Face Time; National Portrait Gallery Surveys Close-Ups of 20th-Century Artists

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 19, 2009 | Go to article overview

Face Time; National Portrait Gallery Surveys Close-Ups of 20th-Century Artists


Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Self-portraiture began flowering during the Renaissance and has remained a potent means of expressing human identity ever since. Painters have relied on it to develop their craft, particularly Rembrandt, who is known for his prodigious outpouring of self-portraits.

Artists have used it to commemorate personal milestones - think of Van Gogh picturing his bandaged head after mutilating his ear. Even modernists such as Marcel Duchamp have practiced the art to impersonate others and redefine the self.

Reflections/Refractions: Self-portraiture in the Twentieth Century at the National Portrait Gallery examines the recent mutations of this centuries-old genre, from personality-revealing expressions to a metaphorical brick.

This thought-provoking exhibition shows that even abstractionists of the last century liked looking in the mirror, following the Greek myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his reflection.

Drawn entirely from the gallery's collection, the exhibit is the type of in-house show now common at art museums as they cut costs during the economic downturn. Almost all of the 77 self-portraits come from art educator and curator Ruth Bowman and her late husband Harry Kahn, an economist and stockbroker. The New York couple assembled their collection over 15 years and both donated and sold 187 works to the National Portrait Gallery in 2002.

Prints and drawings curator Wendy Wick Reaves takes advantage of the recent acquisition to refresh and expand the concept of self-portraiture. As she writes in the exhibition catalog, "the notion of a fixed, externally evident identity dissolved in the wake of ... advancements in sociology, psychology, genetics, philosophy and

other fields" during the late 19th and 20th centuries

Artists, in turn, increasingly broke down traditional ways of picturing the face and the figure to explore changing ideas about the self. Those who were female and black began using their self portrait to represent larger social issues related to racial and gender equality.

The chronologically organized show gets to all that, but starts with more conventional images of American artists from the early 1900s. Edward Hopper's profile, drawn while in his 20s, reflects the same play of light characteristic of his cityscapes and interiors. Charles Sheeler's 1924 pastel likeness, one of his few human studies, is as precisely rendered as his uninhabited scenes of factories.

Many of the artists represented in the show created their self-portraits when they were just starting out. [Self-portraiture] is especially handy for a young artist as a means for studying picture problems, notes artist Isabel Bishop. Her coquettish likeness at age 27 is hung next to a grimacing portrait penciled while in her 80s.

Several such pairings appear throughout the exhibit to show how self-portraiture is used to record the passage of time and changes in outlook.

In a self-portrait made at 22, California artist Pele de Lappe presents herself as a pretty face open to life. Five decades later, the artist wearily holds a mask to symbolize her need to hide behind the roles expected of women.

Russian-born Raphael Soyer morphs from a raven-haired 21-year-old to a gaunt, balding septuagenarian. The change in appearance is striking but not altogether truthful.

I never made myself entirely like myself, Mr. Soyer told an interviewer in 1973. I always appear older looking or unshaven or all alone. It's the result of looking a bit more deeply.

Vanity, of course, plays a role as in any type of portraiture. Boston artist John Wilson, who created the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. in the U.S. Capitol, pictures himself at 22 like a handsome bronze statue. At 41, his likeness takes on a darker, more intense expression to suggest black pride in the face of racial prejudice during the early 1960s. …

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