Facing the World,
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.
July 16-October 16.
Rembrandt, one of the greatest portrait painters of all time, portrayed himself with a feathered beret, as an oriental potentate, with his wife in historical dress and simply as himself.
A modern equivalent is British artist Sarah Lucas who depicts herself with fried eggs, a skull and a salmon.
You could say it’s a case of the sublime to the ridiculous and yet, the appeal of Rembrandt’s theatre must have been more direct in his day even if it was never aggressive.
The emotional and artistic appeal is still immediate, raising the question of how much time can change the meaning or value of other exhibits in this almost exhaustingly comprehensive selection of portraits down the ages.
To help us navigate the cornucopia, it’s split into five sections: Up Close and Personal – with the focus only on the artist – the Artist at Work, Friends and Family, Role Play and the Body of the Artist.
Sometimes the classifications blur, however, and Rembrandt just keeps recurring among other portraits from across Europe, the United States and plenty of Scottish material.
Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, who says the aim of his selfies is to let people see their own power, is also given prominence.
An unsettling selection from his Instagram account, one of the most followed in the world, includes Ai Weiwei with sticks forcing his eyes and mouth open.
He also depicts himself with Chinese police officers and in a clinic in Munich being treated for a cerebral haemorrhage he said was the result of being beaten during arrest.
Rembrandt too had his cares. While his portraits sell for millions now, when he painted himself at the age of 51, in a sombre brown coat and hat against a brown background, he was careworn by money worries as the realistic furrows on his brow imply.
More neurotically anxious is Belgian artist James Ensor, whose half-length self-portrait is made menacing by the criss-crossing lines of the background, while Henri Matisse infuses his canvas with reflected Mediterranean light in The Painting Session or the Painting Lesson. The double title conveys the focus of the painting on Matisse’s 18-year-old model, staring intently at her book, while Matisse depicts himself in the foreground as he paints her. The artist is conveyed with a few confident lines redolent of his confidence in his vocation.More mass-appeal celebrities range from Scottish singer Annie Lennox, represented in a gender-neutral, ghostly chalk-white cover for her 2003 album Bare, photographed in collaboration with graphic artist Allan Martin, to Tracey Emin – Me at 10. Emin’s drawing is at once childlike and knowing, with its blurred, scratchy lines to depict fragility and the unreliability of memory.
Norwegian painter and print-maker Edvard Munch has attained popular cult status through The Scream – perhaps a projection of the self-destructive anguish he felt. His self-portraits confess his dependence on alcohol. For instance, self-portrait with wine places a wine bottle in sharp focus in a bleak, cold-looking cafe. Munch sits isolated with his drink, cut off from the other frequenters of the cafe.
If Munch felt excluded, at least he had the advantage of being a man.
Until late into the 20th-century, life as a woman artist was an uphill struggle. One of the few who made it was Eva Gonzales, who studied under Edouard Manet in the 19th-century. Sadly, she died at the age of only 34, but not without leaving a delicate self-portrait delivered in a few rapid brush strokes.
Far more solid is the work of 17th-century Dutch painter Samuel van Hoogstraaten, who pioneered the form of quodlibet (whatever one likes) – in this case a trompe-l’oeil that amounts to a self-portrait because all its components – a comb, a knife, a wax seal – relate to the character of the artist.
Also from those practising as part of the Dutch golden age, we have self-portraits built into still life.
German-born Jacob Marrell places his reflection in a glass vase in the Vanitas Still Life littered with symbols of our own mortality, while Dutch-born Abraham van Beyeren is reflected in silver jug set against a bounty of food as if to underline by contrast the artist’s own poverty.
Such artists often got little chance to bask in the warmth of society and even when they did, their artistic ambition and sensibility denied them complacency.
Stanley Cursiter was director of the National Galleries of Scotland and a painter, though he eventually gave up his day job because he wanted more time to paint.
His painting Twilight, set on the eve of World War I, places him in his studio in Queen Street, the same street as the National Portrait Gallery. Also with him are his sister and his brother-in-law and they are looking out at the twinkling lights of Edinburgh’s Georgian new town.
Twilight comes under the section of Friends and Family, which leads on to Role Play and Rembrandt as an oriental potentate wielding a sword.
As a reminder that all power and pleasure is transitory,16th-century Italian Vincento Campi’s Ricotta Eaters, includes the painter in a company tucking into a milky ricotta. The chunks they have taken from the cheese make it look distinctly skull-like.
Shooting forward to our contemporaries, Sarah Lucas also looks to food and the vanity of earthly existence. In her self-portrait with skull, with Fried Eggs and Got a Salmon, she mocks the swagger of macho men boasting about their catch and reminds us, just as every generation of artists has before, that one day the skulls beneath the skin of our portraits will be laid bare.
Paisley-born John Byrne, who depicts himself in a flower-power Flowered Jacket, would probably say Lucas goes straight to the point.
He says he likes portraits because he “can’t think of a better or quicker way of getting to the heart of the matter … why we are on this earth.”
The final section the Body of the Artist is exclusively modern.
Photographer John Coplans began photographing his body at the age of 64 and never portrayed his face, giving us a documentary of physical decline.
Marina Abramovic rages against that in her performance of frantically brushing her hair and repeating time and again “Art must be beautiful”, while Belgium’s Jan Fabre’s work Suicide brings a revolver to his head nine times in a threat to his body and to the body of his art.
Helen Chadwick and Angela Palmer both dive within to the true essence of an artist: the brain. Chadwick’s self-portrait comprises artist’s hands cradling a brain, while Angela Palmer’s Brain of the Artist is created from MRI scans. Individual personality is thereby reduced to an abstract series of brain-shaped lines in diametric opposition to the layers and layers of social meaning piled on to many of the portraits we have just seen.
Barbara Lewis © 2016.