhelmed by the whole (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2012), a statement that perhaps validates my own use of a grid to draw my portrait. After all, knowing where to begin when making an artwork can be difficult at the best of times. How much more so when drawing one’s own face? Equally, I wonder how my personal feelings and insecurities about the way that I look might inform how I draw myself. Maybe using a grid will enable me to draw myself in a more objective way.
In generating an image from post-it notes, I also like the idea that the final self-portrait will be obscured until all the individual parts are assembled together like a jigsaw. I have no idea what my completed self-portrait will look like; therein lies the motivation to push on. Within this process, I feel that there are also parallels to therapy – a broad notion of the ‘self’ being revealed over a period of time and under a certain degree of scrutiny. Close himself states he works very closely to his paintings, immersed in the detail of each square and actively chooses not to step back and survey how they fit together until the painting is finished (Nemser, 1970). Whether it’s a success or a failure, I’m looking forward to my own big reveal.
Art Factory (2016), CHUCK CLOSE (1940 – ), Available from: http://www.artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/portraits/chuck_close.html (accessed: 25.08.16)
Nemser, C. (1970), CHUCK CLOSE Interview with Cindy Nemser. 1st ed. [ebook] p.4. Available at: https://users.wfu.edu/~laugh/painting2/close.pdf (accessed 26.08.16)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012), Chuck Close on Following the Grid, Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_e-p5M0vhZI (accessed: 23.08.16)
Having missed the last meeting back in May, it was great to meet with the rest of the group and to have the opportunity to share new work. Meeting with a group of such proactive artists always leaves me encouraged to create rather than deflated by my own perceived idleness. Four artists attended the meeting: myself, Julie Turner, Sarah Arriagada and Anna Sikorska.
Last year, I presented an image to the group that I’d given the working title of ‘Self’, a composite image made up of 100 individuals of my own self portrait that I’d resized and recoloured in Photoshop and laboriously layered one on top of the other. The image had also featured in this blog though I had struggled to know what to do with it. In recent months, I’ve found myself revisiting the image and reflecting upon my reasons for making it.
Themes of self and identity have been well-excavated within the visual arts, namely in the art of portraiture. The dictionary definition of a portrait is a painting, drawing, photograph or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders; a representation or impression of someone (Oxford University Press, 2016). In this way, a portrait claims to present a person’s appearance as well as their character. Although, whilst someone’s clothes, facial features, posture may contribute to a certain perception of that person, can they tell us anything about their true identity?
Whilst visiting the Courtauld Gallery recently, I was struck by an artwork that seemed to sum up this disconnect between one’s self-image and their identity. Susan Hiller’s Midnight, Baker Street (1983) shows a series of three self-portraits taken in a photo booth at midnight – a liminal time between wakefulness and sleep, dream and reality (Leach & Fray-Smith, 2016). The images are presented as enlarged portraits, overlaid with scrawled notes (automatic writing) that is rooted in the unconscious mind. Hiller therefore is questioning how and whether a subject’s true identity can be visually presented (2016).
Raising these ideas within the group, and showing the video of Self, we started to speculate on the limits of the self-portrait with a particular emphasis on photographic images. One idea under discussion was the potential for misrepresentation when having one’s photograph taken. For instance, photographs are static images, whereas we are animated and constantly changing, both in terms of our external appearance – the inevitable effects of aging, and in other underlying ways which may not be detected under the scrutiny of a camera’s lens. A reference was also made to head shots and the need to depict everything about one self in a small selection of images, perhaps even at the expense of other images which then become cast off or rejected. As Julie pointed out, taking an image of oneself can be quite ‘trapping’ as we may not feel that the resulting image is an adequate representation of who we are whilst we also don’t have any control over how the image will be received by others. Sarah also highlighted the importance of one’s gaze when taking a picture, which got me to think about my relationship with the camera when I was involved in this process. I explained that I often have a mirror set behind the camera’s view finder so I can change the angle of the camera or alter the tilt of my head and shoulders. The process is sort of an everyday ritual for me now; I’m often looking at my reflection in the viewfinder or the mirror rather than the camera itself. There isn’t really any emotional investment which perhaps comes across in my blank expression.
Encouragingly, the video footage I generated for Self was well received by the rest of the group. Anna S, drew my attention to the term ‘palimpsest’, which means something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. Showing the video also provided a springboard to talk about other interests related to this work. Most notably, the countless number of videos online which employ time-lapse photography to show changes in one’s personal appearance over a matter of months or years. These range from pregnancy videos or videos of people growing up or ageing to even more visceral variations showing people recovering from wounds, facial scars or surgical operations. Over the last few weeks I have become personally intrigued by these videos and the motivations for them being made in the first place. These videos, as well as my own, have a transient quality, which also point to the fleetingness of life itself (particularly in videos that depict the ageing process). Funnily, these ideas were picked up in the group with reference my own position as a father now, and the way that has altered my perception of my own mortality, both in terms of how I’ll be remembered and what I’ll leave behind. I’m also left wondering what has motivated to make my own variation of the time-lapse video and who is it for.
Leach, M. & W. Fray-Smith (2016), Confusion of Tongues: Art and the Limits of Language [brochure], London: The Courtauld Gallery
Oxford University Press (2016), Oxford Dictionaries: Language Matters, Available from: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/portrait [accessed: 02.8.16]