North & South - - Review -

Ju­lian Bell ( Phaidon, $ 44.99) The tell­tale three-quar­ter head, the oddly com­pelling glance, the hid­den hand. Many of these self-por­traits fit a clas­sic for­mat: the artist turned to face a mir­ror, paint­ing hand hid­den.

Although the first in this chrono­log­i­cal mini-vol­ume is an Egyp­tian carver who im­mor­talised him­self swig­ging beer in a pa­pyrus boat (circa 2350BC), the big celebri­ties are all here. There is fas­ci­na­tion in look­ing into the limpid chalk eyes of a 21-year- old Raphael, or the peev­ish glance of a mid­dle-aged pau­per named Rem­brandt. Some have painted them­selves in all their fin­ery: 17th- cen­tury artist Ju­dith Leyster slouches breezily in front of her easel in a snowy col­lar as wide as a hula hoop.

But most artists haven’t ex­actly gone for the equiv­a­lent of glam “self­ies”. Dalí re­moved the bones from his face and hung what re­mained on crutches next to a slice of ba­con. The 19th-cen­tury painter Courbet looks like Johnny Depp af­ter a bad batch of smack, while Sar­gent, the great Amer­i­can fin de siè­cle flat­terer, glares at us like a dys­pep­tic bank man­ager. Michelan­gelo is a flayed saint with a hor­ror-movie mask face, and Car­avag­gio is a drip­ping sev­ered head, mouth agape.

There are pho­to­graphs and sculp­tures, fres­coes and wood en­grav­ings, nearly all from Europe. But these are the most know­ing and lay­ered of por­traits – great artists ex­ploit­ing the rare lux­ury of pleas­ing them­selves.


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