THE SELF: as model and subject

The keen interest in our current course, ‘A Woman’s Place…Women Painters,’ shown by our members and friends has encouraged us to stay within the bright purview of Inscape’s revelation of women’s long overlooked and undermined talent as artists. In this new course we will bring men back into the fold, comparing and contrasting their work with that of women artists. Our new course deliberately addresses the “subject” most personal to artists through the ages – the self-portrait. As viewers, we will not only be able, somewhat, to satisfy any latent curiosity about the physical attributes of those who actually composed and painted their own portraits, but see their unique individuality revealed in ways rare in their more commercial subject matter choices. These artists have chosen to paint themselves, some for circumstantial reasons as in Kahlo’s admission above, some as a deliberate form of psychological scrutiny, even of self-analysis, some as an expression of wishful thinking through a conscious elevation of their stature, some as a chronological journal of their internal and external changes over the course of time, or some as a form of journal or diary of their daily lives. We will strive to go beneath the surface of the canvas to investigate what may not be immediately obvious.

The entire history of self-portraiture, going back, it is believed, to the ancient Egyptians, is a story of the tension between reality/representation and deception/abstraction. Artists can distort how the world receives their image, by donning a disguise, or by placing themselves in the context of curious, possibly irrelevant, self-aggrandising objects. Self-portraits may need to “lie” or obscure their inner selves to protect both the painter and the viewer from uncomfortable truths. It is almost as if the choice of a mask, a disguise or a role conceals characteristics the artist does not want us to perceive. On the other hand there will be images that will extend an invitation to engage in a close-up intimate way. Others will allow us to see themselves with traces of the heartbreak, joy, fear, laughter, pain and uncertainty they have experienced “written” in subtle and blatant ways on their faces and posture. In this case, the self-portrait, in searching for the soul, finds a way of communicating universal truths about the human condition, thus contributing to our understanding and acceptance of ourselves.

This course presents 9 sessions, each built around a different principal theme in self-portraiture. For each theme we will use as a springboard a comparison between a work by a woman, which may be less well-known, and a work by a man, which is likely to be better-known. Our discussions will cross borders of time as well as of gender. We see how the self-portrait offers a window into the workings of the artist’s mind, and does indeed beg the question of similarities and differences in how women and men artists use self-portraiture: as a form of confession, or bravado, as a symbol of their distinction as artists, as a necessity in the Renaissance and later because barred from taking life-drawing classes, as a permanent record of their existence or as an ephemeral song. It has been suggested that self-portraiture has a singular importance to women as a ‘rare break from the typical objectification of the female form as depicted by men”. Whatever the reasons that motivate the painting of self, the results are intriguing and far from banal.

As we are each living- at the moment- necessarily more self-focussed lives, we may have something more in common than we realise with the millennials who take endless ‘selfies’ with their personal smart phones for posting to friends and wider audiences via Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and other sites. We have, perhaps, become more conscious of our own physicality. For those amongst us who tend to be self-critical this has been a time of greater intensity of navel-gazing, but for many others this has been a time of greater opportunity, even freedom, to focus on more creative ways to live. To this end we would like to suggest a completely VOLUNTARY exercise. We would like to invite you to join us in a wine (and, perhaps, cheese- so we remain sober /:) closing evening session on the summer solstice at 6 pm, 21 June, to which we each contribute a self-portrait either made by using a smart phone to photograph ourselves, or in the form of a sketch, a painting or scribble!