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C'est moi!

Omar Calabrese Artists' Self-Portraits, translated by Marguerite Shore. Abbeville, 391 pages, $135

reviewed by Jeffrey Meyers

The self-portrait, an autobiography in paint, began in fifteenth-century Florence when artists first asserted their identity by placing their own image, as observer or participant, into religious and historical narratives. As the artist gained social status, his image increased in importance. Botticelli's handsome, even arrogant, appearance on the extreme right in The Adoration of the Magi (1475) anticipated by several centuries the imposing self-portraits of two formally dressed arch-rivals, the Byronically dashing Delacroix (1839) and the defiantly severe Ingres (1858).

The self-portrait is at once a portrayal of character, projection of personality and definition of selfhood, a statement of individuality and self-awareness, an affirmation that the artist is worthy of fame and deserving of remembrance. It includes moral content, psychological revelations and symbolic attributes, which suggest both intellect and technical skill. Omar Calabrese points out that Lucas Cranach portrayed himself as a severed head in four different versions of the story of Judith and Holofernes--a grotesque self-image served up on a platter during a triumphant banquet--and concludes that it was either a sarcastic anti-tribute or a form of confession and expression of penitence.

Portrait painters have always struggled with the conflict between the real and the ideal. Sir Joshua Reynolds frankly painted his slightly deformed upper lip and alluded to his deafness by cupping his ear. But when he painted Samuel Johnson holding a book close to his eyes, his great friend protested: "Reynolds may paint himself as deaf if he chooses, but I will not be blinking Sam!"

Artists' Self-Portraits is magnificently illustrated with 343 color plates, but the deeply flawed text does not do justice to this marvelous material. Calabrese races through 2,000 years of Egyptian and Classical art in only four pages, then offers a kind of briefly annotated catalogue that's more synthetic than original. Despite the vast scope of the book, he leaves out Hans Holbein, the greatest portrait painter of all time, as well as major modern artists like Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, Soutine, Balthus, Bacon, and Hockney. After another dash through the Middle Ages, he mentions, in a sentence or two, the presumed appearance, based on rumor or tradition, of the artists in crowded Renaissance pictures.

Calabrese promises "not to engage in an abstract and muddled interdisciplinary analysis, but to always remain anchored to the study of individual works." But he soon drifts into the muddy waters of theoretical "methodologies of the behavioral sciences": not only psychology and anthropology, but narratology and semiotics. His book wobbles precariously between obvious banalities and opaque pronouncements. He writes that artists express themselves "through their communicative tool par excellence, that is, the image," and that Ribera, in Philosopher at the Mirror, "portrays himself dressed as a philosopher ... with his face recognizable in the mirror." He also asserts that "in the text there is an enunciator subject (I, you, we), a place of enunciation (here), and a time of enunciation (now) in relation to the recipient of the text" and, even more unhelpfully, that "the self-portrait is the sum of a grammatical category (ego), a syntactical structure (reflexivity), and a modalization (will)."

Calabrese also makes some elementary errors. In van der Weyden's work, St. Luke is clearly drawing (not painting) the Virgin. In Manet's portrait of Zola, the writer is shown at his desk (not "in the artist's studio"). In Modigliani's Self-Portrait, iris last work, he holds a palette in his right hand and brush in his left, and does not "flourish a fan." Magritte's Surrealistic Clairvoyance is far more complex than Calabrese suggests. While looking at a small white egg and painting a huge black bird with spread wings, the artist does not see the embryonic chick "beneath the surface of things," but imagines a fully developed bird in future flight.

Calabrese promises but doesn't deliver perceptive analyses of major self-portraits that explain how the artists achieved dramatic effects by assuming certain poses. A great deal more could be said about some of the most notable portraits, which he treats with brief, inadequate comments. In Durer's rigidly hieratic Self-Portrait (1500), for example, the artist portrays himself as an imposing Christ figure. He wears a fur-trimmed garment with slashed white sleeves, has long strands of curly dark hair and idealized features: broad forehead, penetrating eyes, bold nose, expressive lips, and bearded chin. He seems about to bless the viewer with the long curved fingers of his right hand.

John Ashbery's famous poem on Parmigianino's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1523) could have been quoted to show how the Mannerist artist, concealing as much as he revealed, achieved a trompe l'oeil effect by simulating the curve of a convex mirror on the surface of a small round panel:
 As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
 Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
 And swerving easily away, as though to protect
 What it advertises.

The handsome, rather androgynous artist painted his hand in the act of drawing. Vasari, praising the portrait, observed that "painting and reality were indistinguishable; the work had all the luster of glass, every mark of reflection, every light and shadow so true that one could not hope for more from the human intellect."

Goya's self-portraits provide a striking contrast between the ideal and the real. In Self-Portrait in the Studio (1785), a youthful Goya stands full-length at his easel and looks to the left at the viewer. Framed by an ivory-colored window that's painted with noticeable brushstrokes, his face in shadow, he wears tight trousers, brown jacket trimmed with red and silver, white ruffled shirt, and high hat with silver buckle. His alert features and confident hidalgo pose suggest a masterful artist. Thirty-five years later, when he was seventy-four, Goya painted a very different image. Apparently moribund, the artist falls backward into the arms of his physician, the faithful Dr. Arrieta, who offers him a cup of medicine. The bald, disheveled Goya, with half-closed eyes, clutches desperately at the bed sheets and seems about to sink into oblivion. The inscription below the red blanket thanks the doctor "for the care and attention with which he saved my life during an acute and dangerous illness." After a lifetime of looking hard at reality, Goya created a desperately poignant portrait of himself.

Degas's Self-Portrait (1863), painted when he was nearly thirty, shows him dressed in conventional clothing, with no hint that he's an artist. He has dark hair, mustache and beard, heavy-lidded brown eyes, snub nose, and full red lips. His left hand rests in his trouser pocket; his right, with vibrantly expressive fingers, holds beige gloves and gracefully lifts a top hat. The expression of this elegant gentleman is solemn, skeptical and prematurely world-weary.

In his "implied self-portrait" of 1867-1868, Manet painted Emile Zola with the bold features of his bearded face, in three-quarter view, set off against a black jacket and dark background. He holds a large white open book, and sits at a desk that's cluttered with his pipe, quill pen and inkpot, books and blue-covered pamphlet on Manet, whose title is clearly visible. A Chinese screen is on the left; and in the right background are three allusions to influences on or work by Manet: a Japanese print, an engraving of Velazquez, and an image of Olympia that Zola, defending Manet against vitriolic attacks, had called his masterpiece. With spectacles dropping on a string, the formidable Zola, absorbed in his own thoughts, looks away not only from the book in his left hand, but also from the three pictures that allude to Manet's art.

In Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889), its subject in three-quarter view, the warm gold and brick red of the background are clearly divided by a line that runs emphatically across the painting at eye level. The demented artist has a sharply outlined fur cap, rough sallow-skinned face with high-bridged nose, and green buttoned greatcoat. He bites a pipe that puffs out curls of smoke, boldly confronts the viewer and wears an expression of defiant despair. Although Van Gogh had suffered self-mutilation and psychic shock, his therapeutic painting is surprisingly concentrated, calm, and composed.

In his Self-Portrait (1919), Modigliani holds a brush and palette with a clearly marked range of colors. Seated erect and sideways on a thin wooden chair that seems scarcely able to support him, he tilts his head back and looks to the left. Bundled up against the wintry cold of his studio, he wears a heavy gray shawl, velvety russet jacket, and brown trousers. He has thick brown hair, a long straight nose, and a handsome mouth. His dark eyes, which he couldn't bear to look into, are blank. In his last testament, the old dash and swagger are gone. His mask-like face is pale and sickly, and he appears resigned to his tragic fate and impending death.

Max Beckmann's Self-Portrait in Tuxedo (1927) transforms his huge bald head, wide nose, flat face, and protruding jaw--a cross between Winston Churchill and a bulldog--into a brutal and aggressively self-assured pose, part revelation, part disguise. Beckmann's forceful, jagged outlines convey chilling cynicism and ironic detachment as well as ferocious energy and psychic power.

In the modern period, painters moved from the Renaissance idea of the divine artist to the portrayal of the artist as a tragic clown, displayed before and mocked by a hostile public, or as a deviant, abnormal outcast, "born under Saturn" and destined for madness and destruction. The contemporary artist ended the glorious self-portrait tradition by first becoming fragmented and then disappearing into his own abstractions.
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Title Annotation:Omar Calabrese Artists' Self-Portraits
Author:Meyers, Jeffrey
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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