Self-Portrait of the Artist

An untidy history of artists' representations of themselves in pretty much any form you can think of (painting & sculpture, poetry & prose, photo & film…) — updated every third day and open for suggestions.

Category: Literature

The artist is more than the sum of his parts.

Adam Zagajewski‘s ‘Self-portrait’ (1994) does not seek to immortalise the artist’s features, but rather gives an apparently casual list of his contingent likes and dislikes, acts, routines, ideas and impressions.

As the list builds up, and we feel we are getting to know the artist, the unanswered question spontaneously arises: Does his life consist of much else?

No painted self-portrait (with its conventional self-sufficiency) could have posed the same question — which is one more reason why I admire this poem.


Self-portrait

Between the computer, a pencil, and a typewriter
half my day passes. One day it will be half a century.
I live in strange cities and sometimes talk
with strangers about matters strange to me.
I listen to music a lot: Bach, Mahler, Chopin, Shostakovich.
I see three elements in music: weakness, power, and pain.
The fourth has no name.
I read poets, living and dead, who teach me
tenacity, faith, and pride. I try to understand
the great philosophers–but usually catch just
scraps of their precious thoughts.
I like to take long walks on Paris streets
and watch my fellow creatures, quickened by envy,
anger, desire; to trace a silver coin
passing from hand to hand as it slowly
loses its round shape (the emperor’s profile is erased).
Beside me trees expressing nothing
but a green, indifferent perfection.
Black birds pace the fields, waiting patiently like Spanish widows.
I’m no longer young, but someone else is always older.
I like deep sleep, when I cease to exist,
and fast bike rides on country roads when poplars and houses
dissolve like cumuli on sunny days.
Sometimes in museums the paintings speak to me
and irony suddenly vanishes.
I love gazing at my wife’s face.
Every Sunday I call my father.
Every other week I meet with friends,
thus proving my fidelity.
My country freed itself from one evil. I wish
another liberation would follow.
Could I help in this? I don’t know.
I’m truly not a child of the ocean,
as Antonio Machado wrote about himself,
but a child of air, mint and cello,
and not all the ways of the high world
cross paths with the life that–so far–
belongs to me.

(From Mysticism for Beginners (1997) by Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Claire Cavanaugh for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC — I took the text from Poets.org; you can find Zagajewski’s own voicing of the poem here.)

Death sticks out its tongue to the artist.

This is Hugo Williams‘ ‘Last poem’ from Dock leaves (Faber & Faber, 1994), a composition extraordinarily perceptive in what it has to say about self-portraiture, and being human.

As Williams tries to see and describe himself, all he manages to perceive are a mirror, a pumpkin and a feeble candle — elements traditionally associated with the vanitas, a XVII century genre of still-lifes containing reminders of change and mortality.

It might seem as if the poet is left speechless; yet, just as in the last lines “no sound emerges, only / The coming and the going of [his] breath,” the artist becomes all the more eloquent. What he has glimpsed in the mirror, without recognising it perhaps, is the symbol of his own mortality, sticking out its tongue to the artist.

Last poem

I have put on a grotesque mask
to write these lines. I sit
staring at myself
in a mirror propped on my desk.

I hold up my head
like one of those Chinese lanterns
hollowed out of a pumpkin,
swinging from a broom.

I peer through the eye-holes
into that little lighted room
where a candle burns,
making me feel drowsy.

I must try not to spill the flame
wobbling in its pool of wax.
It sheds no light on the scene,
only shadows flickering up the walls.

In the narrow slit of my mouth
my tongue appears,
darting back and forth
behind the bars of my teeth.

I incline my head,
to try and catch what I am saying.
No sound emerges, only
the coming and going of my breath.

Socrates’ beauty.

Though of course the greek philosopher Socrates did not leave us any writings, this description of himself in Xenophon’s Symposium V, 4-9 is the closest we get to a self-portrait.

In the dialogue, Socrates uses his ugliness to probe Critobulus’ unquestioned ideas of beauty. He thus puts to test the traditional concept of καλοκἀγαθία (kalokagathìa), which affirmed the correspondence between outer and inner beauty.

The “naturalism” of Socrates’ self-representation is clearly polemical.

Socrates (Louvre)

(Portrait of Socrates, Roman artwork from the first century, perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue by Lysippos.)

        Socrates asked: “Do you consider that the quality of beauty is confined to man, or is it to be found in other objects also? What is your belief on this point?”
“For my part – replied Critobulus – I consider it belongs alike to animals–the horse, the ox–and to many things inanimate: that is to say, a shield, a sword, a spear are often beautiful.”
“How is it possible that things, in no respect resembling one another, should each and all be beautiful?”
“Of course it is, God bless me! if well constructed by the hand of man to suit the sort of work for which we got them, or if naturally adapted to satisfy some want, the things in either case are beautiful.”
“Can you tell me, then, what need is satisfied by our eyes?”
“Clearly, the need of vision.”
“If so, my eyes are proved at once to be more beautiful than yours.”
“How so?”
“Because yours can only see just straight in front of them, whereas mine are prominent and so projecting, they can see aslant.”
“And amongst all animals, you will tell us that the crab has loveliest eyes? Is that your statement?”
“Decidedly, the creature has. And all the more so, since for strength and toughness its eyes by nature are the best constructed.”
“Well, let that pass. To come to our two noses, which is the more handsome, yours or mine?”
“Mine, I imagine, if, that is, the gods presented us with noses for the sake of smelling. Your nostrils point to earth; but mine are spread out wide and flat, as if to welcome scents from every quarter.”
“But consider, a snubness of the nose, how is that more beautiful than straightness?”
“For this good reason, that a snub nose does not discharge the office of a barrier; it allows the orbs of sight free range of vision: whilst your towering nose looks like an insulting wall of partition to shut off the two eyes.”
“As to the mouth – proceeded Critobulus -, I give in at once; for, given mouths are made for purposes of biting, you could doubtless bite off a much larger mouthful with your mouth than I with mine.”
“Yes, and you will admit, perhaps, that I can give a softer kiss than you can, thanks to my thick lips.”
“It seems I have an uglier mouth than any ass.”
“And here is a fact which you will have to reckon with, if further evidence be needed to prove that I am handsomer than you. The naiads, nymphs, divine, have as their progeny Sileni, who are much more like myself, I take it, than like you. Is that conclusive?”
“Nay, I give it up – cried Critobulus -, I have not a word to say in answer. I am silenced.”

The first self-portrait: a bad start.

“But the reputation of his works nevertheless brought a burden of jealous hatred upon Phidias, and especially the fact that when he wrought the battle of the Amazons on the shield of the goddess, he carved out a figure that suggested himself as a bald old man lifting on high a stone with both hands, and also inserted a very fine likeness of Pericles fighting with an Amazon. And the attitude of the hand, which holds out a spear in front of the face of Pericles, is cunningly contrived as it were with a desire to conceal the resemblance, which is, however, plain to be seen from either side.

Phidias, accordingly, was led away to prison, and died there of sickness; but some say of poison which the enemies of Pericles provided, that they might bring calumny upon him.”

This is the first account of a self-portrait in history — the image of the Great Phidias (ca 480-420 BCE) sculpted on Athena’s shield on the Parthenon in Athens.

Self-portraiture is riddling from the start: Phidias’ act is perceived as hubristic and brings upon him envy and demise.

The episode is narrated by Plutarch, Life of Pericles, 31, 4-5.