Following the first known self portrait by Jan van Eyck, in 1433, to Durer and the haunting self portraits of Rembrandt art history has since been full of the subjective gaze of the artist upon themselves and others. Today the practice continues, often for very widely differing conceptual reasons, but the telling study still hints at mortality as well as exploring that strange meeting point that the introspective self gaze and objective outward look attunes itself to in order to displace the subjective/objective dichotomy.
When we engage with the self-portrait and portrait we hope to come to an understanding of the artist, through their eyes, the set of their mouth and the flare of the nose as much as the subject, when not the artist. I would suggest that we also look for ourselves – to connect our humanity, to place ourselves in a dialogue with the Other on a more personal level.
Self-portraits are usually completed by the artist using mirrors. This leads to an image, which while the most familiar to the artist, is actually in reverse and so somewhat odd to the viewer who knows the artist. There is a strange dislocation between the two parties and the image. For those that don’t personally know the artist, the vast majority, this may seem a moot point but there is still the lingering disparity between ‘knowing’ the individual through the painting represented and the image itself. Either way there is a distancing of the Other, at odds with the search for ourselves in the scrutiny of a portrait. Even when introducing the photograph as source material for the development of a painting there still resides in the photo, the process of interpretation and representation and the final image, a basic distance – a separation and removal from the reality.
The very context of viewing the work when understanding it to be a self-portrait rather than a painting of someone who is not the artist changes the dynamic of the subjective experience of interpreting the work. Poignancy is heightened and a deeper attempt at really seeing is made by the audience. Why does this happen?
If we were to be presented with one hundred or one billion people we could still pick out our friends from this horde. Our capacity for facial recognition - wearing a hat or growing a beard or changing a hairstyle barely fazes our ability to correctly spot those we are familiar with - far outstrips any technological developments to mimic this facility. This leaves us with our inherent interest in other people alongside our need to understand life and its inevitable ending to find within the image of another human being some reassurance. Of course there remains the problematic way to compensate this with our knowledge of the singular subjective experience of living and our essential inability to fully bridge the gap between individuals regardless of how intimate we are and for how long. This is why the portrait, and the self-portrait in particular, has always exerted a fundamental pull on both artists and those that engage with their work.