Self Portraits at London’s National Portrait Gallery

self portraits

London’s National Portrait Gallery is offering a small but attractive special exhibit that explores self-portraiture through the ages, from Van Eyck, the man who invented oil painting in the fifteenth century, to the brutal images of Francis Bacon and other rigorously unsentimental contemporary artists.

Painters turned out self portraits for an intriguing variety of reasons. For female artists, they were a necessary evil since women were denied access to live figure models until late in the nineteenth century — too unseemly, you know. For women, self portraits also served as advertisements in the days when commissions were hard to come by.

For some artists, the self-portrait was a way to experiment. There’s a wonderful portrait of the young Joshua Reynolds, his hand shading his eyes, that would seem to fall into this category and van Eyck seems to have wanted to practice on the elaborate headdress he’s wearing.

There may have been other motives that the curators gloss over. For example, a wonderful double portrait by the German Gerlach Flicke and an English privateer with the wonderful name Strangewish may be, as the exhibit notes, “the earliest surviving self-portrait in oil produced in England,” but it also seems self evidently a souvenir of a gay love affair.

Other artists, such as Rembrandt and van Gogh, seemed to use self-portraits as a sort of psychological self examination, turning to the mirror again and again during the course of their lives.

The self portraits of some artists, like Frida Kahlo, became so sought after that they churned them out almost as movie stars do head shots for their fans.

For the less academically inclined, the exhibit is a good opportunity to see what amount to “publicity photos” of great artists. Most of us know what van Gogh, Warhol, and Rembrandt looked like. But what about Degas, Cezanne, Courbet, Hogarth, Hopper, deChirico, Velazquez, and van Dyck? They’re all here along with many other lesser knowns.

One of the exhibit’s great strengths is the number of female artists represented, 14 all together, most of them new to me. Many of my favorite works in the show were painted by these women. There’s a luscious picture of Elizabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun looking fresh-faced and perfectly adorable in a straw hat, palette in hand. Then there’s the haunting and haunted image of the Dutch artist Charley Toorop, painted during the last days of the German occupation. Or the brutally unflattering self-portrait of Jenny Saville, her enormous back nearly filling the canvas. Best of all, for my money, is the zaftig Suzanne Valadon’s witty visual pun on Manet’s “Olympia.”

I’m not sure everyone will feel the £8 additional charge for this exhibit (the rest of the museum offers free admission) is worth it, but if the price doesn’t scare you off, you can spend a very pleasant hour or so with the fifty-seven artists represented.

“Self-Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary” runs through January 29, 2006 at the National Portrait Gallery on Trafalgar Square, near the Leicester Square and Charing Cross tube stops. The Gallery is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Friday until 9 p.m.). General admission is free. The web site is www.npg.org.uk

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