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.

Tag: poetry

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.


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; 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.