Reflections of self

There is not much that one sees of self-portraits in Indian art but as far as the West is concerned it is a rich, resonant area, peopled by great works and exciting to explore, writes B. N. Goswamy

Two favourites, among the stories told of European artists of the past, concern the great 5th century BC sculptor of Greece, the incomparable Phidias, and the 15th century Flemish painter, Jan van Eyck.

Self-portrait. Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Self-portrait. Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Phidias created for the Parthenon, the monumental temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, some magnificent images in one of which the Goddess of War and Wise Counsels was seen carrying a shield with several figures of idealised Greek heroes carved on it; but, mingling with them, also, was a small portrait of his own.

The discerning espied the artist’s ‘presence’ in the group quickly—the bald head and the wrinkled features were unmistakably his—and were greatly offended. Phidias was tried and given a jail sentence. His crime? The Parthenon was no place for representing mere mortals; and no sculptor should take credit for a work of pure divinity.

The celebrated Flemish painter, Jan van Eyck, among the very first artists to use oils in painting, committed no crime, nor was he imprisoned; in one of the most enigmatic paintings in the history of western art, the Arnolfini ‘marriage portrait’, however, he was playing a game with his viewers as it were.

The symbol-rich painting shows the young Italian merchant, Arnolfini, standing with his coy-looking newly-wedded wife facing him, inside a richly appointed room on the back wall of which hangs a framed convex mirror. The mirror all but escapes one’s notice at first but when one looks into it with care, finely carved scenes on its wooden frame and all, many things are revealed.

In it for instance one can see reflected much of the room, including the backs of the two main personages and, surprisingly, two other figures standing in a door. Above the mirror the painter placed a signature, writing in his own hand the odd words reading, in Latin, "Jan van Eyck was here". This world-famous painting has been subjected to a great deal of study, one of the views being that it was probably conceived as a unique but legal marriage document, complete with witnesses—the two men in the reflected door—one of them being the painter, Jan van Eyck, who states that "he was here".

Two thousand years separate the works one has briefly described here, but one thing that unites them is the interest of the two artists in portraying themselves, and thus merging themselves in their own work. We speak of self-portraiture here, a subject of deep, absorbing interest. There is not much that one sees of self-portraits in Indian art—oddly enough, even to this day—but as far as the West is concerned it is a rich, resonant area, peopled by great works and exciting to explore. Early examples apart, from the 15th century onwards, especially after the advent of mirrors in their lives, artists have been portraying themselves, modelling as it were for themselves in their own works of art.

Questions arise naturally: why after all does an artist portray himself, or what meaning can one read into self-portraits? What social and psychological themes do they unravel? Are these works projections of self? In-depth explorations by the artist of his own psyche? His attempt to understand the meaning of life by looking at himself unsparingly? Or, simply, at least in some cases, an inexpensive way of finding a model?

Again, when one looks at the self-portraits of artists, is one being something like ‘a voyeur of thought, watching the artists confront death and memory as they set down what they see in the mirror’, as someone said? Is, for us, looking at the self-portrait of an artist akin to being present at the moment in which he negotiates with both history and the future about how— humanly and aesthetically—to place himself in what the sculptor Marino Marini called "the kingdom of the dead who remain alive"?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. But while one mulls these over, there are some extraordinary images—self-portraits—that keep projecting themselves upon the screen of one’s mind. The self-portraits of one of the greatest of painters ever, Rembrandt, for instance. He painted himself again and again, at different stages of his life, different moments of his career, as if he were engaging in some ongoing, intensive self-study, creating in the process a legacy of something like 60 self-portraits that chronicle his turbulent life: from rags to riches, through marriages and mistresses, from youth to old age.

There is not simply a face that we see in his self-portraits, but a revelation. Every stage of his inner development—‘experimental in the early years, theatrically disguised in the 1630’s, frank and self-analytical toward the end of his life’—comes to life. His first self-portrait was dated as early as 1629, and his last, a few months before his death in 1669. There is something deeply moving in these works, especially those that belong to his last years in which he appears old, wrinkled, and tired. Glancing in the mirror, the great artist is believed to have said: "`85and I came, it may be, to look for myself and recognize myself. What have I found? Death painted I see..."

There are countless other artists who painted themselves, but the one other name that comes swiftly to mind is that of another great Dutch master: Vincent van Gogh. Unlike Rembrandt, however, van Gogh painted the majority of his self-portraits—22 of them—not over a lifetime, but within two tumultuous years towards the end, as if he was in a hurry.

In them we see a troubled man who was struggling with and against life, searching for answers. Each painted portrait captures in painful detail emotions of shock, disturbance, and confusion. He even captured his own image, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Head, after his fevered mutilation of his own ear. When brush strokes swirl around his head like angered hornets, and his hand rigidly grips a palette in another self-portrait, one knows that one is looking at a tragic figure: filled with love but doomed to isolation.

A line of the poet Abraham Cole about the human face comes to mind: "Unmatched by art, upon this wondrous scroll/Portrayed are all the secrets of the soul."