Sunday, August 8, 2021

Eye to I: Self Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery

We recently went down to the Albuquerque Museum to see a show called “Eye to I: Self Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery.” The exhibition belongs to a category of “travelling show” meaning it will go to different museums on a tour which can be on the road for many years. This show’s original title was, “Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today” and several of the 60 works on paper from the Gallery’s permanent collection have been rotated since it began travelling around the country in 2018.

I haven’t been to that Washington D.C. museum since I was a young man. When I go to D.C. there are a whole bunch of museums I would visit before the Portrait Gallery. I had always thought of this branch of the Smithsonian as a place where you find very dark paintings of Presidents and other famous people from history, a kind of two-dimensional Madame Tussauds without the sense of humor.

We were in for a great surprise. The works in this exhibition are all self-portraits by noted artists The Smithsonian’s press release for the show suggests the explosion of selfies posted on social media is an extension of the tradition of artists’ exploration of identity through self-portraiture. When I decided to write about it, I thought it would be interesting to find photographs of the artists to compare them with the images they created of themselves.

The contemporary symbolist, Francesco Clemente’s self-portrait from 1981 is an etching called “Self-Portrait #4 ....

As you see the snake is biting its own tail, the ancient symbol of infinity, death and rebirth. Andy Warhol took a polaroid print of the artist in the same year, and you can see the same penetrating gaze.

Claes Oldenburg is clearly messing with us in his lithograph 1971 clownish self-portrait which does have references to several of his works but sure does not look like him. A photo taken in his studio by William Crutchfield shows the artist, seriously at work.

David Alfaro Siqueiros‘ selfie from 1969 is also a color lithograph. Siqueiros was part of the Mexican mural movement of the 1920’s to 40’s together with Diego Rivera. I referred to him in a previous Missive entitled “Musings on an Exhibition” in a show about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. When you look at the photograph, you notice, though it is black and white, it is still very much the same person.

Edward J. Steichen is famous as a photographer, but he was also a painter, and this is how he shows himself in his photographic self-portrait of 1901 where he holds a brush and palette. I looked for a photo of Steichen taken by another photographer but could not find one, probably because he took so many selfies before it was fashionable. In this first of his self-portraits he even added brushstrokes and an atmospheric effect unlike later ones which became his trademarks.

My favorite self-portrait, perhaps because I am such a fan, is the one of Jacob Lawrence. He created this an ink drawing in 1993 when he was 76 years old. The image conveys the brooding character hinted at in an unattributed photo of Lawrence that I found on the web. In the drawing he used elements of abstraction to create the same kind of power as in his vibrant “Migration” Series.

The exhibition is a fascinating exploration of the different ways artists see themselves and suggests a personal lesson of how we see ourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment