Have you ever given much thought to self-portraits and what actually draws artists to paint them? The latest exhibition at National Gallery (NGV) in Melbourne, ‘The Naked Face: Self-portraits’, focuses solely on self-portraits, drawing from the selection of portraiture in the gallery’s collection. The exhibition isn’t just about painted works, but also includes drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, installations and even clothes.
Vivien Gaston, honorary research fellow at the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne has extensive experience in deciphering self-portraits and is guest curator of the exhibition. She sat down with us to explain the work involved in curation and how self portraits can provide important references to an artist’s culture and lifestyle.
Vivien, you are guest curator for ‘The Naked Face: Self Portraits’, how did you get involved?
I wrote my PhD on the self-portraits of nineteenth-century artists working in France and have published on self-portraits by European and Australian artists. I’ve given many talks about self-portraits by a wide range of artists. So I was invited to curate the exhibition for the National Gallery of Victoria because I have expertise in the field.
Where did the initial ideas and concepts for ‘The Naked Face: Self Portraits’ stem from?
Some of the ideas came out of my previous research but these were re-shaped when I discovered the works that were in the collection. For example, it became apparent that a significant number of the self-portraits were self-conscious assertions of the artist’s identity, that is, they depicted the artist at work, holding a palette or in the studio. As a result one of the six main themes for the exhibition is Identity: in the studio. The others are Performance, Myth and Psyche, Scrutiny, Empathy and Touch and Trace.
As curator, what did/does your role entail for this specific exhibition?
The role has many aspects. These include initial research into the collection to find the works, many of which are not called self-portraits, to inventing the themes that reflect them, to deciding which are the best to include, to designing the way the works will be presented and writing about them for the book that accompanies the exhibition. Finally there is ensuring that the works are correctly labeled and displayed in the space and that a range of public programs, such as a symposium and public talks, are in place to explain the exhibition.
What do you think motivates artists to create a self-portrait?
I think that most artists want to record their appearance and identity as a memorial to themselves, ensuring their continued existence through their own skills. At the same time they might also want to explore themselves through the transforming power of art that enables them to take on new identities. The practical explanation is that a self-portrait provides a ready model for artists to practise their skills.
Broadly, what do self-portraits symbolise?
There are many potential symbolic meanings in self-portraits. The self-portrait can be a metaphorical journey of discovery for the artist or depict the artist as symbolizing creativity. In the exhibition there is a theme called Myth and Psyche that looks at how self-portraits depict artists in contexts beyond their immediate identity. Through mythic narratives they depict deeper psychological experience. One of the most symbolic works in the exhibition is Grayson Perry’s Map of an Englishman, 2004, that depicts the artist’s mind as a landscape of psychological impulses illustrating emotions, memory, gender and identity.
Is there any aspect of self-portrayal that you find fascinating?
Self-portraits are fascinating because they present a complex combination of attitudes to the self, partly a reflection of reality and partly an idealised or imaginative fantasy.
Can you discuss one of the artworks in ‘The Naked Face: Self Portraits’ and how it represents the artist’s lifestyle and identity?
Hugh Ramsay’s self-portrait in a white jacket is one of several self-portraits the young Australian artist painted while living in Paris in 1901-02. He asserts his self-confidence in his confronting gaze, bravura brushwork and flourish of the painter’s palette. Sharing with other artists, Ramsay lived the bohemian lifestyle in a small apartment where he ate, slept, entertained and painted works such as this. Although he was on the threshold of a successful international career, he was impoverished, under fed and chilled by the Paris winters. In 1902 he fell ill with tuberculosis and returned home. Australia lost one of its most promising artists when he died four years later.
Do you have a favourite artwork in ‘The Naked Face: Self Portraits’?
Among many favourites, the self-portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby, c.1770, stands out. Joseph Wright was an artist of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the cultural movement which championed human invention and freedom of thought. In this self-portrait, painted around the age of thirty, he has an expression of youthful intensity, ready to embark on his most celebrated works that depict the birth of modern science. The extraordinary illusionistic impact of his works reflects the Enlightenment’s new interest in observing material reality. A soft glowing light illuminates his face with its hypnotic eyes and reveals the rich details of his fur collar, gold embroidered jacket and the subtle sheen of the fashionable striped turban. He is elegantly composed but also emotionally vulnerable, a complex character expressed through brilliant skill and technique.
Where does your personal interest in portraiture come from?
I’m interested in how works of art intensify our sense of human life, by enhancing experience or by confronting reality. Portraits have one of the closest connections with reality as they seem to be based on capturing a likeness. Since the early twentieth century, imitating appearances has been sidelined as a concern for art, yet the fascination with likeness remains.
‘Self-portraits: The Naked Face’ runs at the NGV in Melbourne from 3 December 2010 – 27 February 2011. For more information click here.
Thumbnail image caption:
born Australia 1968
Give way (2000)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds arranged by Loti Smorgon for Contemporary Australian Photography, 2001
© Darren Siwes courtesy of Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne