Saturday, July 21, 2018

Entry - 7.21.18

“There’s no retirement for an artist, it’s your way of living so there’s no end to it.”
                                                                                                               - Henry Moore

So, as previously stated, one of my retirement goals is to become proficient in the use of gouache, an opaque medium similar to watercolor.  There are a couple of advantages to gouache.  You can thin it with water, so there are no solvent fumes with which to deal.   It’s very portable making it ideal for painting on location.  Your brushes and palette can be cleaned with soap and water.  And, most important for me, because of its opacity, you can rework areas and cover up mistakes, a critical feature for me since I tend to rely on the “trial and error” method often in making determinations while painting.  One reason I’ve struggled with watercolor in the past is its transparency makes recovering from my “experimental excursions” impossible.

I’m pretty sure that I had two tubes of gouache in my pencil box at one time.  I never explored their potential seriously, using them more as an occasional supplement to enhance my graphic work.  But I am ready to roll up my sleeves and master their use now.  At this point in my life, I am basically an oil painter who spends months on a single work, building up layers of paint to arrive at the exact tones and textures I desire.  Yes, I’ve become a bit slow and fussy, not a horrible thing but not a great one either.  I thought it might be a good experience for me to tackle a new medium, one that might encourage me to be a little more spontaneous and inventive.  After all, gouache paints and decent watercolor paper are relatively cheap, and there’s really no preparation involved.  So I can certainly shrug off disappointing results gracefully, abandoning an unpromising effort in its embryonic stage rather than toiling stubbornly to save the work.

These days, whenever I want to learn a new technique, I turn to the internet.  There I can usually find an endless array of videos available providing instruction and demonstrations.  These videos are really a wonderful resource, the only problem being that often the quality of the material can be poor or designed for a lay audience.  Some of the gouache demonstrations were clearly intended for craft enthusiasts, but I did find a good many that provided professional instruction for artists.  From these I got the impression that gouache could be used very much like oil paint, applied in thick, lush strokes and built up in layers.  This appealed to me very much, and I was eager to start my first project.

I already knew that I would work on a series of self-portraits.  I wanted to work freely from a live model, and I recognized that I was the only model available who was willing to pose for hours at a time, sometimes for several consecutive days.  Another benefit of using me as my subject matter was that I didn’t have to flatter or satisfy myself.  I could experiment with this new medium without constraint, portray myself unconventionally, strike unusual poses and produce unquestionable failures, and I would be fine with that.  I couldn’t imagine a volunteer model being as understanding.

Another predetermination I had conceived was to get out of my studio.  I had had enough of being locked away in an upstairs workspace, exiled to some degree away from social interaction and customary activity.  I wanted to blast music from the downstairs stereo while I painted and experience, peripherally at least, the daily comings and goings of my wife and children.  Probably more important was the fact that though the lighting in my studio is ideal for someone painting in a fixed area, it was less conducive to illuminating a model.  After years of trying, I had yet to find a way of satisfactorily lighting my paint surface and my subject matter.  The room was simply too cluttered with paintings, pads, easels and art materials to provide a lot of maneuvering space, and the only natural light was provided by one double-hung window with a southern exposure.  I guess if Virginia Woolf needed “a room of one’s own” for her creative efforts, I needed a bigger, brighter one for mine.  Moving downstairs allowed me to investigate a number of locations with unique lighting conditions.

So on a midwinter morning, I set up a mirror and an easel in the middle of our kitchen and went to work, first quickly sketching in my features in pencil before moving on to gouache.  Informed that gouache behaved comparably to oils, I adopted my most common technique, blocking in a rough underpainting in green tones to establish lights and darks and provide a complementary foundation against which the flesh tones would sing.  I was committed to working loosely, so I employed large brushes (well at least in consideration of my paper size) and loaded them generously with pigment.  In winter, if the wood burning stove is not fired up, the kitchen can become quite cold; and after hours perched on my chair, posing stiffly before a mirror, my back began to ache and body temperature drop.  It certainly wasn’t hell, but it took a bit of determination to continue.  My real challenge was not to overcome physical discomfit but to master this new medium; and my efforts were proving insufficient.  The gouache was behaving more like watercolors than oils, overpainting never quite subduing a lower layer of color.  When multiple layers of dense pigment were applied, the tonality grew darker and darker, and even white directly from the tube could not restore luminosity to my image.  I also learned that gouache will darken considerably as it initially dries but will reach a middle tone when fully dry.  The painting became murky and lost definition, and I felt I lost control of the work.  Chalk this one up as a learning experience.

Gerard Wickham - Kitchen Self-Portrait - 2018

In executing my next self-portrait, I was determined to maintain control of my efforts.  After penciling in a light sketch, I used pen and ink to fix detail; then I applied color in thin washes, incrementally building up tones.  I was too tentative, the resulting image developing into essentially a toned drawing.  To mix it up a bit, I worked this time in our dining room directly beside a window, portrayed myself head-on rather than in three quarter view and donned an eccentric earflapped hat to boot.

Gerard Wickham - Self-Portrait in Earflapped Hat - 2018

So it was back to the drawing board for me.  As with the second work, in this image I retained the pen and ink drawing and jettisoned the underpainting but now was more committed than before to working loosely.  I also wanted to use bolder colors to suggest form.  To my advantage, I had already gained a partial understanding of how gouache behaved and recognized that limiting my palette would be advantageous.  For this portrait, I wore my black hoodie, allowing the hood to cast dark shadows over my face.  This time I set up my easel in the hallway beside the side entrance to our home.  Outside light entered through the door’s glass insert, but I was predominantly lit by a harsh incandescent globe light directly over my head.  I chose to stand for this painting because only in this position could I get the light right.  I started at nine in the morning and finished up at seven in the evening, only stopping briefly for a quick bite to eat at midday.  Not until I walked away from the easel did I realize that my hands were shaking and I was a bit dizzy.  I had definitely pushed myself with this work…at least, physically so.

Gerard Wickham - Hooded Self-Portrait - 2018

For the next portrait, I wanted to paint myself in profile.  It took some effort to arrange two mirrors in the precise positions required to provide an acceptable side view.  I started with a pencil sketch before moving to pigment.  Maintaining a consistent pose proved rather difficult since I was working from a reflection twice removed, and my drawing and painting suffered for it.  After working several hours, I decided that I couldn’t salvage this painting and called it a day.

Gerard Wickham - Unfinished Self-Portrait in Profile - 2018
I felt that one of the problems with the previous painting was that I didn’t start work with a formal conception, meaning that I was relying totally on a visual presentation and was not applying an intellectual structure to the image.  So as I regularly shifted position and struggled to regain my original pose, my perspective kept varying, contributing principally to an unsuccessful representation.  Therefore I began my next self-portrait by drawing a series of perspective lines on my watercolor paper.  I chose to use what I would call an extreme perspective, one that might be obtained by a mosquito flying directly in front of my face, then I drew my portrait, forcing my features to conform to my perspective guides.  Again to provide some variety, I wore a knitted winter cap for this portrait and can attest that as the spring season brought warmer temperatures I began to regret that choice.  After producing a rough sketch in pencil, I used pen and ink to fix the detail.  I had wanted to record my pen and ink drawing before painting but forgot and had already painted in the eyes before taking my photo.  Oh well, you can get the general idea.

Gerard Wickham - Preliminary Drawing - 2018

I had purchased a larger watercolor pad prior to my start on this work, and the larger format definitely facilitated my efforts.  All of the earlier paintings were completed within single day sessions; but numerous days of work went into this piece.  I was back at the kitchen window, and, having marked with labeled masking tape strips the positions of my easel, mirror and chair, I could set up my work area each day precisely as it was when I had started.  I carefully applied semitransparent layers of gouache to my drawing.  The heightened coloration and exaggerated perspective reminded me of some Early Renaissance works, so I thought it would be fun to insert a sprawling landscape in the background.  A photograph I had recently taken while hiking on the Appalachian Trail served as the ideal source.  Just as with my head, after drawing in the detail with pen and ink, I applied gouache in thin layers in my landscape.  The resulting image is awkward and disconcerting, but I’m inexplicably satisfied with it.

Gerard Wickham - Self-Portrait in Knitted Cap - 2018
I still wasn’t fully certain that I was using gouache as intended, so I went back to the internet and watched more instructional YouTube videos.  In one of them, a woman cautioned against using cheap paints, singling out Reeves as a prime example of a substandard gouache.  Of course, I had been using a Reeves set of 18 colors in the execution of all the previous works.  I’ve never been an advocate of the use of topnotch materials; in fact I often deliberately purchase very affordable supplies because I can use them more aggressively, without concern of the cost.  For instance, I intentionally seek out cheap brushes because I like to beat the hell out of them when painting and don’t care if I go through five or ten in the creation of a single work.  But I guessed it couldn’t hurt to give a better quality paint a try.  For about $25, I ordered a set of Winsor & Newton paints which included the following 6 colors: black, white, red, blue, yellow and green.  The set was pretty basic, but I wasn’t too concerned - after many years of oil painting, I’m pretty adept at mixing colors.  I would have to say, after using the Winsor & Newton colors on the following self-portrait, that they did cover better, didn’t become murky and could establish reasonable highlights over underpainting.  Purchasing them was definitely a wise investment.

Even though my earlier attempt at a portrait in profile was an unquestionable failure, I did like the format and wished to give it another try in the future.  But I didn’t want to use the double mirror technique again, so I cheated a bit and took a timed selfie under my glaring studio lights.  I posed in a hallway before a white wall, lit from behind, my face in shadow.  To keep it interesting, I contorted my face in a fierce snarl.  Thankfully, I got from the photos exactly what I was looking for.  After sketching my likeness in pencil and spending several days painting, I completed work on the image below.

Gerard Wickham - Snarling Self-Portrait in Profile - 2018
I am uncertain as to what I’ve accomplished with this series.  I do know that I’ve achieved some level of mastery in the use gouache.  However I also wonder if these works form any cohesive statement or merely represent a string of independent experiments.  I believe I may have suggested earlier on in this entry that my choices of headgear and facial expression resulted from my simple desire to provide some variety and technical challenge to my efforts.  But then again I’m sure you could ask a thousand artists to paint a series of six self-portraits and not one would come up with the same array of imagery.  Surely there is something of myself in each of these self-portraits.  And perhaps approaching them as technical trials freed me from self-consciousness and allowed me to more fully express my inner workings.  Who knows?  (Considering this bizarre sampling of imagery, maybe I should be less than enthusiastic about admitting this.)

I have a particular weakness for self-portraits.  If we can agree that all art whether portrait, landscape, still-life or abstraction is a visual representation of the artist’s persona, it naturally follows that a self-portrait is most conducive to a successful and penetrating expression of that persona.  Interestingly, some artists (Gustav Klimt , for instance) never painted a self-portrait, while others like Rembrandt and Van Gogh arguably achieved their greatest results while peering at themselves in a mirror.  The intimacy of self evaluation may have repulsed some artists while others found it intensely appealing.

In light of my affection for self-portraits, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of my favorites and provide a little informal commentary along with the images.

Edvard Munch - Self-Portrait with Cigarette - 1895

Max Beckmann - Self-Portrait in Tuxedo - 1927

A century ago, it was very important for artists to assert their professionalism and refinement.  Historically, artists were viewed as craftsmen or artisans and not as intellectuals.  There actually is an old French expression “bête comme un peintre” which translates as “dumb as a painter”.   In the firmly structured caste system of late nineteenth century society artists struggled to achieve respectability and status.  As strange as it may seem, artists commonly worked in formal attire.  And, of course, the addition of a smoldering cigarette in hand would have suggested the ultimate in sophistication back then.  It’s interesting how similar these two works executed thirty years apart are.  But while Edvard Munch presents himself as haunted and spectral, Max Beckmann displays a concrete and confrontational presence.

Gustave Courbet - The Desperate Man - 1844 to 45

Gustave Courbet - Bonjour Monsieur Courbet - 1854
Regarding nineteenth century artists striving for respectability, it’s interesting to compare these two paintings by Gustave Courbet.  At the age of twenty five, he sees himself as a desperate man, perhaps one on the verge of madness.  Most likely, the economic and emotional stress of being a social outsider has taken quite a toll on him. A decade later, he has achieved some recognition and even depicts himself being respectfully greeted by a gentleman on the roadside.  The gentleman doffs his hat to him, while Courbet tilts his head backward, causing his beard to be thrust confidently outward.

Some artists deliberately denigrate themselves, defying the urge to achieve acceptance and respectability.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Self-Portrait with Model - 1910
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner establishes himself as a Bohemian, his nude form barely draped in a colorful robe - his model, clad in lingerie, is not a paid worker but an intimate associate.

Egon Schiele - Self-Portrait with Arm Twisted above Head - 1910
In the same year, the Austrian Egon Schiele portrays himself as a degenerate, an individual gripped by animal urges.  His hair is an unruly mane, and his raised arm exposes a scraggly tuft of underarm hair.  His leathery flesh is scarred with lines.  Scarcely shrouded by atrophied muscles, his skeletal frame protrudes awkwardly through his skin.  There is a wariness and carnal blankness in his expression.

Chuck Close - Big Self-Portrait - 1967 to 68
Chuck Close would suggest that he unemotionally reproduces the exactitudes of a photograph without regard for his subject matter, but, of course, that’s not true.  I’m sure that Close carefully selected the black and white source photograph for his Big Self-Portrait with the intent of shocking his audience with his own repulsiveness.  He portrays himself unshaven, his greasy hair uncombed, a cigarette clutched between his lips.  His audience is granted a view up his nose.  His large, plastic horn-rimmed glasses rest solidly on his protruding ears.  He is the perfect counterculture villain of the late sixties, the radical nightmare of the establishment, and we onlookers cannot help but be amused at how ruthlessly he documents his slovenly appearance.  And, by the way, if you’ve never seen this painting, you might be surprised to learn that it is extremely large, nearly nine feet tall and seven feet wide (which only intensifies the comic absurdity of the image).

Alice Neel - Self-Portrait - 1980
This is Alice Neel’s only painting of herself.  Unconventionally, she chose to record herself nude at the age of 80, four years before her death.  She coldly documents the impact the passing years have had on her form.  A mass of white hair crowns her head, and her sagging breasts droop over her swollen belly.  But, as with all of her portraits, Neel takes a humanist view of her subject.  In spite of her humiliating situation, she maintains an undeniable dignity.  Her eyes are sharp and alert as she studies her features; her mouth contorts in a frown of concentration.  She returns the viewer’s gaze quizzically, as if to ask, “And you don’t think this will happen to you?”  (Excuse the digression, but I wish to relate an unusual connection I have with this painting.  In 1981, Neel had a solo show at SUNY Stony Brook’s Fine Art Center which I attended.  I was surprised to find the artist seated in the middle of the otherwise vacant gallery.  I immediately turned left on passing through the gallery’s door and was confronted by Neel’s painting of herself nude.  It was a bit disconcerting to have the artist, situated so she faced the entrance to the gallery, watching me as I scrutinized her weathered body.  Part of me wanted to flee this intimate image, but another part refused to be cowed into flight.  I probably studied this individual work longest of all in defiance of my prudish inclinations.  Fortunately, this is a masterful work manifestly worthy of lengthy examination.  It is now in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.)

Often how an artist views him or herself is determined to a very great degree by the aesthetic predominating in the era during which he or she lives.  For instance, Philipp Otto Runge portrays himself as the ultimate Romantic figure in 1810.  With his soulful eyes, sunken cheeks, generous lips, unruly hair and upturned collar, he could easily pass as the hero of one of Byron’s poems.  And I’d bet that Runge believed himself to be presenting a very personal image of himself rather than a Romantic archetype.  That’s the way we are swayed aesthetically; it’s really quite insidious.

Philipp Otto Runge - Self-Portrait - 1810

In the era of Modernism, conventions changed rapidly and within a few short years the aesthetics influencing how artists filtered reality could transform dramatically how they viewed themselves.  Käthe Kollwitz embraces an Expressionist idiom, striving for an essential image that eschews intellectual sophistication and aims for emotional density.  She records her image in a woodcut, a difficult and physically demanding medium which had been in use in Europe from the late Middle Ages through the end of sixteenth century but was abandoned for less challenging printing techniques.  She depicts just her visage, indicating her hair minimally and omitting any evidence of the neck or shoulders upon which her head rests.  The print is in black and white, and there is no attempt to conceal the rough cuts used to fashion the image.  The superfluous and the pretty have been eliminated, leaving only the indispensable and elemental.

Kathe Kollwitz - Self-Portrait - 1923

Henri Matisse was one of the founders of Fauvism, another dialect of Expressionism, but, in the hands of the French, Expressionism had a very different flavor than the German variety.  For Matisse, Expressionism was essentially about making aesthetic decisions that commonly violated established conventions in order to achieve an extremely sophisticated visual language.  As with Kollwitz, he has pared down information to a minimum in his self-portrait, but Matisse is seeking to achieve a perfect balance between line and form, between technique and illusion in his work.  And, most critically, he uses color non-naturalistically, employing a heightened palette while realizing a precarious harmony between tones.  Kollwitz’s self-portrait is a primitive beacon, a timeless totem, while that of Matisse is a flawless arrangement of line and color.

Henri Matisse - Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt - 1906
In 1948, Frida Kahlo adopts the principles of Surrealism in creating her self-portrait.  She wears a traditional Tehuana headdress which isolates her facial features against an intricately patterned web.  Certainly, most viewers of this work could not identify this regional Mexican dress and would only see it as bizarre and other-worldly.  There is no attempt at modeling here.  Her face is nearly uniformly lit, and the lace work is recorded in almost manic detail.  Her exotic outfit, the floral patterning in the lace, the cartoony tears that fall from her eyes, the mesh of plant life seen behind her head and the bird imagery in her necklace suggest a symbolic interpretation that the viewer is unable to grasp.  All we are able to glean from this work is that this is a very unusual portrayal of a pained woman with roots established in both the natural world and traditional Mexican culture.  From this starting point, the viewer is free to create his or her own fantasy.

Frida Kahlo - Self-Portrait in Medallion - 1948
I’m truly amazed when examining the following two self-portraits executed by Pablo Picasso.  In the first, Picasso has fully appropriated the Symbolist-Expressionist language which was still relatively new in 1901.  He presents himself set amongst intense blues and grays, only his harshly lit face animated by pale flesh tones and rose colored lips.  Something of sickness and death wafts about this figure, but there is also a spark of intellect in his features to counteract this perception.  Within a mere six years, Picasso has developed a personal language that will become known as Cubism.  In the 1907 self-portrait, Picasso’s face has become distorted and masklike; his features, particularly the eyes, are emblematic.  The image is composed of a series of repeated diagonals which fracture space and defy a traditional spatial interpretation.  Picasso has made the leap from imitation to innovation.

Pablo Picasso - Self-Portrait - 1901

Pablo Picasso - Self-Portrait - 1907
In self-portraits, artists consciously select precisely how they appear, what they wear, their facial expressions and their locations.  Brushwork, paint texture and tonal range are of equal importance.

In his later self-portraits, Rembrandt was obviously at the top of his game.  Every aspect of these works attests to the artist’s mastery of his medium.  In this self-portrait of 1659, Rembrandt employs a very limited palette enhanced with flecks of dense color.  His brushwork is free with individual strokes clearly visible throughout the composition.  Shadowed umbers dominate the painting; only his face is illuminated, bringing the viewer’s focus to his expression.  After years of labor and struggle, Rembrandt has achieved a staggering expertise in his craft.  An unfathomable perfection is embodied in this work.  But for all his ability, Rembrandt concluded his life impoverished, ultimately to be buried in an unmarked poor man’s grave.  He outlived two wives, and his son Titus, the only one of his four children to survive into adulthood, also predeceased him.  When he painted this portrait, he must have understood the cruel irony of having achieved so much while receiving little recognition for his efforts.  His expression conveys disillusionment, exasperation and exhaustion.

Rembrandt - Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-up Collar - 1659
In his self-portrait of 1938, Pierre Bonnard opposes Rembrandt’s approach to portraiture.  Bonnard’s face is in shadow, his expression nearly indiscernible.  His form, small and insignificant, merges with background elements, a network of repeated verticals and horizontals.  His clothing is ordinary and unpretentious.  He appears to be wearing a robe over a white undershirt.  The artist does not disguise the fact that he is seeing his image in a bathroom mirror.  This is the mundane image of a man going through his everyday rituals.  Bonnard is just another compositional element is his endeavor to document in light and color the quiet sanctuary he has established for himself in his small house on the Mediterranean.  While Rembrandt presents his circumstances as unique and specific, Bonnard takes solace in the universality and anonymity of the life he leads.

Pierre Bonnard - Self-Portrait - 1938
 At times an artist’s personal history is so consuming that his biography merges with his oeuvre.  We as viewers can no longer separate the artist from his work; they become indistinguishable.  For such artists a self-portrait almost seems superfluous but all the same can prove to be the most iconic of their works.  Who can look at a Van Gogh self-portrait without considering how he labored for his art and struggled to retain his sanity…how he relied on contributions from his brother Theo to maintain himself while his paintings generated no income…how he and Gauguin briefly and disastrously lived together in Arles…how he committed suicide at the age of 37.

Vincent Van Gogh - Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin - 1888

Vincent Van Gogh - Self-Portrait - 1889
It’s funny to consider that Lucian Freud was a very private painter who wanted to avoid the possibility of his personal life impacting on how his artistic production was perceived.  He was nearly impossible to reach and gave very few interviews.  Even some of his children didn’t have his phone number.  But for a man who wanted to retain his anonymity, Freud seemed bent on establishing himself as a conspicuous personage.  Though he was only married twice, he had numerous affairs, some estimating the number of his lovers to be close to 500.  Fourteen children that he fathered can be documented, but that number may be much higher.  Some of his children had no knowledge of the existence of the others.  Freud painted sexually explicit, nude portraits of volunteer models including several of his own children.  These paintings stressed the animal essence of his subjects and sought to pierce their civilized façades to reveal their inner workings.  Sometimes he portrayed nude models along with dogs or rats or used extremely obese models for his nude figure paintings.  He was an unquestionable eccentric, a regular gambler and workaholic.  He frequently got into conflicts with the galleries that represented him and even became belligerent with strangers on the street.  He lived in unusual circumstances, allowing his studio and living space to become cluttered with painting supplies, drop cloths, dirty clothes, newspapers, food containers and other trash.  In this magnificent upper body self-portrait, Freud portrays himself in his mid-60s, shirtless, crusty and irascible, seemingly substantiating the public’s perception of him that he tried assiduously to elude.

Lucian Freud - Reflection - 1985
Contemporary Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum also has a reputation as an eccentric.  While a student at the Art Academy of Oslo, Nerdrum became obsessed with the art of Rembrandt and Caravaggio and rejected the principles of Modernism.  He clashed with his instructors and fellow students who wished Norway to be perceived as a modern, progressive state, and, according to Nerdrum, he was forced out of the institution.  Years later, when it appeared likely that Nerdrum would be invited to reintroduce figurative painting classes to Norway’s National Academy of Art, a scandal resulted which included public protests, extensive media coverage and numerous newspaper editorials.  Nerdrum felt compelled to withdraw his name from consideration.

Initially, Nerdrum painted dramatic images of contemporary events: the death in prison of Andreas Baader, Vietnamese boat people, victims of abuse and sensational arrests.  These works addressed political and social issues and, in my opinion, are unsuccessful and would have been ignored.  With time, Nerdrum began to present images of an imagined world that may exist in a time long past or a post-apocalyptic future.  This primordial world is inhabited by men and women dressed in flowing robes, animal skins and peculiar headgear who carry weapons, engage in primitive rituals, drink from stagnant pools and defecate communally in natural settings.  Nerdrum paints amputees and disemboweled corpses…nudes and hermaphrodites…bricks and babies swaddled like sausages…a flayed ram and decapitated horse heads…warriors, cannibals and mendicants, which I suppose sounds pretty…well, odd; except that the technical virtuosity with which the artist executes his paintings demands that the viewer take his subject matter seriously.  I believe Nerdrum is constructing an elemental world in which human emotions and motivations are unambiguously exposed as opposed to the circumstances within our modern society in which these things are deliberately cloaked.  In 1997, Nerdrum outraged critics and connoisseurs by admitting his work was just kitsch, disassociating himself from “high art” because he continues to be committed to the narrative, emotional content and fine craftsmanship, the antithesis of what he sees as the Modernist credo.

Nerdrum has painted many self-portraits; and, since he always dresses in antique robes or leather doublets, no transformation is required to make him a resident of his imagined world.

Odd Nerdrum - Frontal Self-Portrait - 1994 to 95
In Woman and Art: Contested Territory, a book which explores gender bias in art and the art world, Edward Lucie-Smith criticized this self-portrait by Stanley Spencer as expressing the male painter’s determination to possess his female model.  Before going any further, I must question why this desire on the part of the artist should be viewed as negative.  Surely, many an artwork has been initiated through sexual desire; and if this painting accurately reflects Spencer’s mindset, should we disregard it or hold it in disdain.  Why would we proscribe a basic human drive?  It seems that to apply a blanket approach to such a complex issue is counterproductive and misleading.  To give Lucie-Smith credit, he does admit that this painting results from a rather bizarre biographical history and addresses themes beyond the desire for sexual possession.

Spencer was married with two daughters when Patricia Preece entered his life.  She was a bit of a flirt and soon had Spencer twisted round her little finger.  The artist traveled with Preece and showered her with gifts, going so far as to sign over the deed to his home to her.  Finally his wife, no longer able to tolerate the situation, divorced him.  That freed Spencer to marry Preece, who had never ended her long-term lesbian relationship with Dorothy Hepworth.  According to accounts, Spencer was excluded from his marriage night bedroom which was occupied by Preece and Hepworth; and the two women went off on a honeymoon while Spencer remained behind to finish a painting.  It’s believed that the marriage was never consummated.  So the circumstances Spencer documents in this work are very complicated.

Plainly Preece’s nude form is on display here and could be construed to affirm a sexual connection to the a kind of trophy of his conquest.  But there are some major clues that something is off here.  The artist is also portrayed unclothed, atypical for one wishing to express dominion over a lover; on the contrary, it places the two individuals on an equal footing.  And Preece is not presented as a centerfold model.  At the time of this painting, Spencer was 46 years old and Preece 43.  Both are showing signs of decline.  Preece’s sagging breasts display furrowed nipples; her iliac crest juts out from her hip.  Her dark eyebrows are unmistakably penciled onto a face defined by dipping valleys and swelling hillocks.  Spencer doesn’t fare any better under his scrutiny.  His boney back is capped by an unnaturally long neck.  Beneath a strange bowl cut, he sports large, round spectacles; his weak chin dissolves into drooping jowls.  Preece, appearing bored and detached, looks away from the artist.  Spencer is alert and aware, one could even say aroused.  This is definitely not a work about fantasy; it describes the complex relations between two very real people.  There is no conquest here, only unrequited desire on his part and unenthusiastic compliance on hers.

Stanley Spencer - Self-Portrait with Patricia Preece - 1937
So having examined quite a few of my favorite self-portraits, a number of general observations have been made.  Some artists paint themselves to assert their legitimacy and respectability, while others do so to expose themselves as outsiders and dissenters.  Often a self-portrait is used to declare the artist’s allegiance to a specific movement.  At times, an artist’s lifestyle (or perhaps I should say life story) is so compelling that it is nearly impossible to separate image from biography, the self-portrait becoming merely illustrative of the salacious myths which have taken root concerning an eccentric personality.  I’m certain that most of the self-portraits presented here served a therapeutic function for the artists.  In open opposition to the accepted mores of his times, Schiele needed to reveal himself as a sexual being wracked by animal urges.  Kahlo wished to express the suffering she experienced from her unsuccessful marriage with Diego Rivera, while Spencer felt compelled to document his complicated relationship with Preece.  Rembrandt proclaims his disillusionment and exasperation with a world that has refused to recognize his genius.  Van Gogh expresses a crippling alienation from his society as he struggles in vain to maintain his sanity.  Neel explores the disfiguring changes that time has inflicted on her body as she anticipates her inevitable demise.  Hopefully each of these artists gained some solace and healing through this process of self-revelation and self-analysis.

As for my series of self-portraits, I’ve depicted myself in many different guises.  I’ve appeared harried and anxious…ridiculous and clownish…dark and diminished…distorted by rage.  There are echoes of Close’s willingness to mock himself and Kollwitz’s somber self-examination in these works. I had no intention of displaying these works publicly, so egoism doesn’t intrude here.  I’m painting alone in the privacy of my home, my public persona banished.  Technically, each of these works is flawed.  Though I did make some progress in mastering the medium of gouache, I didn’t come close to attaining the fluidity and spontaneity I was seeking.  I am undeterred though and will continue to experiment with the medium in the months ahead.  I think there’s one thing that my readers and I can agree on: we’ve seen enough of my ugly mug, and it’s time for me to move on to other subject matter.  With the warmer weather having arrived, perhaps some plein air landscapes will follow.

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