A portrait in self-isolation

May 31, 2020

Artists and their self-portraits through the ages

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait. c 1663.

Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and their likes did not make self-portraits in self-isolation. They painted themselves as they either did not find a model to pose for them or could not afford to pay them.

These portraits, rendered repeatedly over a period of time, came to be regarded as their autobiographies, documenting mostly the lows of their lives. Sometimes, there was recognition and respect too.

Rembrandt’s self-portraits show his journey from a prosperous painter (Self-Portrait as a Young Man c 1628) to a ragged pauper in later years (Self-Portrait, c 1663).

Another Dutch painter, Van Gogh, painted himself, again and again. A lonely person, his works do not merely show his face changing with age, but also document his physical and psychological state.

The painter’s turbulent mind was shown particularly in Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear1889, and Self-Portrait with Pipe and Bandaged Ear 1889, after he sliced off his left ear.

Although Van Gogh lived among acquaintances, interacting with contemporaries and seeking companions, the canvases shows a life of isolation: an empty chair, a room without humans, solitary figures with heads resting in their hands, or heads hidden in knees. In his mind and spirit, Vincent van Gogh remained in isolation.

Artists of today have encountered isolation in a different way. It is physical, forced, and frightening. Like a majority of world population, they are confined to their rooms, houses, neighbourhoods. They travel only in their imagination… or through technological help (as in online meetings and virtual tours).

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait as a Young Man, c. 1628.

Self-isolation is no longer a matter of choice. However, many artists remain detached from the world around them anyhow — self-centred, self-obsessed and self-possessed. I remember a painter talking about his work: stylised figures, a man in coffin, and people gathered around the coffin amid a pastoral backdrop. The images, he said, had remained stuck in his mind from his father’s funeral. Art overtook grief; the artist overshadowed the son.

Artists of merit have often had a singular agenda — of creating art. They pursue it diligently, religiously. In their quest, they frequently let go of friends, family, and mentors and move on. This may be justified, in a way, because what they create not only makes them immortal, but also resurrects some of the people consigned to amnesia. Today, we are keen to study the life of Gauguin’s wife, whom he had left without any support.

Vincent van Gogh. Self-Portrait with Pipe and Bandaged Ear, 1889

We read about the tormented souls of artists (tremendously illustrated by Edvard Munch in Self-Portrait in Hell, 1903), accounts of betrayal, stories of deception and tales of fraudulent behaviour in biographies of artists and writers. There are morally reprehensible acts that must be condemned, but these also indicate a different sort of self-isolation.

Artists of today have encountered isolation in a different way. It is physical, forced, and frightening. Like a majority of world population, they are confined to their rooms, houses, neighbourhoods.

On the other hand, there have been examples in our midst of artists who support other professionals, often risking their own practice, participate in community struggles, help their relatives and dependants, or give lessons for the general public. By no chance does their art suffer, or become lesser due to these humane initiatives.

When artists of the past made self-portraits, they did not include others. Their canvases looked like mirrors; in these paintings we see them but not their surroundings.

However, in self isolation — of studio, home, or art — an artist is bound to think about the space around him and his relationship with space. If they are reduced to a small apartment, concentrating on themselves and reproducing what they see would be extremely boring. Thus they must ‘construct’ other possibilities, venues and ventures.

A parallel can be drawn here with literature. Some great writings have come out of prison. Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote some of his best verses during his incarceration. Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer composed his masterpiece Buru Quartet while in solitary confinement. French author Jean Genet wrote Our Lady of Flower in prison. Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis was penned in Reading Jail, and Nazim Hikmet conceived his poems while in prison.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser, 1940.

This is not an excuse to put creative people behind bars; because there are other ways of isolation available as well. Exile is one in which you leave your homeland, live at another address, but actually survive in a no man’s land — within yourself. Salman Rushdie spent almost a decade in hiding following an edict calling for his execution. During this period, he wrote several books but the memoir of that phase, Joseph Anton, is perhaps the best account so far of the craft of writing.

Somehow, self-isolation is not about self at all, nor is self-portrait about self; they just provide an uncommon vantage point to view oneself, and the world. What Van Gogh painted was not him, but others.

The act of making a painting entails the presence of viewers, critics, collectors and posterity. Likewise, not being able to leave house does not limit you to that place or to yourself. When we are alone, we are hardly alone; we are visited by characters from our past and invaded by our private demons. We also invite figures of our fantasy.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Necklace, 1933.

If scrutinised deeply, self-portraits are not about artists’ resemblance with the faces. They denote different states of a human being along with their association with society; of their political and societal concerns.

For instance, American artist Cindy Sherman’s self-based works are not representations of her, but a critique of consumerist culture.

Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, more than presenting the painter, signify her relationship with the history of Mexico, her comment on colonisation and her condemnation of capitalist culture.

In a self-portrait, a painter acts not too differently from Michel de Montaigne: “I give my soul now one face, now another, according to which direction I turn it. If I speak of myself in different ways, that is because I look at myself in different ways. All contradictions may be found in me.”

One should, therefore, presume that an artist in self-isolation discovers not only him or herself, but the world beyond — from an unfamiliar perspective.

A portrait in self-isolation: Artists and their self-portraits through the ages