I started another self portrait today.

photo-10Catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) is the purification and purgation of emotions—especially pity and fear—through art or to any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration. It is a metaphor originally used by Aristotle in the Poetics to describe the effects of tragedy on the spectator.

I often wonder why I keep drawing pictures of myself. I mean, it’s not unheard of, and in fact it’s very common. Artists have been doing it for centuries. Apparently self portraiture dates back to the 15th century with Albrecht Durer whose earliest self portrait was at 13 years old.

We, as a people, seem to be becoming more and more image conscious and self-aware. This has taken shape in the new 21st century trend of ‘selfies’, which even the biggest celebrities seem to be endorsing. Selfies, especially with the technology now to share them immediately, perhaps have come about through the modern age of instant gratification. The need to show that one is where everything is happening. It could be a ‘look at me in this luxurious location’ or ‘look at me as a VIP at this fashion show’. They tend to be a kind of cry out to say ‘I am a desirable person to be around’. Self image continues to play a large part in our everyday lives. Daily, I see people, figures near and far, glancing in shop windows and reflective surfaces analysing what they see emulating back at them. We are all guilty of this. Something about a selfie entails intention. We know that the artist knows that we know that it’s intentional.

The National #Selfie Portrait Gallery opened this month at London’s Moving Image Contemporary Art Fair. Marina Galperina, one of the curators, discussed classic self-portraits  in relation to selfies; ‘The constant pressure for digital self-branding took the age-old self-portraiture tradition and put it into hyper-drive. The technology democratized it. It’s less about narcissism — narcissism is so lonely! — and it’s more about being your own digital avatar.’ [1]

I find this to be, perhaps especially with selfies, the teenagers’ answer to the big question of ‘self’: who am I?

egon-schiele-self-portrait-with-hands-on-chestI became very aware of my obsession with documenting my own image from around the age of 16. It began through writing – I would document my thoughts about myself and my image in personal journals from the age of 12 and this steadily grew into visual forms of depiction after art classes at school. On Foundation year at college we had a project titled ‘self-portrait’ and this is where the obsession really set in. I started to take photos of myself daily. My research took me on an exploratory journey of the history of self portraiture and I built up a small catalogue of self portraits by my favourite artists – Francis Bacon – Self Portrait 1969, Egon Schiele – Self Portrait with Hands on Chest 1910, David Hockney – Self Portrait 1955, Andy Warhol – Self Portrait 1986, Nan Goldin – Nan One Month After Being Battered 1984Arnulf Rainer – Self Portrait c.1975.

I started to become obsessed with my image. Some artists use two mirrors; one reflecting the other in order to see themselves as others would see them. I draw myself for myself. I would just look in the mirror and try to honestly represent my exterior However, neither technique can show a true image of self. Undoubtedly state of mind plays a huge role, and in a way self-portraiture is more a reflection of state of mind than of exterior image itself. I wouldn’t count myself as an egotistic person or vain in any way, but perhaps this obsession to represent myself on paper does nod toward these tendencies. In her book A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming says, ‘In Rembrandt’s case it might be the desire to appear head-in-air when most down and out, or the urge to portray oneself as laughing in the dark or all alone in the world. The pose could be an outright lie, for all we know, but the fiction always carries its own truth – the truth of how the artist hoped to be seen and known, how he wished to represent (and see) himself.’ [2] It is almost certainly about how the subject wants to be portrayed to those around. A self-portrait is a perfect way of immortalising yourself exactly how you’d like to be remembered.

vivian maierVivian Maier is a photographer who cleverly poses herself within the frame, so we do not see or know too much about her. She is a shadow on the ground or a reflection in a window. Her book Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits is out this month. This is released along-side a documentary about her: Finding Vivian Maier. John Maloof, director of the documentary, mentions how Vivian never shared her photos with others and instead spent her time collecting them up and hiding them away. He says, ‘this is the mark of a true artist; someone who can create a large body of work by themselves as an expression of their true self and it speaks to all of us in our own way. That’s important. She didn’t try to become famous, she didn’t create images for others and she didn’t see things that she knew others would appreciate. She saw the world in a personal, uninfluenced way, and her photos are a raw depiction of that world she saw. The photos are beautiful and important because, not only are they great images, they are not contrived.’ [3] Watching the trailer for the film and the interviews with those who knew her, she is depicted as a shy, introverted woman who kept herself to herself. It begs the question, why was she taking photos of herself like this and who was she taking them for? One woman says, ‘maybe we just didn’t understand her.’ Most self portraiture is created by the artist in order to show themselves to the outside world. Vivian Maier is possibly one of a handful of people who chose to do the exact opposite, yet carried on documenting her life with her shadow or outline somewhere in frame.

Self Portrait with Skull 1997 by Sarah Lucas born 1962Often artists will use props to suggest an underlying theme. Sarah Lucas uses this technique with most of her self-portraits, most noticeably in Self-portrait with Skull 1997 . Elizabeth Manchester suggests Lucas is, ‘Equating her sex with death’,and that, ‘this image encapsulates the fear of obliteration, through a projected fantasy of engulfing and swallowing, evoked traditionally by the female body.’ [4] Death and sex are common themes in Lucas’s work.

I find it interesting still that there can be so many artists who want to be seen. Although part of me must want to be on show, my self-portraits are not flattering. I do not try and make myself look glamorous. I try to depict myself as honestly as I see. Though, I wonder if perhaps I do it for the same reason Francis Bacon did towards the end of his life. He had run out of people to paint and therefore turned it on himself. He had always predominantly painted his friends and in 1975 told David Sylvester, ‘I loathe my own face, but I go on painting it because I haven’t got any other people to do’. [5] I wonder perhaps if I paint myself because to paint others would mean having to show them and be judged.


[1] http://lightbox.time.com/2013/10/16/off-your-phone-and-on-view-the-national-selfie-portrait-gallery/#1

[2] http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=II4_GwTzfu8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=self+portraits&hl=en&sa=X&ei=l_1gUumlI-OK0AWz0oG4Dg&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=self%20portraits&f=false

[3] http://lightbox.time.com/2013/10/16/to-deepen-the-mystery-the-self-portaits-of-vivian-maier/#end

[4] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/lucas-self-portrait-with-fried-eggs-p78447/text-summary

[5] http://www.francis-bacon.com/news/independent-on-sunday-7th-august-05/?c=Press


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