The Self-Portrait A Cultural History, 2015, by James Hall, London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN: 978-0-500-29211-2
This book examines the history of the self-portrait, unfortunately I purchased a Kindle edition which unhelpfully doesn’t provide page numbers, this option is greyed out in the menu; so I am only able to quote location numbers (Loc) as provided by my Kindle Paper White electronic book.
Quotes & Notes
It is during the Middle Ages that mirrors became become powerful cultural symbols, metaphors for all kinds of knowledge, both of self and others….But the self-portrait – more so than a portrait – is primarily a product of memory and imagination. (Loc 81).
In the first philosophical discussion of self-portraiture, by the influential Plotinus (AD third century), self-portraits are produced not by looking out at a mirror, but by withdrawing into the self. During the Renaissance, one of the main theories of self-portraiture was the catchphrase ‘every painter paints himself’: this meant that all artists unwittingly imbue all the figures that make with something of themselves, so all bear a ‘family resemblance’. Once again, mirrors are marginal…One of the wonders of self-portraits is their capacity to induce unique levels of uncertainty in the viewer. Is the artist looking at us with a view to portraying or judging us? Is the artist looking at a mirror with a view to portraying or judging themselves? Is the artist creating a persona to serve specific ends? Or have they delved into the book of memory, myth and imagination to create a work personal in its meaning? (Loc 91).
Montaigne believed – like so may since – that self-portraits are uniquely direct, vivid, intimate and honest. (Loc 143).
It has been said the the self-portrait is ‘the one form of easel painting that resists being owned’ because ‘it is not about (the owner)’ and it ‘denies in its every detail that a mere owner has any right to it’. (Loc 3230).
…The use of masks now came to symbolise the alienating and repressive condition of modern society, with its superficiality, materialism and pressure to conform. Courbet, in a letter of 1854 to Alfrd Bruyas, famously said, ‘Behind this laughing mask of mine which you know, I conceal grief bitterness, and a sadness which clings to my heart like a vampire. In the society in which we live, it doesn’t take much to reach the void’. A similar point is made in Baudelaire’s ‘Le Masque” (1859), a poem included in Les Fleurs du mal. Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil (1888), insisted that, ‘every profound spirit needs a mask’… (Loc 3901) …’even more, around every profound spirit a mask is growing continually, owing to the constantly false, namely shallow, interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he gives’. (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. W. Kaufmann, New York, 1968, #40, pp. 240-1) (Loc 3910).
James Ensor, Self-portrait with Masks, 1899, oil-on-canvas.
...for Ensor the elusiveness of his likeness is an existential necessity. His inability to ‘capture the resemblance’ underwrites his own freedom: by remaining in disguise he can escape capture in this decadent world. So we have here one of the chief paradoxes that stimulates the creation of multiple self-portraits by modern artists: they need repeatedly remake themselves – ‘My Portrait Disguised‘ – in order to maintain their disguised condition. The mask, in Nietzsch’s terms, has to keep on growing. (Loc 3944).
In 1914 Cuhan published a series of essays on masks and in 1926 she published Carnaval en Chambre (Carnival in the room) in which she discussed the ‘charm of the mask’. With her various masks, she creates ‘several ways of being, thinking and feeling. But if the mask is put on ‘too heavily’, it ‘bites your skin’ and ‘with horror you see that the flesh and the mask have become inseparable’. Try and remove the mask, and you risk damaging your soul. sense the importance of changing the mask every day. (Loc 4054).
In the mid-1970s, the American academic Stephen Greenblatt coined the term ‘self-fashioning’ to describe what he saw as the necessarily ‘theatrical’ way in which Renaissance courtiers had to operate at court, adopting behavioural ‘masks’ to conceal their feelings. It was an elaborate attempt to export post-Nietzschean masking culture far back into history. Greenblatt claimed the Castiglione’s great conduct book, The Courtier, ‘portrays a world in which social frictions, sexual combat, and power are all carefully masked by the fiction of elegant otium (leisure). (Loc 4515).
5 thoughts on “The Self-Portrait A Cultural History”
This book is a new one on me, Shaun. Did you find it useful?
Yes, I found it interesting and it discussed various themes that artist have used when painting self-portraits such as use of masks, mirrors and themes of heroic of self-ridicule as well as self-promotion.
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