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Man in the mirror: The Self Portrait by James Hall

A new book examines the cultural history of canvases that have the artist as their subject.

Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (1433), long supposed to be a self-portrait


The Self Portrait: a Cultural History
James Hall
Thames & Hudson, 288pp, £19.95

It would be possible (in fact, very easy) to write an agreeable book about the history of the self-portrait that took in the great masters, from Dürer and Michelangelo to Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Andy Warhol; a book that made reassuring and familiar points about artists we know and love, even if it didn’t change anything. Thank God, this is not that book.

What’s more – and here is a rare comment to find in a book review – James Hall’s cultural history is not long enough. The closely linked essays, taking us from the scribbled self-portraits of medieval monks right through to works composed of tin cans of excrement and photographs of body parts, include many revelations but Hall’s boundless curiosity explodes in all directions from the relatively few pages he has been allocated. Mostly we want more: more detail, more explanation and many more pictures. Given that this is a chunky and well-illustrated volume, that is meant as high praise.

Hall has quite a story to tell, because the history of the self-portrait is also the history of the status of the artist. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, self-portraits were relatively rare and unimportant; the cultural status of artists was very low. When it comes to portraiture, the Middle Ages are, as Hall notes, mostly ignored; yet self-portraits are to be found in illuminated manuscripts. Some of them are witty and mysterious. Artists largely regarded themselves as humble creatures: as worshippers, not the worshipped. St Dunstan, who was an abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, an archbishop of Canterbury and a wealthy aristocrat, represents the humility of the medieval mind. He drew himself as a tiny, rotund figure worshipping Christ while grovelling on the edge of a mountain.

The Renaissance, we are told, was when all of this was cast aside and when individualism was invented, thanks, in part, to the invention of the clear-glass mirror. Narcissism, which already had a long philosophical and artistic history, was handed its ultimate tool. Hall, however, points out that things are far more complicated than that. There were serviceable polished-metal mirrors in use from the classical era to the Middle Ages. Many Renaissance artists still portrayed themselves at the edge of things, as a part of the humble crowd of worshippers. And yet the first psychologically interesting and gripping self-portraits come from the 1400s, at the height of the “mirror craze”.

Jan Van Eyck’s (probable) self-portrait of 1433, with his badly shaven chin and his bloodshot eyes, still feels like a pivotal moment in the history of art. “White highlights turn these eyes into scintillating mirrors,” Hall writes. “A moment later, and his piercing gaze will be gone – perhaps following the light that streams in from his right. He is a man who sees things – himself included – in close-up, but without losing track of the bigger picture.” And he’s right. It’s hypnotic.

Why did Van Eyck make such a picture? Self-portraits, unlike paintings of rich patrons, were of low financial value. Hall suggests that the Van Eyck represents the rising social status of the artist in northern Europe; that it was painted as a “dynastic image” to be passed down to his descendants. This small, portable object is certainly very different from the self-portraits by earlier artists such as Taddeo di Bartolo and Giotto that infiltrated religious paintings.

It is not until two generations later, in the 1490s, that the Renaissance “artist-as-hero” starts fully to emerge. Rich trading cities such as Florence and Nuremberg were so proud of their artists that they encouraged the cult. In Florence, a wall monument to Giotto was unveiled 150 years after his death. It boasted in Latin: “I am he through whom painting, dead, returned to life, and whose hand was as sure as it was adept . . . After all, I am Giotto.”

“I am . . .” A similar arrogance shines out from the repeated and meticulous self-portraits of Albrecht Dürer, with his lovingly coiled hair, dandy’s clothing and belligerent stare; from Raphael’s androgynous early self-portraits; and even from works by Giorgione and Perugino. Coded references to Christ and biblical parallels remind the viewer that these artists are special creatures. Stories about their extraordinary precocity – child prodigy after child prodigy, overawing their teachers – become common and they are intriguingly similar to popular stories of saints’ lives. By portraying the world, the artist begins to lay claim to a Godlike talent as creator.

In profoundly religious societies, humanism can only be pushed so far and all this self-aggrandisement quickly became too much. Artists got the message. Hall devotes a fascinating short chapter to mock-heroic self-portraits, including Michelangelo’s representation of himself as a flayed skin in The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel and Titian’s self-portraits in old age. Hall finds in the latter “a sluggishness and absent-mindedness . . . The eyes look a little watery, the mouth a bit slack, the hands weak . . .” Artists were still too dependent on temporal and ecclesiastical patrons, perhaps, to see themselves as a class of heroes. Vermeer, painting himself from the back in a ridiculously over-furnished studio, and Velázquez, in his wonderful and mysterious court painting Las Meninas, are among those playing with the idea of their ambiguous social status.

Then the artist-as-hero returns in full splendour in the work of Rembrandt. No other great artist in history has depended so heavily on the self-portrait for his reputation. Rembrandt completed more than 40 painted self-portraits, etched himself 31 times and left half a dozen drawings of himself. He became, Hall tells us, perhaps the most recognisable artist in the world and his likenesses were bought early on by rich enthusiasts, including King Charles I. Rembrandt portrayed himself in many ways but if we concentrate too much on the great, very late self-portraits, in which mortality outstares itself, we miss the dishevelled truculence of the proud workman that is, perhaps, ultimately how he wanted to be remembered. Quite consciously, he turned himself – tousled, rough, arms akimbo – into one of the first international artistic superstars.

Among the many virtues of this book are the discussions of lesser-known artists whom Hall insists we think about. He is particularly strong on underrated female painters such as Sofonisba Anguissola, Angelica Kauffmann and the mysterious sculptor Anne Seymour Damer. But the biggest surprise is Artemisia Gentileschi. Her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (produced between 1638 and 1639), a dramatic, unusual and muscular work rightly described by Hall as “the most forceful affirmation of artistic genius that had yet been painted”, is a bold reference to the God of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It’s in the royal collection in London and it is frankly shocking that we don’t know it better. Hall persuaded me, at least, that it deserves to be one of the more celebrated paintings in the country.

The later part of the book is dominated by an excellent mini-essay on Gustave Courbet and a sensitive study of Van Gogh’s chair paintings. The final chapter covers a range of modern self-portraits that privilege the artist’s body and autobiography over images of the face. We are reintroduced to the narcissism of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons and the autobiographical art of Tracey Emin.

By now, Hall is charging through lists of wildly different artists, ticking off some and leaving enormous gaps – there is no David Hockney, no Lucian Freud and, most shockingly, very little Pablo Picasso. Picasso was, after all, an obsessive creator of self-portraits, including of himself in the act of painting, and many of them refer back to artists whom Hall has discussed earlier. If there is a paperback edition, I seriously suggest a new chapter.

Hall, though, remains attentive and interested in those he does choose and is largely non-judgemental. Yet, for this reader at least, there is an uneasy sense that we have moved from the artist as a source of interest (even a hero) because of what he or she makes to the pretence that the artist is inherently interesting – as a thinker, a personality, or a celebrity – outside of any notion of making. “Look at me, not merely at what I happened to produce.”

This may appear democratic but it is the opposite. It implies that, for some unexplained reason, the consciousness of self-described artists is more valuable than that of the teeming millions around them. Really? Are today’s artists thinking about love, death, sex and money in ways that are more profound or interesting than other people? The only validation offered is the fickle and, as we have all learned, highly unreliable international market.

Like the brief era of the Renaissance hero-artist, this cannot last. The consequence – in the age of the ubiquitous selfie, which claims that we are all heroes, all makers, all creators – will be a radical diminishment in the status of the artist and, in many cases, of art itself.

“A Short Book on Drawing” by Andrew Marr is published by Quadrille (£15)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood