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: vanitas

Double portrait of the artist in time.

Helen Lundberg - Double Portrait of the Artist in Time 1935

If you liked the time-travelling artist, Helen Lundberg’s Double portrait of the artist in time (1935) is the thing for you.

It is played on the same paradox. How can the little girl with the budding shoot pose in front of a painting of herself in her blossoming twenties?

The shadow (also appearing in Bailly’s painting as his wife’s ghost) seems here more polyvalent and opaque — Is it the artist’s? Her older self perhaps, older than both her representations? Or might it not be her ancestors’?

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The artist time-travels.

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We can all agree that this Vanitas with portrait of a young painter (ca 1651) represents the artist holding a portrait of himself. Yet what David Bailly (1584-1657) exactly meant as he set about portraying his younger self in the act of subverting the laws of space and time by the mere act of holding a portrait of himself at the age of 67, i.e. the age of the actual real-life David Bailly at the time he produced the painting (the real one and the fictional one in it) — well, that I leave to you.

(You can also see a portrait of what appears to be the artist’s wife, and, as an ‘easter egg’, her ghost behind the tall glass — And the ‘ghost’ reappears, with new implications, in Helen Lundberg’s Double portrait of the artist in time)

Woman vanitas.

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The longer I look at baroque-inclined conceptual artist Helen Chadwick‘s Vanitas II (1986), the more I am persuaded that Clara Peeters‘ quite traditional Vanitas, painted over three and a half centuries earlier, is much more radical.

Young women and fresh flowers had long been compared in poetry written by men to persuade their mistresses to concede their flower. Here, our awareness that the woman in the painting probably is the artist herself makes the wilting flower’s proximity to her more poignant than it has ever been.

(In fact, once you notice the wilting flower, you soon start getting the strange feeling that every other object in the painting does not assert its value effortlessly.)

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Helen Chadwick must have realised that the female body in art is never a neutral subject. She decided to abandon its explicit representation two years after her self-portrait was shot.

The artist has an unheimlich descendant.

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Three hundred and sixty-six years before Hugo Williams’ ‘Last poem‘, Pieter Claesz‘s Vanitas with violin and glass ball (ca 1628) combines a classic Dutch seventeenth-century vanitas with a self-portrait.

(The violin’s music that cannot be heard is particularly relevant to Williams’ tongue that will not speak.)

The artist at work can be seen in the glass ball, which flaunts Van Eyck and Parmigianino‘s convex mirrors amongst its notable predecessors, and claims a Still-life with a spherical mirror (1934) by M. C. Escher, the drawing Dutchman, as its unheimlich descendant.

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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.