Where’s Your Head At?

ImageA Face to the World: On Self-Portraits,

Laura Cumming,

Harper Press, 9780007118441, £18.99

I only ever attempted a self-portrait once, for a school project – it was a mess – and I would never try again; I don’t like myself enough to want my ugliness recorded and certainly cannot bear the possibility of having to look into my own eyes. This monograph is penetrating, insightful, scholarly and humane. It was also a great challenge to read. Part of me was mesmerised by the skill and the ingenuity with which many great artists have been able to capture the look, the essence, the spirit of themselves and, in some cases, have layered their work with a multitude of meanings – some personal, some philosophical, some commercial. At the same time, in part I was horrified by the self-aggrandisement, the self-promotion and the self-love a number of the works evoked. The subject is undeniably fascinating, not simply for the skill it took the great masters to paint their own likeness in a time before flat glass mirrors were available, but also because decoding that most personal of pictures, a self-portrait, might sometimes provide a shortcut to the decoding of an artist’s oeuvre.

The twin strengths of this book lie in the lucidity and brilliance of Cumming’s writing coupled with her choice of examples. She knows her paintings, she knows her artists, she makes illuminating connections, she takes the works seriously but she is not insensible to the potential for ridiculousness that is endemic with the genre of self-portraiture. And, of course, this is a book about human nature, about the eyes with which the artist views the world revealed in their viewing of themselves. You cannot be unmoved – whether in awe or guffaw – by the boldness of Durer’s portrait of his self as, well, as Christ: the natty dreads, the iconic gaze, the proto-blessing in the gesture of his painterly hand. You may well be as bemused by the mobility of Rembrandt’s features that over time slip and slide with a parliament of emotions as by the confluence of masculinity and femininity in Gentileschi’s muscling in on the male dominated world of the professional artist – a strong arm, an unflinching eye and a heaving bosom forcefully breathing life onto the canvas. This is a book about the artist as human, the artist laid bare – and still concealing – and the viewer as complicit in an act of self-voyeurism. It is great for those who love taking a deconstructive scalpel to art works. But if you are an artist about to engage in the act of self-portraiture it might just be too revealing: its consummate knowingness and witty erudition might well wither the desire and stultify the performance.


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