Thursday, December 31, 2009


At some point, virtually every visual artist creates a self-portrait. Rembrandt famously created a series of them, throughout his life, very honest portraits of the artist aging, and looking at the viewer very honestly. Van Gogh's self-portraits are equally famous.

Perhaps it's self-serving, even unbelievable, and as an artist I've rarely thought that making self-portraits was narcissistic. It seems to me a way of knowing the self. A visual artist's way of seeing the self: since visual artists are so used to learning about the world through seeing, through drawing, it seems only natural they would examine themselves that way. Few painters have avoided the self-portrait as a subject.

In some ways, of course, every painting, every photograph, is a self-portrait: we do reveal ourselves through what we choose to show, through our choices, our decisions, our technique. This idea, full of truth, has been taken to absurd lengths by some art theorists, though, who view every work as autobiographical and only autobiographical. As though every character in a novel was a self-portrait, as though every character in a painting was only the artist. It seems to me that this fallacy of autobiography, a popular one among less thoughtful art critics, presumes narcissism. I submit that it's the critic's narcissism, projected onto the artist, rather than the artist's, in many cases.

On the other hand, I don't think the extreme opposite idea, that the artist can completely remove him or herself from the artwork, is possible. Even attempts by artists and composers to remove their ego-choices from their art, by using chance means and indeterminacy, continue to reveal the artist's self: while personality-level choices may have been subverted, nonetheless a performance of a John Cage composition still sounds like a John Cage composition. It's a paradox: the impossibility of being completely removed from what one makes.

Looking at artist's self-portraits—which I do believe are more honest than memoir; memoir being a story one tells about oneself, which often is less revealing than one might imagine—is an interesting exercise in self-revelation. I note that more painters do self-portraits than photographers; the painted self-portrait has a long tradition to support it. But there are portraits of many photographers at work, taken by their friends and companions. So we often see them with their cameras in hand, preparing for the moment of releasing the shutter, or having just done so.

The camera is not as flattering as paint, let's be honest. There's less opportunity to conceal flaws in a photograph, as with memoir or painting. It's possible to do, of course, and it's possible to use the self-portrait photograph as a performative presentation of the self: acting, performance, display, self-aggrandizement, or self-mockery. All these have been done.

As a photographer making a self-portrait, one chooses the moment to release the shutter. Waiting for the perfect light, having set up the best possible composition. Photography is always about light and shadow; no matter what else an image is about, it's really about light.

The composition chanced upon with the three mirrors is what interested me about making this self-portrait. So it's a "'found" self-portrait. I was the only subject I had available at the moment. The mirrors are on the side of the cabin in northernmost Minnesota, up in the Superior National Forest, where I go for a week's camping almost every August. We're miles from electricity, running water, and other modern amenities; camping is usually primitive, in tents. But we do have this old hunter's cabin, falling down slowly, and needing to be replaced. (We also have some other buildings we've made, rather than inherited, such as the cookhouse and pantry.)

The same arrangement, on a different day.

What I learn from making the occasional self-portrait is that my mental self-image is rarely in congruence with my actual person. Of course, that's something nearly everyone experiences: we're all better-looking in our minds. I find the practice of actual observation of the actual self to be a sort of Zen practice: see what's actually there, rather than what we think is there. It's a good visual meditation to keep you focused and grounded.

I don't do dress-up self-portraits, the way some photographers do. (Or the way virtually everyone on every online social networking website does these days: we live in a very narcissistic culture at present.) I don't do costumed self-portraits the way some of my artists friends do, to express aspects of their self, to play at different personae. I've always been more interested in discovering who I authentically was, rather than role-playing. (Many people are surprised that I have no interest in role-playing fantasy games: but it's the same lifelong desire to be authentic and honest that makes me feel such RPGs are a supreme waste of time.)

Perhaps it's to learn about ourselves that we make self-portraits, regardless of whether they're performed, or trying to be authentic. (Another kind of performance, let's be honest.) I think it's an important exercise for every artist to do, from time to time: find out who you are, right now, right here. Look into your own eyes, and see what you can discover about yourself that you didn't already know. Go deeper into your own art and craft, by going deeper into your self.

Labels: , ,


Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Any portrait involves makes choices whether it’s a self-portrait or not. I don’t consider myself vain but I am self-conscious and probably look in the mirror more times a day than most annoyed at how bushy my eyebrows are getting or how my nose hairs insist on curling up and tickling me, irritated by the patch of dry skin on my forehead, my watery eyes and how dark the skin is under them. The thing is, I have mixed feelings about how I appear. Part of me hates how old I’m beginning to look but then at least my face is getting some character now. I think about how some people have aged beautifully – Beckett’s chiselled features obviously jump to mind but I also remember some photos my last wife had of old American Indians which looked as though they had been carved out of stone. Quite magnificent.

I find looking at old photos of me fascinating. What’s fascinating is just how much that face has changed since I’ve become a man; that I never expected. The thing about a photograph is that it is a static point in time. Even if it was taken a few seconds earlier somehow you can be objective about it in quite a different way to simply looking in a mirror. You no longer have to hold that pose. You can relax your face and scrutinise the image in front of you.

I feel the same about my writing, it’s different from my thoughts even though all we have are my thoughts written down.

I hated having to produce a photo for my site but I understand people’s curiosity because I’m also a little curious, but only a little. It’s the same with hearing how people sound. A few people think I’ll sound like ‘Aggie and Shuggie’ but they couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’ve agreed to record something for a short film and although it works I hate the sound of my own voice; I can’t identify with it, it’s not the voice in my head, the voice I can hear right now as I type these words. Identity is such an interesting thing.

Of these photos the one I like best if the black and white one with the three mirrors but then I’ve always liked triptychs.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That's my favorite photo, too, the B&W one. It's also representational, as a portrait, for my mind, because I look pretty good in the photo, and you can see I'm taking a photo, which is a characteristic activity. Also, the framing objects and materials around the mirrors speak to me of characteristic attributes and activities: being in the outdoors, a little rustic, a little rumpled.

I spent a lot of years in community radio, being a DJ and programmer and so forth. So I got over the sound of my voice. I don't exactly love it, but I accept it, and I'm not self-conscious about it anymore. You learn to ignore it.

We always sounds differently to ourselves than we do to others: it's the hollow spaces in our heads, i.e. sinus cavities (and some would say, braincases), that shift our personal perceptions. My voice is higher-pitched than it ever seems to be inside my own head.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

'We're all better looking in our own minds.' How true!

Art, this is a magnificent post. I would like, if it's okay with you, to quote from your writing here in the next paper I write on narcissism, art and the autbiographical.

You've really nailed it here on the nature of narcissism and art. Of course I will attribute all your words to you, and the location and source. I do not intend to plagiarise.

You write beautifully and evocatively and thoughtfully and so much more besides.

I've read your blog before but was not 'following' you because I could not find that little facility on the side of your blog page that makes following so easy. I like to see my picture blink back at me from the others blog page after I click the word follow, and then I know I'm there with him or her, who ever. Narcissistic perhaps.

Anyhow I've now used the other less visible facility, the old facility for following you. I do not want to miss out on any such work again.

Jim Murdoch - bless him - sent me here. I have just completed a self portrait of my own in words on my blog. All the things you write here are so accurate and they resonate further with the things Jim says in relation to self portraiture of any kind.

Thanks for your wonderful work. I find it very exciting.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Elisabeth, thanks and welcome aboard! To be truthful, I haven't taken the time to figure our the blog-following or RSS feed options; maybe I'll get around to it now, and it hasn't been high priority. At the moment I'm going back through three years of entries to give them all labels, which hopefully will allow for easier searching by topic in future. I'm still figuring that out, too.

I'm pleased that you would want to quote me in your next paper; please feel free to do so. I appreciate being queried. I'd be interested in seeing the finished paper; it's an interesting topic. Please let us know about it here, at some point. We're interested in what you do with the ideas.

The self-portrait-in-words is interesting. I've been writing pieces of family history and memoir since my parents died a couple of years ago, many of which appear here on this blog, as a way of sorting through the past, and also of reassessing my own life as I go forward on my own. I think every artist, no matter what their medium, does self-portraits; sometimes I think that when a poet writes an "ars poetica" poem it's really a self-portrait.

11:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home