Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Brush with Sex, Lies and Self-Portraiture; Some Painters Reveal Much More Than Others in the National Portrait Gallery's Latest New Exhibition

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Brush with Sex, Lies and Self-Portraiture; Some Painters Reveal Much More Than Others in the National Portrait Gallery's Latest New Exhibition

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

MY FIRST encounter with self-portraiture was at the age of nine, a birthday gift in 1940, from Jewish neighbours, Hamburg-born and, in spite of expulsion by the Nazis, still intensely proud of their German heritage. It was a facsimile of D'rer's portrait of himself at the age of 13, drawn in silverpoint on prepared paper and inscribed: "This I drew, using a mirror; it is my own likeness, in the year 1484, when I was still a child, Albrecht D'rer."

It became for me both a model for intense study and a mystery that any self-image drawn from a reflection in a mirror could be so remote from the spectator and so abstracted in mood.

Without a silverpoint, using a hard H pencil in its place, and without the means of preparing paper so that a silverpoint might make its characteristically precise and subtle marks (indeed knowing nothing of these technicalities), imitation proved impossible and continued so for years, no matter how much my drawing skills improved. It was, too, my first acquaintance with the confusions that are always engendered by work done with a mirrored image.

Young D'rer, born in 1471, saw himself in three-quarter profile; did he work with one mirror, or two angled at 45 degrees? If with one, the drawn image must be reversed; if with two, a double reversal is the case and we see his right cheek exactly as it was. The answer is probably one, for we can observe the child growing into a young man in other self-portraits, both drawn and painted, all of which required only a single mirror - but these are very different, for none has quite the intense and absent gaze of the absorbed boy, and all in some degree engage with the spectator. His gaze was to become a confrontation: D'rer gave us himself almost as an icon of Christ in benediction, almost as a post-crucifixion wounded Christ and as Christ the Man of Sorrows; he also faces us with himself stark naked, his scrotum distorted by testicles stricken with syphilitic orchitis.

I write of D'rer, not because his self-portraits are included in a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery - they are not - but because they haunt the writers of its catalogue, one of whom discovers root kinship in genius and genitals and, by an other than etymological extension, between creation and disease. This is far and away the silliest of the introductory essays, a ranging display of supposititious, pseudoacademic knowledge made worse by the laboured touch of feminism.

Consider this: "Painting has historically been deeply reliant on gendered oppositions to naturalise, and challenge, patriarchal regimes of significance. Individual sovereignty, as a form of masculinity, has involved both a desire for and hatred of a contrasting, implicitly feminine position."

Not one word of this can help any of the exhibition's visitors to understand the purposes of self-portraiture and the intentions of the painter. Another writer, also a woman - suggesting that infection with feminism is not inevitable - sensibly concludes her useful (apart from over-egging the importance of the rag, tag and bobtail of the ghastly Pissarro family) essay with the observation that a full history of self-portraiture has not only not yet been written, but may be impossible to write. I am compelled to ask why anyone should want or need to write or read such a history. I am not a specialist in the field, yet have 34 books and catalogues on the subject.

From these and the long experience of looking (and even painting), my inclination is to argue that self-portraiture is a genre within a genre and that the best critical observations on the subject are those that recognise the differences between it and the fashionable norms of ordinary (that is non-self) portraiture in its particular day.

Self-portraiture releases the painter from the constraints imposed by a commission and the commissioner's perception of himself. …

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