Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits

Laura Cumming: Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self Portraiture

Laura Cumming

Or Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Television Art Presenters.

Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits presenter is Laura Cumming a new addition to this preternaturally verbally dexterous procession of celluloid art critics – Andrew Graham-Dixon, Matthew Collings, Waldemar Januszczak…

Laura Cumming is by current regular trade the Art Critic for The Guardian. She has produced arts programs for TV before, on the BBC, but this is her first time in front of rather than behind screen.

In addition to presenting and narrating this program she has also written a book on the subject titled A Face To the World: On Self Portraits published by HarperPress in 2009 an even more comprehensive exploration of this subject. I think the TV title is a better one than the book title but perhaps the buyer of art-books is a more higher-brow and serious sort than the watcher come browser of art-telly. At any rate this program is a stimulating and sharp summary of that page-turning art tome.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear - Van Gogh - 1889

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear – Van Gogh

The hour-and-a-half-long program first broadcast in 2010 on BBC 4 takes a comprehensive five-century-long look at self-portraiture from about 1500 to about now. Or at least of Western art – Eastern art is perhaps conspicuous by its absence but perhaps too it would make the program too unwieldy or just that we in the West are a far more vain and self-absorbed people…for this program makes clear that for artists their greatest and often most frequent subject is their own self.

The program then asks the question why – a deeper understanding of themselves and thus all humankind? Or an exercise of self-promotion like a modern day autobiography multiplying their image far and wide with a similar desire to project upon themselves all the vanities of their age?

Or further an exercise in post-mortal time and space-stamping?

Much known and unknown art is viewed – including the most extensive collection of self-portraiture in the world in the Vassari Corridor in Florence, Italy and bringing much hitherto kept secret art to the light of day – well at least to the obscure light of the art-lovers who are granted an appointment to see it for otherwise it is not open to the public – still as near private space as when it was commissioned by the Grand Duke Cosimo l de Medici to the design of Giorgio Vassari in 1564 and visited upon by those fortunate to be within ambit of his royal patronage. But this is not the space to wonder what is art if it is not seen.

The self-portraits in this program are viewed very literally face-to-face as Laura Cumming invades the portraiture’s space, going uncomfortably close, unblinking eye to unblinking eye, at one point literally recoiling from the canvas a tad tearful unable to hold any further the gaze of the 1500 Albrecht Durer.

And it is not only the two dimensions of paint on canvas that is here faced but the three dimensions of the face and head in bust and sculpture. She approaches unwillingly it is clear the unsettled and unsettling bronze busts of Franz Messerschmidt. I was so unsettled by his work that I moved an image of his work in this post from where the Van Gogh self-portrait now is to the foot of this post as I thought it might unsettle you while reading this!

Durer 1500 Self-portrait

Durer 1500 Self-portrait

The most known and key artists in this strange and wonderful world being Durer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Warhol.

But it is not just the works of the long gone artists that she engages with but of the very much here and now, meeting and interviewing English artist Mark Wallinger while viewing his own sculpture self-portrait – a conceptual life-sized or Mark Wallinger-sized letter I, – a self-portrait that we can all project our selves upon.

Also visited is another London artist Patrick Hughes who also works in three dimensions but not in the traditional sculptural way rather an inside-out world is entered as he takes a mould of his face and indeed skull and paints a picture of it on the inside of the face-mould to an unsettling and tricksy effect which he uses the linguistic concatenation ‘reverspective’ to describe.

As well as the art and its historical, religious and political context there is the psychological – Laura Cumming wonders how meaningful is self-portraiture in the first few centuries here surveyed when the very concept of the self was ill-defined and ill-considered if considered at all.

The program and its author succeed on the terms of their engagement – that self-portraiture is far more than idle and indulgence – far more than narcissism – a mirror not just of the artist but of we its audience.

I was as engaged with Laura Cumming and the program as she herself was with her subject self-portraits.

And was left wanting more of The Strange and Wonderful World of Laura Cumming.

Franz Messerschmidt