Self Portrait as the Billy Goat: Mirror Image

Creating Ourselves: Works from the ISelf Collection, Whitechapel Gallery, 2017

Once upon a time, everyone knew what a self portraits was: an artist’s painting of his or her own face . In earlier centuries, they made them for a patron, for experimentation , for reproduction as a print, or as a way for prospective clients to assess the artist’s skill by comparing the real with the painted self portrait. Search engines still accept this definition. Type in how to paint a self portrait and you will be overwhelmed with advice involving mirrors, the placement of facial features and hints at how to trap a likeness.

And yet when you look around this exhibition, this definition crumbles. Even the images that look traditional are not what they seem on the surface. Andre Breton’s self portrait was made by an automatic photography machine in 1924 and Linder’s image was taken by the photographer Christine Birrer in 1981. In both these cases, the artists were responsible for the ideas behind their images, but it was not their hands which made them

An internationally understood language of art meant that in the past the spectator and the artist could communicate with ease. Commonly understood references ensured that in the eighteenth century, Angelika Kauffman knew exactly how to tell us she was as good as any male artist by inserting herself into appropriately female-centered classical myths and allowed Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun to display her artistic self-confidence by painting herself in poses made famous by great artists like Rubens and Raphael who preceded her.

In the last hundred years, our notion of the self has become less sure of itself. We are no longer convinced that our identity and behaviour is fixed, no longer willing to accept as the Elizabethans did that we are all have a humour , melancholic,phlegmatic, choleric or sanguine, that can explain our attitudes and character. An assortment of therapies , an awareness of the nature/nurture debate, the contemporary scientific studies which look on the mind as uncharted a concept as space, mean that we have lost confidence in the ability of the face to say much more than ‘this is what I look like.’ It is no suprise that Richard Gerstl’s agonized nude self portraits (he was tormented by an unrequited love) came out of early twentieth century Vienna, the home of Sigmund Freud. The glimpse into the artist through the face in an appropriate scenario has been abandoned for something far more intimate on the artist’s part.

A huge boost to contemporary self portraiture came from the feminist artists of the 1970s who in my view were responsible for extending the self portrait from the purely personal into the self portrait encapsulating issues of concern to women. The development was already in the air, but it was the women’s belief that the personal was political that encouraged them to exploit its potential. In 1974, the American Eleanor Antin made Carving: A Significant Sculpture, an assemblage of 31 photos of her naked body taken as she lost weight over a over a month. At the same time as presenting images of her gradually shrinking self, she forces us to consider the contemporary concerns of weight, diet and the tyranny of the ideal body. Her witty title comments on the macho cliché of the Michelangelesque sculptor chipping away at the marble to free the perfection contained within. Since her Untitled Film Stills of 1977-1980, Cindy Sherman has been transforming herself into female roles, in a kind of visual précis of the hundreds of theoretical essays on the subject of gender,class and identity. The knowledge that she lies beneath them all, one woman trying them on for size, makes the viewers’ awareness of the parts women choose – or are pushed or encouraged – to play so much more powerful . This self portraiture of contemporary issues and ideas has been of use to male as well as female artists . Gilbert and George figure regularly and hugely in their photo pieces which means that while technically self portraits , they are also self portraits with an agenda: fascinated by London ‘s East End where have lived for decades, they visually ally themselves with the lifestyles of its young inhabitants .

It is not just the complexity around ideas of self that has expanded. The vast library of styles that artists today can draw on has resulted in some inventive and superficially bewildering self portraits in which the manner of making can sometimes seem to speak louder than the message. Prem Sahib’s elegant piece of minimalism is just one example from a body of ongoing work concerned with gay culture through sub tle metaphors of form for the human body and human touch. Other self portraits which appear as stand alone images or objects were were originally part of a bigger installation, lifted out of a more elaborate scheme. Linder’s You Search But Do Not See, with its resonance of masks, disguises, self protection, was originally one of nine images and five typed sheets included as a booklet in the CD of Ludus, the Manchester punk band she belonged to, which used her lyrics and photographs taken of her to explore feminist themes of hiding, searching and finding. These self portraits which are part of bigger works raise special questions of their own. We read the image with which we are presented, but does that image change when we learn the whole story? And does it matter? A few notes in a melody can sometimes touch us more than the tune in its entirety.
The huge range of approaches which informs contemporary self portraits means that each demands to be approached differently Even though the body has replaced the face, Tracey Emin’s paintings of herself are perhaps closest to the conventional image of a self portrait in the exhibition, related as they are to a deeply autobiographical collection of work she made in 2014 to mark what she hoped would be the start of a new relationship. In contrast is Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Net. A mesmeric and apparently abstract work of art , it is only when you learn a little of her obsessions that you read it as a painted version of her terrifying mental visions in which polka dots have at times marched over her world, threatening to engulf her and everything around her under a wave of dots. The Raq Collective faces us with something else again. Its clock face marked with states of mind instead of numbers makes a powerful point about our emotional relationship to time and suggests that a self portrait does not have to be about the artists themselves. ‘Our’ emotional relationship. Not the artists’ relationship. Is it too much to see it as a self portrait of the viewer?

Although the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois do not shout self portrait in the conventional sense, they, she has said, like everything she has created, came out of her formative childhood experiences, feelings and observations. All of her work has this deeply personal basis and yet all of it seems larger than that, its absence of straightforward statements shaking our certainties and its frequent confusion of phallic and vaginal forms pulling the sexual carpet from under our feet. With her translation of her disturbing feelings into a powerful biomorphic language, Bourgeois is proof that contemporary art can speak straight to our emotions, proof that the label on the wall is not always needed for us to understand the meaning of the art.

It is a shock to realize that this contemporary expansion of self portraiture exists within the wider context of the selfie. Step outside the contemplative gallery space where subtlety and suggestion rule and we are faced with a phenomenon devoted to shiny surface appearance, one where showing the spectator how flawless we look is exactly the point of the image. It is almost as if the selfie represents the democratisation of the traditional self portrait , even a kind of folk art.

I see the selfie as a setting which makes the explorations of modern self portraiture shine all the brighter. Whereas the point of the selfie is to show the spectator a perfected version of our selves, the self portrait is an open ended genre, one capable of asking questions , involving our emotions and inspiring debate . The traditional self portrait still wields its power – we can hardly dismiss the great artists of the past who left their faces to posterity – but we are no longer able to look so innocently. We continue to stare into its eyes as we have always done, but now we do it with a kind of double vision, romantically hoping to glimpse some secret of the artists’ power and creativity while intellectually doubting how much a face can actually tell us. The modern concern with identity and representation and the death of confidence in telling the personal story through appearance alone , is what typifies today’s self portraits, allowing free reign to the artists’ imagination and trusting the spectator to respond to their subtleties and complexities.

Frances Borzello
Feb 2017