The art world’s orig­i­nal self­ies

Por­trait of the Artist pulls in a few big names from the Queen’s Royal Col­lec­tion

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

Por­trait of the Artist opened 2

in Lon­don, Eng­land, in Novem­ber 2016. The first show to fo­cus on the rich his­tory of artists’ por­traits and self-por­traits in the Royal Col­lec­tion, it was in­stalled in the Queen’s Gallery, Buck­ing­ham Palace, and ac­com­pa­nied by a hand­some and il­lu­mi­nat­ing pub­li­ca­tion. The works on view, span­ning some 500 years, called forth a num­ber of themes, in­clud­ing the in­creas­ing sta­tus of the artist in the west­ern world from the Re­nais­sance for­ward and the grow­ing de­sire by those with wealth and power to ac­quire de­pic­tions of these in­di­vid­u­als, now deemed cre­ators rather than mere ar­ti­sans. The show also il­lus­trated the shift­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween artist and col­lec­tor, the use of self-por­trai­ture as a tool of self-pro­mo­tion, and the im­pact of pho­tog­ra­phy on tra­di­tional por­trait paint­ing. Quite a hefty pro­gram.

A smaller and some­what di­luted ver­sion of that ex­hi­bi­tion is now on view at the Van­cou­ver Art Gallery. The big names are here—from Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, and Rem­brandt van Rijn to Lu­cian Freud and David Hock­ney—but not so much the big paint­ings. (In some in­stances, this has to do with the Royal Col­lec­tion’s strict reg­u­la­tions about trans­port­ing the works.) In­stead, we have some ma­jor paint­ings by mi­nor artists and, with a few ex­cep­tions, draw­ings, prints, and pho­to­graphs by ma­jor artists. Also on view are en­grav­ings and mez­zot­ints done “af­ter” orig­i­nal paint­ings.

Still, there are enough in­ter­est­ing works in the VAG show to keep the viewer en­gaged. Among them are Dürer’s wood­cut of him­self and his friends in a bath­house, with its strate­gi­cally placed and ob­vi­ously phal­lic wa­ter tap; a chalk draw­ing at­trib­uted to An­ni­bale Car­racci, filled with ten­der, teenage sel­f­re­gard; Ju­lia Mar­garet Cameron’s ro­man­ti­cized pho­to­graph of Ge­orge Fred­eric Watts; and Hock­ney’s dig­i­tally deft self-por­trait, cre­ated on an ipad.

The very beau­ti­ful red chalk draw­ing of the el­derly Leonardo by his pupil and com­pan­ion Francesco Melzi was made be­tween 1515 and 1519 and is de­scribed here as “the only re­li­able sur­viv­ing por­trait” of the great man. Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s black and white chalk draw­ing of him­self, prob­a­bly ex­e­cuted in the late 1670s, is a pen­e­trat­ing study of an old man calmly pre­par­ing him­self for death. One of the most sig­nif­i­cant paint­ings here is of and by Sir Joshua Reynolds, cre­ated about 1788, again late in his life. The lead­ing por­trait painter of his time and place does not flat­ter him­self, and the com­bi­na­tion of round eye­glasses, curly white wig, and con­ster­nated ex­pres­sion gives him the ap­pear­ance of a lost sheep. The ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logue de­scribes this work as a de­pic­tion of “a man of in­tel­lect…ca­pa­ble of think­ing great thoughts”. Hmm. The poor soul had lost much of his hear­ing and would, in the fol­low­ing years, be­come com­pletely blind. Per­haps a lost sheep with only his thoughts to con­sole him?

The work that an­chors the show (and its pub­lic­ity cam­paign) is Artemisia Gen­tileschi’s Self-por­trait as the Al­le­gory of Paint­ing (La Pit­tura), cre­ated in the 1630s and pre­sented to Charles I while the Ital­ian artist was liv­ing in Lon­don. It is an in­spired and vir­tu­oso paint­ing, al­though per­haps slightly mis­lead­ing as rep­re­sen­ta­tive: the show and the col­lec­tion are (sur­prise!) over­whelm­ingly dom­i­nated by male artists. Still, as the cu­ra­tors point out, only a woman could have de­picted her­self as La Pit­tura, the al­le­gor­i­cal and al­ways fe­male per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of paint­ing. Hap­pily, Gen­tileschi did not fol­low all the icono­graphic dic­tates of the time: she re­fused to ren­der her­self mute with a gag tied over her mouth (paint­ing be­ing an art that communicates to us with­out words). In­stead, she shows her­self with large hands, mus­cu­lar fore­arms, and an ex­pres­sion of con­cen­tra­tion, hold­ing the tools of her art and poised to cre­ate. That Gen­tileschi was a sur­vivor of rape— and of a tor­tur­ous pub­lic trial of the crime—makes her self-por­trait all the more pow­er­ful.

> ROBIN LAU­RENCE

Self-por­trait

Brit artist David Hock­ney ex­e­cuted this us­ing an ipad.

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