this issue contains
>> The VANITY of Allegory
>> Interview with Nan Goldin
>> An Eye to the Self
>> Confess All: Gillian Wearing

>> archive

An Eye to the Self

Representative stagings, ruthless self-scrutiny, masked role-playing: as a means of examining identity, the self-portrait has been a key method of artistic reflection since Albrecht Dürer’s day. Citing examples from the Deutsche Bank Collection, Christiane Meixner shows how powerfully these images of self reflect today’s zeitgeist.

Lovis Corinth, Self Portrait, 1919
Deutsche Bank Collection

Ivan Karp got the point quickly: "You know," he said to the young and somewhat indecisive Andy Warhol, who was pondering what subject to use for his first commissioned work in 1963, "It’s YOU that people want to see." At least that’s how Warhol recalled the exchange in his memoirs, POPism . Whether the art dealer Karp really provided the idea for Warhol’s subsequent self-reflection in endless variation, or whether a sensibility for multiple identity already lay at the heart of the American artist’s creative motivation, the anecdote pales in the face of what Warhol’s serial work on the self opened up for an entire genre.

When Warhol took his picture in a public photo booth and then blew it up and converted it into silkscreen, he not only demonstrated a remarkable break between an artistic practice that regards its own likeness from the greatest possible distance and the classical self-portrait as it was created in studios throughout the end of the 19th century. In place of sensitive self-reflection and the truest possible description of an individual artistic existence, Warhol posited a masked game of roles and, in the process, hit the nerve of an entire generation.

Günter Brus, Untitled, 1965
Deutsche Bank Collection

A look at the development of the self-portrait shows just how great the difference between the historical genre and its 20th-century descendents has become. The classical portraits, which at the very latest with Rembrandt reflected upon the artist’s standing in a social context, have remained legible as autobiographical documents. Yet as early as the 18th century, an academic genre arose with clearly defined iconographic attributes by means of which the artist stylized himself either as an outsider or as part of the bourgeois elite.

Florian Merkel, Untitled
(Self Portrait with Wind Rose), 1992
Deutsche Bank Collection

Following 1900, the artistic avant-garde implemented various strategies to demonstrate the fact that this repertoire, in the context of the psychoanalysis that Sigmund Freud was introducing to the public at the time, was no longer adequate as an instrument of self-perception. Aspects of this resonate to the present day; when one recalls Egon Schiele’s gestural, deformed heads and busts or masturbation scenes, a direct line can be drawn to the ballpoint-pen drawings that Günter Brus made on paper in 1965. Just as Schiele did, Brus, who came from Abstract Expressionism and proceeded through self-painting and self-injury to arrive at a form of bodily analysis in his tied and sewn torsi, resisted every attempt to keep up the illusion of the intact self.

Jürgen Klauke, Sonntagsneurosen, no date
Deutsche Bank Collection

Other examples remained without any immediate influence on contemporary art, such as the expressive Self-Portrait in Fantastic Company (1931) by Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, in which the artist portrayed herself following her commitment to a psychiatric sanatorium in 1929. Like Brus’ fragmented body drawings, this work belongs to the Deutsche Bank Collection.

Thomas Florschütz, Untitled, 1986
Deutsche Bank Collection

One decade earlier, Lovis Corinth, who had pursued the traditional self-portrait throughout each of his earlier phases, had also made his departure: in 1919, he portrayed himself marked by the traumatic experiences of the First World War – in somber colors, using very few lines, and with a strangely unmoved expression. The artist had, in fact, suffered a stroke a few years previously; far from enhancing his condition in any way, Corinth documented the paralyzing effects in an objective manner. Yet what stands out here is the tumult he created with painterly means: the portrait shows an artist whose face can no longer convey its inner emotions; they express themselves nonetheless in a wild brush stroke that functions as a surrogate, making painting into an instrument for introspection.

Salomé, Selbst, 1975
Deutsche Bank Collection

Andy Warhol, Egon Schiele, Günter Brus, Lovis Corinth – four artists, three strategies, and the insight that ascertaining the self by means of self-portrait is no longer a viable means of conveying meaning. Despite this, the painter remains his or her own cheapest and most reliable model, while the genre enables a dialogue and critical evaluation of the artist’s personal identity. In tandem with photography, which took over the mirror’s function as aid, and parallel to the theoretical discoveries in literature of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, the painted self-portrait became increasingly differentiated. Here, however, deconstruction, fragmentation, and calling the genre into question came to fore, demoting the self-portrait to a mere medium.

Katharina Sieverding, Transformer, 1973,
Deutsche Bank Collection

While Body Art and "Me Art" continued to assert the artist’s identity and a performer the likes of Piero Manzoni conserved breath and excrement from his own body, other artists demonstrated just how many selves a single artist can assume. This includes the fake film stills of Cindy Sherman and the photographic self-stylizations of the British artist couple Gilbert & George and Katharina Sieverding who, for her large-scale series Transformer from the 70s, superimposed her own face with the faces of others.

[1] [2]