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.
In 1963 the Pasadena Art Museum held the first major retrospective of the works of arguably the most important artist of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp (see The Process of Perfection). Involved with (though never a full member of) Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, Duchamp’s readymades and dismissal of ‘retinal art’ was to have a profound influence on Conceptual Art and Pop Art.
At the opening Duchamp met the 20 year old writer Eve Babitz who had gate-crashed the event naked, an act of revenge against her married boyfriend Walter Hopps who had neglected to invite her to the party. The subsequent chess match was photographed by Julian Wasser, the chronicler of the West Coast art scene.
Duchamp was a serious chess player and after effectively retiring from art in 1923 devoted himself to the game, playing in the French Championships and writing a weekly chess column.
Eve Babitz was a seminal figure of 60′ and 70’s Hollywood, a West Coast counterpart to Edie Sedgwick. Her famous lovers include the Pop Artist Ed Ruscha and his brother Paul, Jim Morrison, Steve Martin and Harrison Ford. Her novels detailing the LA milieu include Eve’s Hollywood, L.A Woman and Slow Days, Fast Company are undergoing a resurgence of interest and are the basis of a TV series currently in production by Tristar Television.
Artworks including in the photograph are TheBride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) and Chocolate Grinder.
The German born photographer and artist Raoul Ubac settled in Paris in the early 1930’s and under the influence of Man Ray promptly embraced Surrealism and its techniques, particularly solarisation and collage. During the course of the 1930’s Ubac explored the boundaries of experimental photography with his bold and radical innovations. In The Battle of the Amazons and The Triumph of Sterility (featured below) Ubac took a solitary female nude figure and created a photo-montage before subjecting the print to the technique of virage (toning: where different chemicals are substituted for the silver salts during the development) to achieve startlingly different results from a single source image, some verging on the edge of abstraction and in the process subverting the notion of photography’s unquestioned realism.
Quite by chance (regulars readers will know how highly I regard thar particular concept, after all a throw of the dice will never abolish chance) I came upon this beautiful work by Leon Ferrari, a photograph embossed in Braille with one of my favourite poems, Andre Breton’s magnificent Free Union (click link to view English translation). The photograph with the mirror reflecting is reminiscent of Man Ray ( Dreams of Desire 25 (Return to Reason), Brassai (Dreams of Desire 47 (Brassai) and the many photographers who engaged with Golden Age Surrealism: at once sensual, elusive and utterly mysterious.
Of the many femme fatales that haunted the imagination of the late 19th century, Lilith reigns supreme, the only other serious contestant being the murderous temptress Salome with her Dance of the Seven Veils (see Dreams of Desire 22 (The Apparition).
Lilith is a character from Jewish mythology, and like most mythological creatures the legends surrounding her are confusing and even contradictory. She is alternatively Adam’s first wife, a lustful female demon or the wife of Samael. She is barely mentioned in the Old Testament but she features more prominently in the Zohar and other Kabbalistic works. In the Kabbalah she is a type of succubus who is responsible for nocturnal emissions and is associated with the Qlippoth. The one thing that all sources agree on however is that Lilith is supremely beautiful and deadly dangerous.
The above representation by the English Pre-Raphaelite John Collier follows the tradition of having Lilith enjoying the sensuous en-coiling of her naked body by a snake, presumably the same snake that would tempt Adam’s second wife Eve. Unlike Eve though, Lilith actively embraces the independence offered by the emissary of evil.