exploring art and writing

The Problem with Self-Portraits.

In Art, Identity, Painting on November 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm

‘The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic (and Moral) Life’ by Gustave Courbet, 1855.

For this marvellous, stupendous book I’m writing, I have somehow made the scenario ‘paint self-portrait’ imperative to the progression of the narrative. This is terrifying. Below is a list I’ve put together in order to dissuade myself from embarking on such a silly flight of fancy:

  1. You have to look at yourself for ages. This can be very boring, unless you are Gustave Courbet (as evidenced above).
  2. You risk looking like a puffed up narcissist with too much time on their hands. Of course, if you don’t care what people think, you can always make yourself look quite sad and then your self-portrait is not masturbatory, it is deep.
  3. Wanting to paint a self-portrait for non-narcissistic reasons probably means you’re searching for what some people call ‘meaning’ or ‘truth.’ Beware of learning more than you need to know, or of learning nothing at all.

These are the criteria that go through my head when I toy with the idea of painting another self-portrait. I was a regular mirror-searcher as an adolescent, no doubt due to my friends’ quite appropriate hesitance to sit for me while everyone else actually did useful stuff; I had to make do instead.

Painting a self-portrait is painful. It can be like ripping out a page from your diary and tacking it to the wall. OK, so maybe it won’t specifically say ‘started period today, life is OVER’ or ‘have reached Quarter Life Crisis, life is OVER,’ but something significant will have undoubtedly reached the canvas after repeated dark nights spent with yourself, a mirror and the romantic aroma of turpentine. Sure, the impact is probably reduced somewhat by our over-saturation in everyone’s self-portraits *cough*facebook*cough*, but I can’t be bothered to bitch about social networking.

Poet and Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen describes self-portraits as ‘a lonely exploration’ of the artist. Egotists like Gustave Courbet aside, self-portraits also seem to reek of the age-old desire to outlive our smelly, saggy bodies. Young people take more pictures than the old. At least the ones I know do. And it seems there is no escaping the revelation of your darker depths to those who may only know you from a self-portrait; as journalist Laura Cummings phrases it: ‘No matter how fanciful, flattering or deceitful the image, it will always reveal something deep and incontrovertible.’ Damn.

It’s no wonder people like looking at self-portraits. But painting them…I’m still not so sure. For some people there seems to be an urgent need to imprint themselves all over the place. For others it isn’t as simple as that. When Cummings asked in her book A Face to the World: ‘who is this in the mirror: myself or another, I or he?’ she was asking the question that keeps pattering through my head when I look at old self-portraits: who the hell is that? I don’t know if I’m ready to start finding out.

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  1. Lucy! I really enjoyed reading this. And… I am definitely egotistical and narcissistic, so I will sit for you! Seriously. Problem solved.

  2. Just catching up with your recent posts (great to see you blogging regularly btw). You write beautifully. I have an absolutely chronic phobia of photographs of myself – so I imagine I’d be the worst, most fidgety and anxious sitter for any kind of portrait whatsoever: as for self-portraits (if I painted, that is), I don’t think I’d ever be able to bring myself to do it.
    And you’re absolutely right about young people taking more photos: here’s a really dorky fact: 10% of all of the photographs ever taken (ever!) have been taken in 2012! (thanks to John Lloyd on Radio 4 for that one!).

    • That’s unbelievable…this year alone! I shouldn’t really be so surprised.
      Thanks for your comments Tom, they’re massively appreciated! I’m enjoying the blog much more these days, no doubt because I’m writing shorter posts (I must be quite lazy).
      Loved your Cormac McCarthy review btw. Please review some Hilary Mantel, I’d be interested to know what you think!
      Lucy

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