Although there are a few instances of self-portraits in Western Art before Albrecht Dürer, most notably Jan Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) from 1433, Dürer was the first artist to prolifically produce self-portraits throughout their career, ushering in a new conception of the artist who could also be the very subject matter of art.
Dürer’s first self-portrait is a silver-point drawing from 1484 produced when he was only thirteen. At the time he was learning the basics of goldsmithing and drawing from his father, however such was his precocious artistic talent that he became apprentice to Nuremberg’s leading artist, Michel Wolgemut, at the age of fifteen. Notice the flowing locks of hair and the long, slender, artistic fingers which would be repeatedly emphasised in a number of subsequent self-portraits.
Dürer’s first painted self-portrait is the Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle completed when he was 22 and probably intended as a betrothal present to his fiance Agnes Frey. The thistle was a sign of conjugal fidelity and also thought to have aphrodisiac properties.
The second painting is the Self-Portrait at 26, painted after his first journey to Italy. Here Dürer portrays himself as a man of the world and also a man of fashion. His presence dominates the setting and the landscape seen through the window and his knowing, ironic gaze stares out at the viewer with more than a hint of arrogance.
Dürer’s final and most famous painted self portrait is the powerful Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar from 1500. Here Dürer is unmistakably portraying himself as Christ. The muted tones and the fingers raised in a sign of blessing belong to the traditional depictions of Christ, as well as being half-length and frontal as opposed to the three-quarters length favoured for secular portraits. It is undoubtedly the most complex and introspective of all his self-portraits with an unprecedented psychological depth.
The rest of Dürer’s self-portraits are mainly confided to cameo appearances in other works. However in 1509 he would draw a remarkable Self-Portrait in the Nude, submitted the whole of his body to a merciless self scrutiny that wouldn’t be matched in art again until the advent of Modernism in the early 20th Century.
While watching Paul Schrader’s excellent, and underrated biopic of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, I was struck by how contemporary and up to date a figure Mishima seems, in fact far more relevant today than when the movie was first released. Of course certain individuals tend to be ahead of their time, however, as Mishima was a narcissistic nihilist who espoused a highly individualistic form of extreme right-wing nationalism for the most dubious of reasons, this is more of a reflection on the perilous state of current affairs than an inspirational story of a heroic touch bearer from the past lighting the path to a better world for present and future generations. Regardless of this disturbing fact, Mishima remains one of the better of the twentieth century’s right-wing writers (not exactly a crowded field, but still) with a lucid self awareness, fanatical determination and fatalistic steeliness that warrants a closer look through the glass, however darkly.
A sickly and isolated child who wasn’t permitted by his grandmother to play with other boys or even go outside in the sunlight, Mishima became aware of his sado-masochistic and homosexual tendencies at an early age while leafing through a book and discovering a reproduction of a Renaissance painting of St Sebastian. In his first, breakthrough novel Confessions of a Mask, Mishima describes the occasion for his first orgasm in decadent prose,’The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh, and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy,’ and he would later pose as St Sebastian for a photograph, one of a series of aggressively stylised portraits published in the book Torture By Roses.
This strain of theatrical narcissism and exhibitionism that Mishima displayed time and time again shows a profound lack of a core identity. He would pose as St Sebastian, a yakuza gangster, a bodybuilder, a samurai and as a soldier. Particularly as a soldier. Along with this addiction to his own image adopting various roles, he obsessively cultivated a cult of the body. One of the requirements placed for his arranged marriage was that his wife couldn’t encroach on the time he spent either writing or body-building.
Along with the inherent masochism required to achieve the perfect body, body-building enabled Mishima to indulge his fixations on virility, health and purity, but also conversely on their opposites, sterility, decay and perversion. In a particularly convoluted example of self-loathing (a speciality of his, and one that he undoubtedly derived a perverse pleasure from) Mishima adopted a fierce anti-intellectualism but which was defended purely on intellectual grounds.
Given Mishima’s inveterate ability to aestheticize every facet or experience in his life, not only experiences that are typically aestheticised like art and the body, but also action, violence and death itself, perhaps it is no surprise that Mishima adopted fascism* as his ideology. After all, as Walter Benjamin shrewdly noted, one of the hallmarks of fascism is that it is the aestheticization of politics. It’s theatricality, militarism and not so coded homo-eroticism and rituals of dominance and submission seem tailor-made for Mishima, with the added bonuses that its nihilistic emphasis on ‘blood, fire and the night’ gave him the opportunity to write the perfect ending to his life, achieving his desired aim of writing a line of poetry with a splash of blood.
During the last years of his life Mishima became increasingly pre-occupied with politics. He published essays about fascism, wrote a play called My Friend Hitler and founded a private militia called Takenokai (English: Shield Society-or the SS-as Mishima was fluent in both English and German the coincidence doesn’t seem so coincidental) comprised entirely of handsome university students, with the express purpose of defending the abstract ideal of the Emperor’s dignity. Mishima increasingly desired to be seen as a man of action, noting that both Lord Byron and the Italian decadent writer and one of acknowledged originators of Fascism, Gabriele D’Annunzio had both commanded their own private armies.
Mishima is most famous for his spectacular suicide in 1970 by seppuku after the failed coup d’etat,, which Schraderrightly centres his movie around. This act was the culmination of Mishima’s solipsistic vision; a fusion of life, art and action and a expression of fascistic aesthetics: Mishima’s Gesamtkunstwerk.
When this movie was first released, fascism seemed spent as a living force, rightly confided to the trash heap of history. Subsequent events have proved how wrong this assumption is with virulent nationalist movements sweeping across the world. Although Mishima nationalism was a somewhat idiosyncratic affair, it does highlight certain aspects of fascist aesthetics and the appeal it may possibly possess beyond the merely economic factors that are always tepidly cited as its chief cause of its spread.
Fascism is a purely reactionary force, and is best viewed in the light of everything it opposes and seeks to cure; namely modernity. Tradition is seen as a bastion of lost greatness, with gender roles set in stone, rigid conformity and static hierarchy. With its cult of the strongman who personifies the state, its staged presentation of might and the quasi-mystical emphasis on symbolic talismans (the flag, uniforms, anthem, rallies and parades) fascism is in itself a decadent response to decadence and in a certain respect the very essence of the modernity that it rejects so vehemently.
* I use the term fascism with caution. Please note that in the above article I am not labelling Mishima a fascist in the lazy pejorative sense, of say, a leftist from the 80’s towards anyone who was slightly centre-right, or indeed present day hard right apologists who indulge in verbal gymnastics by claiming that it is, in fact the liberals who are the actual fascists; but in the sense that fascism is understood as a term in classical political philosophy.