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A Face to the World: on Self-Portraits

Vibrations of a soul

Degas never liked to travel in a closed carriage. This coldly fastidious character, not much of a social mixer, preferred to take the omnibus across Paris so that he might feast his detached gaze upon strangers. "We were created to look at one another, weren't we?" he asked his admirer Walter Sickert. Later, in Laura Cumming's beautifully written, richly illustrated exploration of the self-portrait, we read of Delacroix's lament, written in his diary: "It is one of the saddest things in life that we can never be completely known and understood by another person."

Naturally, we like to observe others; before they even open their mouths we try to glean something of people's inner lives from facial expressions, gesture, body language and dress. Yet we can also feel that we ourselves, and perhaps others, too, can never be truly known. And though we might long to be metaphorically undressed on occasion, stripped down to the inner core of our being, we might also feel, perhaps in our darkest moments, that the only face we can really offer the world comes through a series of masks.

When we look at a portrait, we are confronted by similar problems and conundrums - or we imagine we are, as we are not actually looking at a person, but at paint. Yet even the illusion of a painted face on canvas can offer up essential truths, so Cumming argues - or perhaps only if the face in question is a self-portrait. For "no matter how fanciful, flattering or deceitful the image" of the self-portrait happens to be, it still offers unique insights that a portrait cannot. What it offers, the author insists, is a "special class of truth", a "special look of looking". And such is the nature of this look - this apparent look of intent, which seems to seek you out actively in the crowd - that even small children can tell a self-portrait from a portrait. It's all in the intensity of the gaze, you see. Return the artist's gimlet gaze and you enter into an instant rapport, one that is alive with possibility.

That probably sounds a little far-fetched. If even a child can tell a self-portrait from a portrait, then why did many eminent scholars insist for so long that Jan van Eyck's steely 1433 Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait?) was not a self-portrait at all? Cumming is not an art historian, but an art critic, and she gives short shrift to those members of the scholarly profession who for too long promulgated the notion that it was not until the Renaissance that the fully rounded modern self finally emerged: clearly, artists never painted themselves, as they had no "self" to paint. This is blinkered nonsense. Just look at the paintings themselves and you have your evidence.

Compare, for instance, a late self-portrait by Rembrandt with that artist's Portrait of Jacob Trip (c.1661). Here are two old men, both powerfully inhabiting their station in life, but although the viewer senses the force of Trip's intelligence, we can find no "reciprocal inquiry in his face" as
we find in Rembrandt's. So all those who have found themselves moved by Rembrandt's late self-portraits, who have perhaps detected some vibration of the soul within those thickly impastoed surfaces, can perhaps feel a small victory against those dusty old academics who seem always to downgrade the act of looking in order to promote a particular view of social history. And as we also see, we need hardly wait for the self-loving pictorial excesses of Courbet - whom we find in a fantastically enjoyable chapter entitled "Egotists" - or for the 19th-century Romantics, to discover artists regarding themselves in all manner of guises (both sublime and ridiculous).

Cumming's arguments are persuasive and compelling. She is especially good on the Old Masters - and rather brilliant on Van Gogh - although skimpier on the moderns and contemporaries, apart from a lengthy entry on Cindy Sherman. In my view, this is fairly balanced, however, because, apart from a lot of tortured angst from the expressionists, there just seems to be much less meat once we get to the dying days of the 20th century. How seriously, after all, can we regard Marc Quinn's DNA samples as self-portraits?

I must add one tiny quibble. It is frustrating to read descriptions of self-portraits not pictured in the book. A self-portrait by Mondrian (and how many people can claim to have seen a self-portrait by this austere painter of modernist grids?) is, apparently, "so unexpected as to seem quite implausible". How we long to take a peek. But, the few frustrations aside, A Face to the World is a fascinating and intriguing book. And a surprisingly joyful, uplifting read.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right