The story of myself

A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, pictures the rise and fall of individual identity.

Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary, National Portrait Gallery, London.

This exhibition provides a sketch of the development and fragmentation of individual identity.

In the Renaissance paintings, we see the first glimmers of self-identity. Here are human beings developing an inner gaze. It is almost as if, as humanity’s view of itself changed with the Renaissance, these artists are looking at themselves in the mirror for the first time and asking, ‘Who am I?’. Many of these paintings have a charming naivety. Their subjects seem surprised and delighted with the new discovery of the self. Sofonisba Anguissola’s self-portrait from 1556 is unguarded, showing herself at the easel with a devotional painting.

We can imagine these artists examining the outlines of their own faces in the mirror, then tracing them with a brush. Art previous to this largely sought to represent Gods, powerful men or some ‘ideal type’. Here the artist becomes a worthy subject for himself. It shows a new level of consciousness, with people becoming aware of themselves as active agents, rather than pawns directed by powerful forces or tradition.

As we move throughout the exhibition, this sense at first becomes more assured. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the artist becomes more confident, probing the possibilities and complexities of individual identity. Some artists play a part, portraying themselves as they wish to be seen. Velazquez portrays himself as a nobleman, sword in hand; while in ‘Portrait of the Artist Called the Wounded’ (1844-54), Gustave Corbert somewhat melodramatically puts himself in the position of the wounded hero.

There is a growing self-possession. Around 1747-8, Joshua Reynolds pictures himself gazing into the distance, a hand shielding his eyes. Here is an individual peering into his future, deciding which way he wants to steer. Then there is Sabine Lepsius, who showed herself as a painter at the age of 21: here the portrait marks her coming of age, the girl become woman artist (her father, also a painter, hung the portrait in his studio, giving her the stamp of professional recognition).

We see a determination to judge things with one’s own eyes. The American poet Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ (1855) is the counterpart of these self-portraits:

‘You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look / through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in / books…. / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.’

These portraits are about self-scrutiny: becoming an object of analysis to yourself while knowing that that person is still you. These artists show the person in the mirror as if they were someone else, taking pains to observe the lines in their face, dimples and blemishes; yet they do so as an exercise in self-knowledge. We can step outside of our own immediate experience, the better to understand and master it. This means that you can ask, ‘Why did I do X?’, or decide that ‘I was wrong to have done Y’.

Then, around the turn of the twentieth century, we see a change. By the time of the late twentieth century, the self starts to fragment and dissolve. Lucian Freud (1967) shows his face encircled in a hand mirror propped up against a window, decapitated and distant. A portrait by Richard Hamilton (1970) is made up of superimposed images, which gives it an insubstantial feel. A work by Francis Bacon shows his face composed of wisps of paint, melting into darkness.

Painters no longer delight in themselves and their powers. Instead, they often see themselves as a loathsome piece of flesh. Stanley Spencer shows himself with legs askance, a joint of meat in front of him. Jenny Saville pictures the fleshy bulk of her back, as she strains over her shoulder to try to catch a glimpse. Chuck Close pictured himself as what one reviewer described as a ‘bloated ogre’ (1); Close referred to the person in the painting as ‘him’, not ‘me’. Self-portraits are no longer the other that is myself, but the other that is simply other. We become disgusting strangers to ourselves. This shows the dire situation where self-identity has ended up. More than ever we are compelled to look in the mirror, but often we find nobody there.

But as I headed back through the exhibition to leave the gallery, I passed again Reynolds’ joyful self-portrait. And I decided that this was the image I wanted to take out into the London of the twenty-first century.

Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary is showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 29 January 2006.

(1) A voyage around myself, 30 October 2005

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