There’s a myth that the first person to draw was a shepherd who traced his own shadow in the dust with his staff. It’s telling perhaps that man’s first picture was of himself, a selfie. We are social animals, but we are also enormously self-centred.
This myth of ‘the invention of the art of drawing’ is captured in an engraving at an excellent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London. ‘Portrait of the Artist’ embraces all manner of images of artists, both self-portraits and pictures by colleagues, pupils and friends. (It runs until 17 April.)
One cannot help but be fascinated by self-portraits. Here we get to observe what other people see in the mirror; to assess how they present themselves to the world; to see how they want to be seen.
There were practical reasons for artists to engage in self-portraiture. Drawing or painting oneself provided the opportunity to practice, experiment and explore; to consider different facial expressions, moods or pictorial styles. And the models came free.
But artists had other motivations. Sometimes they wanted to leave mementos of themselves for family and loved ones. Sometimes they sought to advertise their talent to potential clients. Sometimes they wanted to celebrate their status or success to a broader public. And sometimes they had a message to pass on.
Artists’ choice of context and theme was often telling. Sebastiano Ricci painted himself attending to Christ teaching in the temple. Johan Zoffany recorded himself amongst his fellow Royal Academicians. Jan Steen depicted himself watching card-players in a pub. These artists were declaring their piety, their prestige, their lack of pretension. Edwin Landseer portrayed himself with his dogs looking over his shoulder admiring his draftsmanship. He seems to be suggesting that they at least properly appreciate his work.
Occasionally artists would adopt mythical roles in order to signal a coded theme. Artemesia Gentileschi presented herself as the female personification of painting itself, La Pittura, a conceit unavailable to her male colleagues. Cristofano Allori portrayed himself as Holofernes beheaded by Judith. He modelled the figure of Judith on his former lover, ’La Mazzafirra,’ and had her mother standing by as the murderer’s assistant.
Of course, often self-portraiture expressed intense self-reflection. Lucian Freud peers out from the midst of deep shadows, his eyes dark with world-weary experience. Maria Cosway stares at us with arms folded as if to indicate her disappointment or disdain. And then there is Rembrandt. He put on costume and fancy dress, but painted himself with unflinching honesty: scrutinising the decay of age, the regret and yearning within.
One departs the exhibition with a strong sense of the complexity of the human psyche; of the layered self. When we look in the mirror we see many images of ourselves. We are self-centred and self-satisfied; self-doubting and self-deluding. We self-publish and self-promote. We are self-obsessed.
You would think that in the field of marketing and communication we would be well versed in the contours and complexities of the layered self. But, whilst many of us in the business tend towards solipsism, how often do we subject our own brands to proper scrutiny? How often do we assess them from within rather from without?
What kind of self-portrait would we paint for our own brands? Would we be puffed up and proud, keen to promote our prestige and status? Would we, like a teenager taking a selfie, betray our own fickle airs and shallow affectations? Or would we, like Rembrandt, be honest, searching and direct?
Perhaps we too should occasionally take a long hard look in the mirror.
‘Mirror, mirror on the wall.
Tell me mirror what is wrong?
Can it be my De La clothes?
Or is it just my De La song?
It’s just me, myself and I.
It’s just me, myself and I.’
De La Soul, Me, Myself and I