Part 3, research point 1 – self portraits

The brief is to research self portraits by various artists over a broad time span and to focus on five or six that appeal. The notes are to include comments on whether or not the artist portrays themselves in the process of painting/as an artist along with thoughts about what the purpose of the portrait might be and the impression the artist may be trying to convey.

This is very similar to a research point in the drawing module where I looked at Rembrandt, van Gogh, Frieda Kahlo, and Paula Rego. I decided to revisit that post to see if my thoughts were the same or had changed, and to expand the enquiry in accordance with the specifics of this brief. I also needed to add two more artists to the group.

I printed out and pasted four images into my Drawing sketchbook and had this to say about them:


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.


Looking back at those earlier notes, I feel there is little to add except to say that none of them is in the process of painting and, given the angles of their heads and the direction of their gaze, I do wonder how they were achieved. Whenever I try to take a photograph to form the basis of a self portrait, the camera is always in the way, and when I use a mirror, my hands and implements are unpredictable elements. I wonder then, knowing that Dutch painters of still life arrangements often included examples of flowers that were not in season at the same time and insects that certainly did not pose which means they must have made quite a lot of it up, if these artists were so accustomed to appraising their own faces and using imagination that they only need occasional reminders of the structure and detail.

One Dutch artist who does show herself painting is Judith Leyster but it’s hard to see how this could be ‘real’ in the way that a painting of another individual usually is. This is a ‘photograph’, an image taken from a viewer’s perspective and not one she can realistically see to paint because no one can hold a smile or replicate one as often as would be necessary, regain a body position, angle or arm gesture (and this one in the foreground is an active arm; it’s the business end of the whole enterprise), so effectively as to be a reliable and consistent model.


via Wikipedia , accessed 28, March 2020.

What drew me to the painting originally was the expression on Leyster’s face – relaxed, having fun, and for some reason dressed in finery, including an extraordinary ruff that could stand in for a palette, that really would not survive any kind of painting session. What is she saying? Maybe, given the paucity of female artists across history, she’s making the point that here she is, a lady of means, happy and in such control of her art that she can do it without so much as a drip of paint getting onto her clothes. Or perhaps it tells the world that she doesn’t care and wouldn’t that be one in the eye for the establishment’s view of women?

For my final choice, taking account of the broad time span requirement and wanting to step outside the most obvious, I looked through a text book containing good colour plates for contemporary portraits in the first instance and came across this enigmatic piece by Tony Oursler titled EUC%. (in Art; the whole story, 2018, p 546). Oursler was a long-time collaborator with David Bowie and, according to the text in Farthing’s book, it is Oursler’s wife, Jaqueline Humphreys, whose head is projected onto one of the rag dolls (Bowie’s is the other) in the video accompanying one of Bowie’s last pieces of work, Where are we now? The self portrait (see below) features a rag doll representing Oursler and predates the Bowie video.


In this piece, an installation, a video projector

project[s] onto the doll’s blank head […] the expressionless face of an adult man, speaking a series of short phrases slowly and deliberately.

“Sometimes I just don’t get the jokes.”
“I get angry quickly, and let it go just as fast.”
“I have few regrets.”
“I’m a difficult person to get close to.”
“I like to watch television.”
“I would be much better off, if not for a family member.”
“I am a leader, not a follower.”
“Sometimes I can’t feel the top of my head.”

via Milwaukee Art Museum, accessed 28/03/2020


Oursler is described as having a keen interest in mental illness and the stigma associated with it; so much so that he took the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) designed to assess personality differences and difficulties, and then rather than ‘diagnose’ himself, left that up to the public. Like many (myself among them as a professional psychologist) he is said to have found it difficult to see how the complexity of a human being could be reduced to a series of yes/no questions. Again from the Milwaukee Art Museum page:

This infamous series of yes/no questions, created by a team of psychologists in 1939, was used for decades as one of the main modes of psychological health assessment. Simply put, if you answered a certain way, you were “healthy” – if you did not, then you were diagnosed with one of a number of psychological illnesses. Oursler recognized the fallacy of the entire concept of such a test: How can there be simply one set of correct “normal” answers, for an entire diverse population? And how can we even say that there is any one person who is completely “sane”? What does “sane” even mean?

I’m not sure that gets me much closer to the core of his self portrait as embodied in the rag doll man, but it’s clear Oursler wants us to think, to listen, and then to hear through the medium of a kind of puppetry which, on reflection, has a very long record of telling human stories one step removed from the humans themselves. Does that permit seeing and hearing where direct confrontation maybe does not? I would think it does, because it seeps the message into the recipient before they (we) realise it’s us he’s talking about.


Art: the whole story. Ed Stephen Farthing. Thames & Hudson 2018. P 546.

Time taken: 5 hours.

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