Part 4, project 6 – research point #2

Historic and contemporary self portraits.

I chose Rembrandt and van Gogh as my historic examples (then read that they were recommended) because of their very different approaches. I particularly liked Rembrandt’s honesty with regard to his image when he was older; the unvarnished truth of it and the lack of glamour. His style is very much about realism, these were the instagrams of the day, the selfies, and many of his clients paying for commissions were likely to require a very positive image of themselves and their surroundings.

Van Gogh, an insular man with some enormous troubles, painted fractured images of himself. The classic is the portrait showing his bandaged ear but the one he painted in 1889, where he has more dignity and poise, indicates the ferocity underlying his state of mind.

Frida Kahlo; a woman who endured illness, oppression, severe physical injury, and the prevailing restrictions of a woman’s role paints remarkable images of herself where not only does she detail what has happened to her (see The Broken Column [1944] for instance) but stares out of every one with such defiance and resilience that it’s unsurprising she became involved in political activism despite her physical limitations. Her self portraits are, to me, not only honest but also excoriatingly penetrating and confrontational. How dare the world do this to her, how dare it?

Paula Rego seems to have been equally subject to oppressive gender related politics and social mores, and was further encumbered by Catholicism, frightening folk tales told to her by her gran, and an indecisive but simultaneously free spirit that constantly seemed to put her in harm’s way. Her self portraits, using her friend/assistant/model Lila Nunes as stand-in quite often, seem to be part of a personal working-through of the consequences of those experiences, and at times I’ve felt as though looking at them was somehow a breach of her confidentiality. Rego often uses soft pastels to make her work, and sometimes sits adjacent to a large mirror to execute the marks she needs. I’ve come to admire the robustness of her drawings and the sense of form and volume she achieves with what appear to be (and most likely are not) simple lines and blends.

***

Sketchbook entry: look at the eyes in these self portraits; Kahlo’s utterly defiant, even contemptuous; Rego’s tortured and with only one visible – has she thought herself half blind to her predicaments?; Van Gogh’s have demons chasing about behind them, screwing them up and distorting them. Only Rembrandt’s describe peace and a kind of settled acceptance of his advancing age.

Then there are the backgrounds. Rego’s is white, empty, like a clinic; Van Gogh’s is moving, there’s nothing still or stable about it; Kahlo shows herself embedded in nature, perhaps reflecting her sense of being animal, at home and where she belongs (and don’t anyone dare try to move her); Rembrandt’s is utterly uncluttered and leaves his face to stand out in a darkness that could be oppressive but feels, to me, more like a dark corner in a warm kitchen.

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These are my two self portraits for the exercise which required ‘interesting’ poses. On the left, prismacolor pencils (which are almost impossible to erase so once on the paper, that’s where the marks stay), the other soft pastel which allows for a great deal of sweeping and blending. And the eyes? At this stage in my drawing life, there is nothing to read into them but the fact that they are present and in roughly the right place.

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