Tag Archives: Self-portrait

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