rect rect rect rect rect rect
 About face portraits | StyleHome

Pablo Picasso, “Portrait d’adolescent en Pierrot,” 1922

Piet Mondrian, “Autoportrait”

Felix Nussbaum, “Autoportrait
avec passport-juif,” 1943

About face

Paris’ parade of portraits

by Sandra Kwock-Silve

“Artist as clown” is just one of many themes explored this month by several Paris exhibitions dealing with artist’s portraits. The Musée du Luxembourg’s blockbuster “MOI! Autoprotraits du XXeme Siècle” highlights over 150 works by prominent figures such as Vuillard, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Dubuffet, Miro and Giacometti. Curated by art historian Pascal Bonafoux, this exhibition is highly significant as the first major show to ffocus on self-portraiture as a genre.
A self-portrait is a critical analysis of self that forces one to ask the essential question “Who am I?”... The “autoportraits” in this thematic overview answer this question with paint on canvas and in drawings, bronze or photos, as well as with other unexpected materials. For instance, in Arman’s an assemblage of strange objects found in his studio and wastepaper basket placed under under plexiglass.
Portraits of artists by themselves leave a trace or message for posterity. Picasso’s early 1901 self-portrait, painted just after the suicide of his close friend Casagemas, has come to personify his blue period. Van Gogh’s tormented self-depiction in the mental asylum are another celebrated example. Francis Bacon was often asked about his numerous self-“studies,” as he called them. His pat answer to that was “my friends are dropping like flies, and there’s no one left to paint but myself.” However, he had clearly given the subject some thought for he was also known to speak of Rembrandt’s studies of himself at different stages of his existence, commenting “Strangely enough, if you take his last large self-portraits, you notice that the entire outline of the face changes each time: it’s a different face, although they all ressemble Rembrandt, these differences lead you to discover different perceptions of the same subject.”
A Paris-based American artist confirmed this approach for me. Over the years portrait artist Kathy Burke has produced over a hundred self-portraits. This month a small selection of these will be on view in an open studio show. The following comments were her response to comments concerning the role of self-portraiture in her output, over the years: “I learn through self-portraits,” she explained. “You can do a new self-portrait everyday. Actually, although you’re always asking the same question ‘Who am I?’ — I’m always surprised to see what comes out. I paint the face that I normally won’t allow myself to see: the angry or sad face, the masculin side of me that includes anti-social aspects of my personality that I usually hide from society.... In fact, to be perfectly honest, one usually does self-portraits when they’re in a really bad state. Think of Van Gogh after he cut-off his ear. I do them when I can’t face the world, and can’t face myself.”
Such portraits can also involve elements of disguise and masquerade. A good many works included in the Grand Palais’ present offering —“La Grande Parade” — are self-portraits of artists pictured as clowns. Picasso remained fascinated by the circus after an early love affair with Rosita del Oro, a stunt rider. He was known to receive guests in a clown's costume. Photo portraits by Frank Carpa attest to this, and there’s an entire installation devoted to Pablo Picasso’s depictions of himself as a clown. Georges Roualt was another artist whose identification with clowns was deployed in self-portraits. In a letter to his friend, symbolist writer Edward Schure, he explained that his interest in the circus grew out of “the contrast between the brilliant glittering things made to amuse and a [real] life that is so infinitely sad if we see it from a little way off... then I extrapolated it all. I saw clearly that the clown was me, was us, almost all of us.”
Although one imagines the circus and parades to be rather festive, joyful subject matter, this show creates greater awareness of the artist’s concern with such subjects, as symbolic of the increasingly marginal role attributed to himself and his peers in modern society — a somewhat somber vision suggesting that they live on the fringe of society like a circus that sets up its tent in vacant lots outside of town. However, this rich and satisfying visual feast opens with works by Tiepolo, Goya and Chardin and highlights circus and parade subjects in art in chronological order, all the way through the end of the 20th century. The exhibit includes life-sized flying trapeze artists by George Segal, sideshow portraits by Diane Arbus and well chosen excerpts from classic films like Marcel Carne’s “Les Enfants du Paradis” and Tod Browning’s “Freaks.” Step right up to see an entertaining show.
The ultimate in contemporary portraiture has to be Pierre Maraval’s “Style Link” video installation that includes 1 000 photo portraits of personalities belonging to Paris' art world. Each subject was asked to strike a pose and think of one word to describe or label their work. These rather conceptual flashing portraits are projected onto walls, creating an enormous ephemeral "light piece" in the process. Maraval once worked with Andy Warhol, who promised that at some point in the future, everyone will have 15 minutes of fame. Warhol was generous. Pierre Maraval’s subjects enjoy about 10 seconds of celebrity... but when the medium is the message, the subject disappears.
MOI! Autoprotraits du XXeme Siècle to July 25, daily 10am to 7pm, Musée du Luxembourg, 19 rue Vaugirard, 6e, M° St-Sulpice, tel: 01 42 34 25 95, 9E/6E. Self-portraits by Kathy Burke, 5pm to 8pm, Apr 29, 55 rue Meslay, 3e tel: 01 42 71 11 75. "La Grande Parade," to May 31, daily 1-8pm, Grand Palais, 8e, M° Champs-Elysées-Clemenceau, tel: 01 44 13 17 10, 9E/7E. Style Link, Espace d’Exposition Mercedez-Benz, 118 av des Champs-Elysées, 8e, free

René Magritte “L’Heureux Donateur,” 1966

Kathy Burke, “Autoportrait”