The Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s key festival exhibition commemorates five centuries of very different approaches to self-portraiture. Five of The List’s visual art critics pick one picture each from Facing the World and tell us why that image really hits home.
Rembrandt van Rijn: Self-Portrait aged 51 (1657) chosen by Rosie Lesso (pictured above) I first saw Rembrandt’s ‘Self-Portrait aged 51’ when I began working for the National Galleries’ education department eight years ago. It’s a small and deceptively simple painting which has steadily grown into a firm favourite of mine over the years. Rembrandt captures the raw honesty of his ageing, wrinkled face without artifice or idealisation, which led the way for centuries of artists to come.
Those eyes hold the history of his life’s experiences, including bereavement and recent bankruptcy, revealing his creative tenacity even in the face of great struggle. Conveying a quiet, golden light with the most restricted and subtle of colour palettes, he suggests the glow of candlelight in a lonely, dark room. The startlingly real sense of depth created draws you in, constructing the effect of looking through a window into a private other world.
Samuel van Hoogstraten: Trompe-l’oeil Still Life (after 1666) chosen by Laura Campbell
As a kid I made a beeline for paintings inscribed with the sort of drama that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck; the sort heavily dependent on chiaroscuro, with objects and limbs popping furiously from their frames. Samuel van Hoogstraten was the Salvador Dalí or Banksy of his day, commanding admiration from audiences awestruck by his daring and mimetic ability. A pioneering artist, he may even have invented the once popular genre of ‘pinboard still lifes’ or ‘quodlibets’ (whatever one likes).
‘Trompe-l’oeil Still Life’ is a quodlibet and self-portrait that surely reveals to us his sense of self-worth. It may look like a random assortment of objects selected for their tactility, but they were in fact chosen to make the artist look grand and philosophical. In other words, an exercise in brand management. Van Hoogstraten would have fared well in today’s image-obsessed world.
Cecile Walton: Romance (1920) chosen by Susan Mansfield
Edinburgh’s chattering classes had plenty to chatter about when Cecile Walton’s self-portrait was first exhibited in 1920. The intimacy of ‘Romance’, where the artist holds her newborn son while a midwife massages her feet, took them nearer than they wanted to the world of childbirth. For all the serenity in her picture, Walton knew exactly what she was doing.
The daughter of Glasgow Boy Edward Arthur Walton, she knew her art history, knew that women in art are poised uneasily between the Madonna and the Magdalene. Lying back like Manet’s Olympia with her baby in her arms, she played with the iconography: she was neither virgin nor whore, she was the woman wielding the paintbrush. A few years after this painting, Walton gave up her promising career when her marriage failed and she had to find a job to provide for her two sons. In the maturity and confidence of this picture, she seems to know already about the difficult choices she will have to make.
Paul Klee: Ghost of a Genius (1922) chosen by Neil Cooper
I had a postcard of this for years. At first glance, it initially looks like the figure in the painting has two heads that are separated by a row of guitar strings. But when you look closer, you see it’s just one massive head on this long neck and skinny body. Even though the figure is standing disembodied on a kind of khaki-ish background (which he both blends into and stands out from as though he’s looking into a mirror), there’s a movement and musicality about it, like he’s shaking his head so the guitar strings twang in this blur of motion.
I imagine him as a character in a 1950s Halas and Batchelor cartoon set against a blaring jazz soundtrack that plays as this strange little figure goes about the world having adventures. While looking for inspiration, he no doubt gets into absurdist scrapes that he then goes home and paints.
Marina Abramović: Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1976) chosen by Rachael Cloughton
In this work, Marina Abramović brushes her hair with a metal brush held in her right hand and simultaneously combs her hair with a metal comb held in her left hand. While so doing, she continuously repeats, ‘art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful’ until her hair and face are destroyed. The work is a powerful critique of the perverse and ultimately destructive demands placed upon women to be beautiful, both inside and outside the frame.
I feel we owe a lot to Abramović and the other conceptual artists of the 1970s who used performance to reposition artistic representations of women. In this work, Abramović’s body is a resilient material with meaning and value beyond the narrow parameters of conventional beauty and far more captivating than the passive nudes that dominate much of the artistic canon preceding it. Abramović reclaims the gaze in a way that was radical at the time (and perhaps still is).
Facing the World: Self-Portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, 0131 624 6200, 16 Jul–16 Oct, 10am–5pm (Thu until 7pm), £9 (£7).
National Galleries of Scotland
The many extraordinary ways in which artists have portrayed themselves are explored in this exhibition, with over 150 self-portraits by over a hundred artists, across six centuries, featuring everything from oil paintings to Instagram selfies. Including works by Rembrandt, David Wilkie…