In most self-portraits, the eyes of the artist do double duty: first, observing themselves; second, observing the observer. While the Blake self-portrait is first and foremost an act of self-scrutiny (you’d need to look that hard to capture those wisps of hair so precisely), it’s a public one too, one half of a dialogue in which the viewer is invited to participate. In this way, self-portraiture sits at the junction between the public and the private self. Gazing at one’s face in the mirror in order to observe the wrinkles, folds and lumps you see there is a performance of one of the central philosophical conundrums of all: what is – where is – the self? All self-portraiture draws its energies from that anxiety-inducing principle. And as ideas of what the public self consists of shift and flow, so this question redoubles its urgency. Small wonder that self-portraiture, whose origins date back to classical antiquity at least, is one of the few genres of artistic expression that never gets old. It’s Rembrandt’s self-portraits we gather around, after all, rather than his history paintings (The Night Watch has a self-portrait in it, before you say anything, so it doesn’t count). It’s what draws audiences, endlessly, to artists like Frida Kahlo and Vincent van Gogh, for whom the self-portrait held talismanic power. Yet even their most searing and seemingly confessional works are themselves highly self-conscious acts of public display. The gap between the self as experienced and as performed is where the friction of the greatest self-portraiture lies. It’s why the self-portrait is news that stays news.
Read the whole article in the autumn issue of Art Quarterly. Details here.