When organizing the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition "Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century," opening tomorrow, Wendy Wick Reaves, curator of prints and drawings, made it her goal to take something that seems so simple—self-portraiture—and show its complexities.
In her remarks at a press preview on Tuesday, Reaves said that the 187 portraits from 66 artists, including Alexander Calder, Edward Hopper, Chuck Close, David Hockney, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, in the exhibition make it clear how much of a "different species" the self portrait is from a portrait done of a sitter and how much self-portraiture, a 500-year tradition, has changed just in the 20th century.
In a self-portrait, as opposed to a commissioned portrait, for example, the artist doesn’t have to appease a patron. "The artist is really the producer, director, set designer and star of his own production," says Reaves. There’s no middleman between the subject and the viewer, explains Reaves, and we expect a privileged encounter that will give us some insight into the artist.
Artists began tackling the idea of multiple identities in their self-portraits, as the studies of psychology and sociology gained steam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition to true-to-life representations of themselves came abstract, grotesque and conceptual ones. Artists took liberties in their self-portraits in order to depict not only the physical but also their mental and emotional states.
"I am not interested in likeness," artist William Beckman once said. "I am more interested in what feels right to me." They could use the genre to disguise or reinvent themselves, as artist Raphael Soyer did. In a 1973 interview, Soyer said that he never makes himself entirely like himself in his portraits—sometimes he’s older looking, or unshaven. Others reinvented self-portraiture by removing the traditional reliance on physiognomy all together. Jim Dine, for example, etched a self-portrait that took the form of a headless, body-less robe. And Robert Rauschenberg, in perhaps the most conceptual work on display, captures himself by using other representations of identity, such as autobiographical text written in concentric ovals, looking like a fingerprint; a full-body x-ray; and a reference to Libra, his astrological sign.
My favorites have to be Edward Hopper’s, in profile; John Sloan’s, in the company of three friends; and a pairing by Raphael Soyer, in young and old age. Visit our photo gallery, and the exhibition, on display through August 16, and report back with yours.