Artists Reflect on Themselves

Posted April 29, 2009 at 4:57pm

If you think a self-portrait is as simple as the artist facing the mirror, think again.

“It is very complicated. Sometimes there is a variety of identities that the artist might want to project,— said Wendy Wick Reaves, curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery.

The complexities in self-portraiture are evident in the museum’s exhibit, “Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century.— Most of the 77 self-portraits in the exhibit are from the collection of curator Ruth Bowman and her late husband, economist/stockbroker Harry Kahn.

Reaves said “Reflections/Refractions— reveals the diverse ways in which modern-day artists explore their own identity.

During the Renaissance, self-portraits mirrored the artists’ physical appearance, demonstrating their talent, wealth and social status. Rembrandt’s portraits showing him wearing various hats — a toque, a tam o’shanter or a tricorne — are some examples. Toward the middle part of the 19th century, self-portraits tended to explore an artist’s psyche, as evidenced by the works of Vincent van Gogh. Among his famous works is the self-portrait in which his head was wrapped in a bandage after he cut off part of his ear.

In the 20th century, artists were “rethinking the issue of identity … introspection is more in the mainstream,— said Reaves, who has been with the Smithsonian Institution since the 1970s. Self-portraits can be intimate, revealing the artist’s psychological anguish, she said.

But artists also use self-portraits to mask their real identity. One such artist on display is Ivan Albright, whose 1947 lithograph portrays him as a monstrous, aged creature. Another is Andy Warhol. In his 1966 self-portrait, Warhol’s face is deeply in shadows. He also uses a silver background to distance himself from the viewer.

William Beckman’s 1974 “Study for a Self-Portrait— also attempts to put a barrier between himself and the viewer. In this self-portrait, Beckman bares his chest, drops his jeans to his hips and crosses his arms as if to say that he wants to be left alone.

Some artists chose to pose for themselves perhaps because they could not afford to hire a model, Reaves said.

Besides the artwork, the exhibit also features quotes from the artists explaining their creations. To Albright, doing a self-portrait has the “advantage of having an available model when and where you want him. Conversations can be held to a minimum.—

“Reflections/Refractions— also shows that an artist’s character can be revealed through objects.

In a 1964 self-portrait, painter Jim Dine represents himself in a bathrobe. “There was nobody in the bathrobe, but when I saw it, it looked like me,— Dine wrote in an explanation accompanying the show. Since then, Dine has featured bathrobes in his etchings. Like Dine, Robert Arneson also chose an object — a brick — as his proxy.

Reaves said “Reflections/Refractions— also shows how female artists evolved through the years. “Women’s self-portraits are fascinating in the 20th century. The idea of artist as a genius was unheard of during the Renaissance period. But women in this era are countering that by being an artist,— Reaves said.

Pele deLappe, like many female artists, struggled with maintaining her craft and making a home. In the 1938 graphite drawing of herself, deLappe conveys her beauty and self-assurance. Sculptor Louise Nevelson was always described as beautiful. But in her 1938 self-portrait, she distorts her features.

Reaves also noted how female artists “pushed against the standard of beauty.— In her 1957 drawing, for instance, June Wayne posed for herself nude while holding a phallic-looking mushroom.

Feminist Kiki Smith’s “Free Fall— explores issues of sexuality. “She was naked and curled in a fetal position. Yet she was completely removed from sexual availability,— Reaves said.

“Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century— will be open until Aug. 16. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.