I came across the following quote while researching my previous entry which concerned Ferdinand Hodler and the Symbolist movement:
“Hodler’s portraits, on the otherhand, are committed to the contingencies of the world. They refer to the unequivocal and the evident, to the subject portrayed. All that is left to discuss are historical details and painting technique.”
Tobia Bezzola – “Landscape as Consensus Formula”
What I love about Art Historians is that they make the most ridiculous statements and assert them so definitively. In the essay “Landscape as Consensus Formula”, Bezzola dismisses most of Hodler’s oeuvre, promoting the premise that only his landscapes and the Godé-Darel cycle remain relevant. He feels that his portraits, too concerned with capturing the fleeting appearance of his sitters, could only interest us for the circumstances that led to their creation or for their technical execution. Obviously, Bezzola does not adhere to the premise that technique is concept.
Hodler - Self Portrait - 1912
In my previous entry, I disclosed how much I admire Hodler’s self portraits. The self portrait I selected to include above exemplifies most of the traits that I appreciate in Hodler’s work. There is a certain élan in Hodler’s approach, the confident way paint is applied to canvas in thick, impasto strokes, the way the rapid, loose sketching in paint that initiated the portrait is never obliterated, that corresponds to my assertion that, in spite of the many hardships he suffered, Hodler maintained primarily an optimistic outlook throughout his life. The brushwork dances over the surface of the painting finding an intuitive rhythm of line and form. In some areas, the brushstrokes are short, distinct and active, like bees gathered at a hive; in other areas, like the white shirtfront, seemingly discordant tones are slurred together successfully. Hodler’s unique palette conveys an otherworldly luminescence that bathes form in an overall light. I get the feeling that, for Hodler, painting was a performance in which every movement was decisive and rapidly executed, a testament to his unparalleled skill. The artist undoubtedly seeks to restrict detail, finding a shorthand approach to translate visual reality. For instance, the hair and beard are indicated very summarily, structure being determined by two or three tones.
Hodler presents himself frontally and symmetrically, his head filling the canvas. The artist is addressing a momentary instant when a specific mood or emotion washes over him. His face expresses bemused surprise, as if he has just been confronted with some rather harsh criticism of his work from an individual completely uninitiated into the mysteries of Modern Art. It is not too big a stretch to assert that his expression parallels that of the thrilled girl in Surprised by the Storm. There is something uniquely Swiss in this self portrait. In the deft handling of the paint, in the glowing overall coloration, in the image of a well dressed, carefully groomed man expressing shock unconvincingly, I perceive a smug confidence and satisfaction, affluence and wellbeing, and a droll sense of humor.
Freud - Reflection (Self Portrait) - 1985
To further illustrate how technique cannot be extricated from meaning, I will examine one of my favorite paintings, Reflection (Self Portrait) by Lucian Freud, in many ways the polar opposite of the Hodler though quite similar in subject matter and presentation. Technically, Freud is very tentative. His paintings are executed in layer upon layer of encrusted paint. During countless sessions, Freud studies his sitter (in this instance, himself), evaluating and reevaluating form, pose, coloration and light, seeking a deeper penetration of his subject and a fuller understanding of structure. Freud is very hesitant to commit to a stance, repeatedly reconsidering every stroke he inflicts on the canvas. Painting, for Freud, is a laborious and unrelenting process of examination and documentation. Ignoring the subject matter, the piercing gaze of the artist and the unsettling lack of clothing and focusing solely on technique, it is unmistakably evident that the Freud has to be a very different painting from the Hodler.
Portraiture is a long established genre which at its worst can get real tedious and musty. But innovative masters have regularly proven that the genre continues to be relevant. Just taking a look at the two following self portraits, one by the photorealist Chuck Close and the other by the expressionist Alice Neel, will give you an idea of how much potential portraiture still offers.
Close - Big Self Portrait - 1967
Neel - Self Portrait - 1980
I must acknowledge that I love self portraits, which may explain why I paint so many myself. There is the issue of availability. Who else would pose for hours in a poorly ventilated studio? And who else would be able to strike the precise pose required and set the desired expression effortlessly session after session? Most importantly, painting yourself frees you from a dialogue with the model, that intrusion of another voice or perspective which inevitably, no matter how much of a steely renegade you believe yourself, reverberates within the artist’s mind. So, I have a long history of painting myself and thought it might be interesting to provide a sampling of a handful of my self portraits.
Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Canvas - 1980 - 30" X 24"
Wickham - Self Portrait with Camera - Oil on Canvas - 2011
Under the influence of expressionism, I painted this elemental image of myself, tanned, bearded and long-haired, in thinned washes of earth tones, blue and black. The quick rendering of my features in dark umber is very apparent in the finished painting; the brushwork is loose and intuitive; detail is minimal.
Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Canvas - 1981 - 30" X 24"
I included the two previous self portraits in an early show and a reviewer felt that they were contradictory, that I must be bipolar or emotionally confused since one painting portrayed a disturbed wild man and the other an urbane and cultured gentleman. Without a doubt, I was in a better place when I painted the second self portrait, but I certainly don’t find the image soothing or reassuring. I was perplexed by the reviewer’s comments. Both works are essentially expressionist in vocabulary and depict the artist assuming a confrontational and troubling attitude.
Wickham - Self Portrait with Deer Hoof -Oil on Canvas - 1983 - 48" X 40"
This painting was intended as one panel of a diptych based on an absurdist reinterpretation of the Annunciation. The work was never completed, unfortunately, because my intended model for the Angel Gabriel became uncomfortable with the project and I didn’t press for her continued participation. Strangely enough, the one complete panel stands very well on its own merits.
Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Linen - 1988 - 18" X 16"
For a period of several years, I only painted abstractly, an approach that revitalized my art and produced a satisfying body of work, but eventually painting in this manner became conventionally confining and came to a dead-end. It was very difficult for me to walk away from abstraction, and for quite a while I created paintings that were neither fish nor fowl, toying with clearly recognizable imagery that was presented in a truncated or mutilated fashion and executed in a painterly expressionist technique. These paintings, without exception, are failures, but they did reintroduce me to the possibilities of representational imagery. I certainly had no intention at that time to become a figurative or realist artist, and yet slowly the work evolved in that direction. This self portrait comes from this strange period when I was a little lost, just putting my toe in to test the representational waters, so to speak, but uncommitted to any specific approach. Vestiges of my abstract experience are apparent in the patterned and energetic brushwork, the unconventional color combinations, the harsh transitions between lights and darks and the clearly visible, intensely colored underpainting.
Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Canvas - 1996 - 14" X 12"
I had just gone through a long period of experimentation during which I painted small frontal portraits in heavily built-up layers of impasto when I started this self portrait which ultimately signaled the end of the series. Using thin transparent glazes of delicate color, I depicted myself in three quarter perspective, the result being about as close as I’ve ever gotten to embracing a photorealist technique. This happens with me frequently. I will tenaciously pursue one avenue of exploration, setting circumscribed restrictions on technique, subject matter and approach, painting one image after another for months or even years, until I have exhausted myself, garnering whatever disclosures the experience offers. Without premeditation, a painting that violates all of the restrictions I have been conscientiously following will cap off the series, usually resulting in a very successful work that suggests a multitude of possibilities for future progress.
Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Canvas - 2000 - 54" X 30"
I’ve never been an artist to flatter a sitter which at times has led to some uncomfortable moments when a final viewing has met with stony silence from my model, usually an unpaid volunteer. I recall while in
I studied with a professor who believed that art must strive for beauty, that
an artist’s role, through skill and knowledge, was to idealize imperfect visual
reality. He and I had several
discussions during which he expressed frustration with my work, particularly
irking for him because he admired my craftsmanship. You see, I always thought it was the
responsibility of the artist to reveal the imperfections, whether physical or
emotional, which the subject seeks to conceal.
I guess there is a different kind of beauty in that. So, in painting a self portrait, I am particularly
free to indulge in this practice, unflinchingly recording my physical
deterioration and my mental foibles. In
the nearly full-length portrait presented above, I took singular pleasure in
bringing to light my flaws, in this instance at least, satisfying my model
completely. Grad School
Wickham - Self Portrait - Oil on Canvas - 2002 - 16" X 12"
Painted in my studio under a bare incandescent bulb, with ribbons of black cloth draped in a cocoon around my head, this self portrait achieved a sense of light as a tangible substance. It was executed in oils, layer upon layer applied over numerous sessions in various thicknesses from impasto to viscous to dilute. When completed, the surface finish ranged from matte to glossy, making it difficult to view as a whole, in particular, contesting the sense of light I was struggling to capture in the work. I placed it aside for a number of years before pulling it out one day to discover that in drying it had achieved the desired effect.
The lighting in my bathroom, a wall bracket of frosted globes combined with an overhead ceiling fixture, creates a subtle suffused frontal light contrasted with a strong halo effect which has interested me for years, but, as for initiating a painting, compositionally I always drew a blank. One afternoon I noticed that the two mirrors in the room, one over the vanity and the other set in the medicine cabinet, were facing each other and created an effect I first witnessed as a young boy seated in the raised chair at Pete’s Barbershop: the mirrors contained a repetition of infinite images of me and my surroundings receding into nothingness. In my bathroom, I particularly liked that the reflections created multiple framing devices that bordered my head, creating a confusing and disjunct space. So I grabbed my Nikon and took a series of photographs which I used to create the self portrait included above. I felt a sort of confessional relief showing the camera in the painting, as I regularly use photographs as a resource for my work without the imagery and paint handling reflecting this. Though the debate over whether it is legitimate to use photographs as a resource for painting or plaster casts for sculpture is long dead, having been trained to paint and draw from life, I still suffer a little guilt. Technically, as has been the case in recent years, I strove to allow the painting to form organically, utilizing whatever means makes sense for the form or texture or surface or light effect that I endeavor to replicate. I still utilize an underpainting to heighten color vibration in the finished work, though the hues are much more subdued than those I used in the past. I definitely apply fewer layers and use less paint than ever before, not for the sake of speed or economy but to assert an authenticity of approach.
I really found it fascinating to select and evaluate this series of my own self portraits, to witness my growing older while observing my stylistic evolution. To keep the length of this entry reasonable, I had to limit my selections, excluding some satisfying works in the process. Hopefully, I can revisit the theme in the future, and perhaps, by that time, I will have produced a new self portrait or two.