I Brought to Art

Self Portrait, Henri Matisse, 1906
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Copenhagen

I sit and muse in reverie. I brought to Art
desires and sensations – some dimly envisaged
faces and features; some vague memories
of unfulfilled affairs. Let me surrender myself to Art;
Art knows how to shape the Likeness of Beauty,
barely perceptibly enhancing life,
blending impressions, blending the days.

-I Brought to Art, C.P. Cavafy

One’s own face is often as dimly envisaged as anything else in the world. Constantly connected to and identified with it, yet unable to contemplate it without the aid of some reflected surface, one’s face can be a mystery.  Alberto Manguel points out that, in actuality, the “self-portrait” is a misnomer, “since that which the painter sees and puts on canvas is outside himself, ‘another'” (173). In capturing this instance where the artist and subject co-mingle, the artist is provided with a unique opportunity to declare her craft and method, sealing the act with arguably the most recognizable feature of the artist, her body. After a three-year depression, Matisse had just begun to gain some renown when he painted his self-portrait in 1906. After years of impoverished struggle, Matisse became recognized as a pioneer of fauvism, which is in part characterized by a use of bold, juxtaposed colours. The use of vivid pigments like the unnatural greenish-blue hues in the 1906 self-portrait led the art world to consider him “the ‘wild man’ of of modernist colour” (Succession H. Matisse). Could Matisse have reproduced himself in such a simple, straight-forward, and undaunted manner during his depression? In 1906, did the vague memories of unfulfilled affairs weigh so heavily anymore?

For the artist distrustful of strangers, engaging unknown models can be onerous. Just such an artist, Cézanne relied upon landscapes, still life fodder, close friends and family, and his own body for subject matter (Murphy 93). American artist Charles Willson Peale painted series of self-portraits in an attempt to entrench himself in American culture, most notably memorializing himself in The Artist in His Museum (Ward). In either a flurry of self-examination or a storm of self-importance Rembrandt crafted dozens upon dozens of self-portraits. Reflecting myriad moods and styles, in Self-Portrait with Saskia (c. 1635) he is all gaiety and laughter. In 1635 Rembrandt was in love with the radiant and “office-class”-born Saskia van Uylenburghand and, despite Saskia’s two unsuccessful pregnancies, “his art did not become infused with melancholy, and he continued to live in a zestful, extravagant style” (Wallace 69). When he painted Self-Portrait with a Dead Bittern, Rembrandt was at the height of his fame, but he would always be a miller’s son. Taking advantage of Dutch’s society’s knowledge of the connection between the aristocracy and their love of hunting, Self Portrait with a Dead Bittern was Rembrandt’s conscious attempt to identify as one, and cater to those, in a higher social sphere (Sullivan 243). By the time Rembrandt painted his 1656 Little Self-Portrait he reveals a much different lifestyle, one tempered by bankruptcy, waning acclaim, and the death of his wife (Wallace 12).

Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son in the Tavern, Rembrandt, c. 1635, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Little Self-Portrait, Rembrandt, 1656-1658, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

Self Portrait, Louis Menéndez, c. 1780, Musée Louvre

Luis Meléndez, in his day a wildly popular artist of still lifes, cooly looks out from his self-portrait. Meléndez holds a drawing of a statue, or statuesque body; a reference to the professional models that pervaded his academic studies (Schickel 44, Tufts 1). The 1656 portrait of five-year old Princess Margarita (entitled Las Meninas) is a hectic jumble of ladies-in-waiting, dwarfs, and the artist himself. Peering from behind the canvas, Diego Velázquez, an artist who attained a rare position in the highest social strata of seventeenth-century Spain, proudly wears the red cross of the Knights of Santiago on his doublet (Brown 176). Finding inspiration in his nephew’s bar mitzvah, in The Dance Howard Kanovitz depicts himself dancing with his wife while flanked by prominent Jewish thinkers (Editors 179).

Artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were concerned with raising the reputation of painting to one of a sophisticated practice, rather than simply “Mechanical Art,” or a more lowly craft (Garrard 100-101). Perhaps attempting to convince his audience that “art might be considered to share God’s act of creation,” in his 1500 self-portrait, Albrecht Dürer represents himself as a Christ-like figure (Russell 89). In considering Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (also known as Self Portrait as La Pittura), Garrard notes that the inclusion of the chain around Gentileschi’s neck serves to represent herself as the Allegory of Painting. Where so many male artists relied upon female models or mythological figures to represent Painting, Gentileschi was free to use herself as its personification. Through her masterful painting Gentileschi not only defends her craft, but the role of women in seventeenth-century painting. Well into the eighteenth-century it was almost imperative that female artists represent themselves painting in their self-portraits, lest they be mistaken for “a wife, a mother, or simply an anonymous female subject, rather than as artist” (Perry 54). Indeed, it was not until 2008 that art historian Benjamin Binstock suggested that Vermeer’s eldest daughter Maria Vermeer was an apprentice of her father, even painting some works that had formerly been claimed as Vermeer’s (9-10).

My Grandparents, My Parents and I, Frida Kahlo, 1936, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (Self-portrait as La Pittura), Artemisia Gentileschi, 1638-1639, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle

During her career Frida Kahlo painted dozens of self-portraits, the majority of which either pictured Kahlo alone or accompanied by flora and fauna. In My Grandparents, My Parents and I Kahlo blends her ability to create bold and touching works of art with her acknowledgement that she herself is a complex creation (Latimer 47-48). Groups beyond art lovers have flocked to Kahlo precisely because of this exploration of the self. Since Kahlo examined her femininity, her multiculturalism, her bisexuality in her self-portraits, feminists, multiculturalists, and bisexualists recognize in Kahlo a kindred spirit (Schjeldahl). Havard suggests that while Kahlo’s self-portraits are revealing, her use of allegorical objects, in particular masks, serves to hide Kahlo’s inner self and express a “crisis of identity” that shadowed the political and cultural crises in Latin-America (248). One MOMA curator states that Kahlo’s representation of her many dualities is evident in Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, painted shortly after her divorce from fellow painter Diego Rivera. The curator comments on Kahlo dressing in her former husband’s suit: “There is something that is simultaneously both very tender and yet aggressive  in the sense of putting on someone else’s suit; [it] is to take on, in this case at least, Rivera’s artistic identity for herself and redefine it in her own terms”.

Self-Portrait with Cigarette, Edvard Munch, 1895, National Gallery, Oslo

The representation of the artist smoking not only gives the audience a glimpse into a daily activity, but provides an unspoken image of “café society, poverty, and illness – and with death” (Berman 627). Referencing Max Beckmann’s Self-Portrait with a Cigarette, MOMA curator Starr Figura states that Beckmann brandishes his cigarette in an act of hardened defiance. Figura points out that in the early 1920’s it became apparent that existing artistic methods would not be the catalysts of widespread social change, leading to the sardonic attitude in art that Beckmann represented so persuasively. Becoming as much a mark of the artist as paintbrush (Berman), paintings like Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait with Cigarette and e. e. cummings’s Self-Portrait utilize the cigarette to express casual disassociation with their surroundings. Berman argues that the inclusion of smoking as an “outsider act” in Munch’s self-portrait that aroused the ire of medical student student Johan Scharffenberg (644), who claimed that Munch was psychologically and physically ill and discouraged others from contemplating the painting.

Still Life with Head-Shaped Vase and Japanese Woodcut, Paul Gauguin, 1889, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tehran

Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-portrait, Paul Gauguin, 1889, Museum of Decorative Art, Copenhagen

Witnessing the decapitation of a convict by guillotine in 1888 so affected French artist Paul Gauguin that in 1889 he fashioned a stoneware jug in the shape of his own head. That same year Gauguin included the disconcerting decoration in his painting Still Life with Head-Shaped Vase and Japanese Woodcut. Allan notes that the ferocious samurai in the woodcut brandishes a sword just behind Gauguin’s ceramic self-portrait (83). Known throughout his life as a sickly yet volatile artist, Vincent Van Gogh created hundreds of paintings during the final years of his life, many of which were self-portraits. Experimenting with colour and lines throughout this time, Van Gogh’s final 1889 self-portrait “is a powerful study of a fevered mind held in check by a monumental effort of will” (Wallace 179). Technique is not the only controlled condition, in his final self-portrait Van Gogh is pictured turned to his right, thus hiding the mutilation he inflicted upon himself in 1888.

Self Portrait, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889, Musée D’Orsay, Paris


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