Thursday, December 24, 2009

Laura Cumming's "A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits"

Why do artists paint self-portraits, Cumming asks, and so expose themselves and their art to the accusation of narcissism? Her answer is that self-portraits "make artists present as the embodiment of their art" and they often do so to ask who this person is who is looking back from the mirror. Cumming's book is a series of linked essays, roughly chronological in order, from Jan Van Eyck to Cindy Sherman, focusing mostly on paintings. 

A mighty gallery of artists are discussed under rubrics such as "Eyes," "Behind the Scenes," "Mirrors," "Stage Fright," "Loners," "Egotists," "Victims" and "Pioneers." Their inclusion demonstrates that self-portraiture is a main branch, and not a mere off-shoot, of the artistic tradition. Individual essays are devoted to Durer, Rembrandt and Velazquez, and these are the best chapters in a very interesting book. Cumming's discussions of Durer's Christ-like Self-Portrait of 1500 and of Velazquez's Las Meninas c. 1656 convey not only her fascination with the paintings, but also her love for them. The book is no dry scholarly tome, but is an articulate and informed response to a personal obsession. Cumming has been the art critic of the Observer since 1999. 

Looking at the lavish illustrations, I was drawn to Tintoretto's Self-Portrait c. 1546-1548, with his darkly handsome face; the muscular art of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c. 1652); and the friendly self-portrait of Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (1609-85) who gave his name to the blue used as the background to his painting. Cumming thinks that painters have a strange tendency to behave in self-portraits as they would in life. I found myself responding to self-portraits as I would to people, mentally judging this one vainglorious, that one reticent, and yet another deep. So what about the three that stand out for me? Together they represent the virtues of honesty, power, and friendliness, the same qualities I hope to achieve in my own verbal art.

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