Self.  Turner Contemporary.  Margate, 2015.  Entrance Free.

Every visitor to an exhibition will leave with at least one piece making a strong impression on them.  For me at the heart of the new exhibition of self-portraiture at Turner Contemporary Margate it is Jeremy Millar’s Self –Portrait as a Drowned Man, an extraordinary piece which comprises the dummy of a life sized drowned youth seemingly cast up on the gallery floor.  The effect on the audience is interesting.  Some give the model a wide berth.  Others like myself positively rubber neck, going up close as we dare, despite feeling queasy at the proximity to death even in reproduction.  And going nearer is a rewarding experience.  The composition silicon possibly, is flexible enough to show wrinkles and dimples.  Hairs can be seen on exposed flesh.  The clothes are dank and mud soiled.  But it is the head half turned that is so compelling.  The mouth seems to bare a half smile.  It is a remarkable accomplishment that the closer one gets the more realistic the dummy appears.

I confess that at one point I thought it was a living statue; the artist possibly enjoying a grim practical joke.  Indeed I even looked for breathing.  Millar’s aim is for the piece to have an air of mystery hence covering the body in inexplicable cone shaped pock marks.  Indeed it struck me that the apt word to describe the piece would be ‘uncanny‘, an expression taken up by the gothic movement in the 18th century.  But what is also remarkable is the artist bestowing the corpse with his own features thereby affording himself the unique experience of seeing how he would look dead.  Indeed for me rather than dwelling on the oddness of how the boy died I was drawn to this confrontation of death itself.

This idea of self-portrait as seeing the self in various guises is a constant throughout the exhibition.  All challenge the audience to read beyond the surface.   From the Renaissance onwards to the present day using both paint and camera the artists reveal something of themselves.  I enjoyed the differing stances which tended to fall into categories.  Some painters of the Georgian and Victorian period attempted to conceal themselves within dark colours, or hide in the shadows.  In some cases this suggests reticence both in terms of hiding the real person or an inverted vanity suggesting a lack of self confidence in their looks.

The wittiest ways of hiding come in one portrait designed to be hung upside and another with the painter turning his back on the audience.  Again the more the artist tries to conceal the more they in fact reveal.

In other pictures the painters conceal themselves by striking poses, in a way hiding behind a ’ mean and moody’ persona.  Significantly the older, plainer subjects are the most interesting and revelatory whereas it is difficult to get beyond ‘pretty boy’ good looks.

Others like Van Dyke meet the viewer’s eyes with a challenging critical expression.   Such painters try to control the audience response being fully aware that their gaze is one way and renders itself vulnerable to the viewer.

Others such as Graham Sutherland have a more contentious Are you looking at me? stance.  A few reveal an almost fearful glint in the eye as they look out from the canvas.  At the same time there is the enviable Take us as you find us glee of full frontal Gilbert and George.

It is heartening to see the inclusion of female artists from the Georgian period onwards culminating in a wall devoted to Sarah Lucas, her poses with symbolic artefacts such as fish, skull, echo the earlier artists who hold similar icons, thereby adding to a feeling of continuity in this history of self-portraiture.

There is a smooth transition from the medium of paint to camera here.  In one respect the photographic images are more faithful, not allowing the artist to prettify or blur the self-image.  In this one respect the camera does not lie.

This is a thought provoking exhibition that aims to go beyond the surface of simply putting faces to the famous names.  It suggests an art form that continues to find ways of revealing the self but also as in the case of Tracy Emin’s raw photograph reveals the artist as a conduit for all human emotion.  Thus the self-portrait continues to be universal.

Image: Courtesy of the estate of Doris Clare Zinkeisen.

Fiona Sinclair © 2015.