Self And Portrait

Like diaries and memoirs, portraits and especially self-portraits represent a favorite means of inserting the creator's self into history. One may eventually infer, if not directly grasp a writer's or a painter's positions and opinions about his milieu and historical background straight from the works themselves. Embedded into poems, novels, landscapes and still lifes, the relationships that an author is permanently weaving with surrounding reality, although veiled and implicit, frequently constitute the real crux of the interest manifested by readers and beholders in a certain work. Yet, it is nonetheless true that this kind of interest does not exhaust the brand that concrete biographies usually put on works of art. Except for the opinions and attitudes of a creator facing the world around him, both readers and beholders search for the explicitly 'real' circumstances of his life. They chase the lived experience, the flesh-and-blood existence and irreducible singularity of a definite individual's acts and facts. They track down the self. For that matter, they need a proper person, a man or a woman. They need a portrait, a self-portrait even. Diaries and journals provide that portrait of the self, the same way pictured portraits and self-portraits do. In them, the authors' aim to instill the traits of their own lives into history coalesce with the readers' and beholders' need to meet and deal with a known somebody. One may conclude that, because of these particularities, both diaries and (self-) portraits are minor artistic genres, entertaining the same relationship to the major ones, like a tabloid compared to a serious, analytic weekly. Still, this is not entirely the case. From a certain point of view, both the diary and the self-portrait constitute the original, prime genre. Among the earliest manifestations of an artistic will of humankind range the widespread imprints of colored contours of hands abundantly displayed on rocks and in caves, from Europe to Africa. Primitive, fragmentary self-portraits like these were followed later on by the proper, complete self-portraits. Similarly, the chronicles abundant in the early stages of the world's literature are basically some inchoate, undercover journals. Modern times especially paid substantial homage both to diaries and self-portraits. Dürer's, Rembrandt's and van Gogh's self-portraits constitute probably the most fascinating side of their work, while the tremendous growth of the journal as a literary genre in the 19th and 20th centuries is actually unparalleled by any other literary genre. Practically each writer, journalist, politician, but also many scientists not only wrote, but also published (during their lifetime even) the more or less daily notes and remarks that constituted a corpus intent to portray the author from the inside. In cases like Kafka's, the fictional work itself developed in and out of the diary, in a continual movement in which daily and personal observations intermingled with literary ideas and whole stories. More than simply infiltrating their authors into contemporary history, many journals of this kind aimed at and succeeded in creating a history of their own.In the same way, much of our knowledge of the past (but also recent) psyche comes from the encounter with the countenance of so many individuals that we never met though we do know. They shared, at a certain moment, the same 'reality' as we do. Their features remained unchanged, and the significance of their expression helps us understand not only what artists looked like, but also what a medieval goldsmith, a 'condottiere' of the Renaissance, a court lady of the 18th century, a businessman of the 19th century, or a yuppie of the recent nineties looked like. All of them configured the inner and outer world of certain artists but, at the same time, they succeed in configuring our own inner and outer world. Thanks to diaries and (self-)portraits our own human load exceeds the social and cultural limits of the bunch of persons actually introduced to us. Journals and portraits not only create history: they also mix up histories. The portrait and the self-portrait in Romanian art are virtually exclusive products of modernity. Prior to the second half of the 19th century and the emergence of the professional artist (in the academic sense), no significant works of this kind appeared. The authors of the celebrated mural paintings in Romanian monasteries only seldom represented themselves (the self-portrait of Radu Zugravu – Radu the Painterman – is one of the rare exceptions); their commissioners, friends, relatives or mere contemporaries scarcely found a place among the saintly, typified figures that populate their frescoes. Here and there, only the votive portraits of the princes and ruling 'voivodes' find their place amidst thousands of faces of seraphs and devils. Yet the rulers themselves are thoroughly schematic, in-expressive in a literal sense. However, modernity rapidly brought the portrait and the self-portrait to the fore, and the need to represent the self (and the visible self of one's contemporaries) became a cornerstone for each artist deserving this name. Generally speaking, self-portraits pertain to two distinct endeavors in the history of art: on the one hand, there is the rather rare case of those artists that consistently and repeatedly represented themselves, as a special case of painstaking study, and as a favorite theme. Rembrandt and van Gogh, together with a few others epitomize this class. On the other hand, there is the most frequent category of artists who represented themselves only once or twice, simply as a portrait among the other portraits they did for their contemporaries. A particular feature of the self-portraits of Romanian artists consists in the absence of a specimen pertaining to the first class. There is no systematic self-portraitist in Romanian art, no Dürer, no Rembrandt. Although there were some endowed portraitists, they never took their selves as a specific and indeed special theme. Instead of the long-term exploration of the self in time, much of the Romanian (self) portraiture is essentially occasional. Moreover, they are particularly 'professional', in the sense that the self-portraits work most frequently like a statement of professional affiliation: the artists introduce themselves basically as artists. Painters depicting themselves as painters, in a tautological yet socially coherent fashion, parade from the beginnings of modern Romanian art, from Tattarescu, Aman, Grigorescu, Andreescu and Luchian, to Eustaţiu Stoenescu, Petraşcu and Baba. They prefer to render themselves in the credited outfit of the painter, draped in the large, specific shirt drizzled with colors, standing in front of the easel, frequently holding a brush and sporting the singular 'artist's cap' and sometimes even a pipe. Such paraphernalia were in fact a guild-like insignia and even nowadays they still are a part of the socially accepted 'eccentricity' portraying the 'artists' in the eyes of the larger public.The avant-garde artists were the first to break off this tradition. Unsurprisingly, the only world-famous self-portrait of a Romanian artist pertains to it; it is the odd, surrealist Self-portrait with a Missing Eye by Victor Brauner. Painted years before he actually lost his eye accidentally, intervening in a quarrel between two friends in Paris, the foreboding self-portrait exhibits none of the appurtenances traditionally required by a painter's portrait. There are no brushes, no studio, no cap, no pipe at all. It is not the classical portrait of the self seen in the mirror while painting. It is rather an inner portrait, schematic as regards the physical features, but substantial as regards the psyche, as it is permeated by a queer, aloof anxiety.Similarly, the self-portraits of Ţuculescu are not at all the portraits of a painter, but rather the portraits invaded by the painting; the physical features of the artist are invested by the typical, abstract motives of the artist, that distort and digest the figure as if it were a stylish monster. The painter's painted self is a prey of his own artistic language that turns it into one of his own topics. Close to this avant-garde stance facing the (self-)portrait, engaged much more with the self than with the portrait, and with the psyche than with the social positioning, Pallady elaborated a few disguised self-portraits, masquerading as still lifes displaying his own, personalized belongings, such as books, vases, flowers, fruits. As for his own figure, he also distanced himself from the representation of the whole guild-tied apparel of a painter. He frequently portrayed his standoffish self reduced to the powerful lines of his head, with no professional attachments, but rather with a philosophical stance, inquisitive, distant and misanthropic. The self-portrait thus ceased to be a mere looking-glass for both the artist and the beholder, turning into a disclosure device investigating the reflection, the mystification, and the signification of the self.

by Erwin Kessler