Tag Archives: Portraiture

Self-portraits and ‘conflict of interest’

The great photography critic John Szarkowski points out that a self-portrait is always unreliable as a document, because the author can’t be trusted:

The obvious disadvantage of the self as subject is the fact that it inevitably raises the issue of conflict of interest. When the artist is also the subject, wearing two hats at once, is he (she) first of all the servant of historic and artistic justice, or the agent of self-advancement?

If we think of the portraits we know of the past half-millennium, we will note that the painters in them – depicted by themselves – are invariably more attractive, sympathetic, intelligent, and sensitive than the non-painters, even though it was the non-painters who were paying for the whole enterprise. This tradition of self-service was clearly established by the time of Albrecht Dürer, who appears in his own pictures as only marginally less spiritually beautiful than Christ Himself, whereas the artist’s brother Hans appears to be just another calculating northerner. Even Vincent Van Gogh, showing himself with his head swathed in the great white bandage, the visible badge of his folly, paints himself as an exemplary – as a radiant-fool, not to be confused with all those other uncounted fools who also sent their severed ears to whores and afterwards painted their self-portraits badly, or not at all.

  • Szarkowski, John (1998) The Friedlander self, in L. Friedlander, Self Portrait, second edition. San Francisco: DAP/Fraenkel Gallery

What is a portrait?

An artwork has to fulfil two conditions to be a portrait. The first is that it depicts a person. The second is more complicated.

The picture should tell us something significant about the person, some aspect of their social status, personality, temperament or character. This should also be the realisation of the artist’s intention. We might not know much about that intention, especially when the artist is long gone, but this intention is usually readable in the pictorial and aesthetic strategy of the work.

Representations of people in the ancient world tended to be idealised figures from mythology or religious tradition so did not represent any particular person who ever actually lived. The earliest exceptions to this were probably the Egyptian portraits of pharaohs and later the Roman portraits of their emperors. For many centuries, portraits were only ever made of people with a significant place in society or the wealth to afford the commission, but since the time of Rembrandt, portraits have also been made of ordinary people that appeal to the artist in some way.

Since then, the portrait (and self-portrait) has been the vehicle for an extraordinary diversity of artistic experimentation, especially since the early 20th century.

This is a good general discussion, available from the library:

Brilliant, R (1991) Introduction, Portraiture, London: Reaktion Books, pp. 7-21