A critical eye
An artist's self-portrait delves much deeper than a mirrored reflection
By Bobby Ampezzan

This article was published June 2, 2013 at 3:16 a.m.
by the Arkansas Democrat Gazette

 Rembrandt van Rijn's Portrait of the Artist, circa 1665, is regarded as the great painter's finest self-portrait. It is the centerpiece in the exhibition "Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London," which opens Friday at the Arkansas Arts Center, June 7 - Sept. 8.


Artist Neal Harrignton's Self Portrait at 35 is oil pastels on black paper. It was completed in 2009.











Warren Criswell's 1996 oil on wood, Aristeas I, has Criswell standing in for the Greek poet of the work's title.










LaToya Hobbs stands in front of
Self-Portrait 2 at Hearne Fine Art.



Captive Audience, an intaglio print
by Tammy Harrington
 "Sorry, but art is all about mortality." - Warren Criswell

When the Arkansas Arts Center opens its long-anticipated Kenwood House, London, exhibit Friday featuring Rembrandt van Rijn's latter-day self-portrait - incidentally, center officials say, it's the only Rembrandt painting ever to visit the Natural State - some will no doubt wonder what they're seeing besides a painted representation of a famous 17th-century artist. After all, if the Jacobeans had had cameras, we'd have a good clean image, and one we could see just as well online.

An art historian would highlight the brush strokes and glazing that give it texture, the symbology of the opposing (and incomplete) circles in the background, and the countenance - oh, the troubled and troublingly shaded lineaments of the face. But what of the decision itself? This epochal decision of the artist to pick himself as his subject. Why?

And why do we continue to do it?

"Really, it's the pinnacle of vanity. It's embarrassing," says Neal Harrington, associate professor of art at Arkansas Tech University at Russellville. "When I do self-portraits, which are hard to sell by the way …."

In Rembrandt's time, the venerable artist was supported by patronage, either from a coterie or a single benefactor. Today's equivalent is the university or college professorship.

Self-portraits are hard to sell because, of course, the buyer naturally will display this thing he has paid hundreds or thousands for, and will it be an intimate portrait of a stranger?Or, "'Well, I guess I'll have a portrait of … you?'" Harrington imagines.

Two years ago, he entered a self-portrait in a juried Springfield (Mo.) Museum of Art show and won. Immediately after, he saw the piece had sold. "I was shocked. First I didn't want to sell it, but if they're going to pay $600 …"


There are more than 40 surviving Rembrandt self-portraits of paint on canvas, and at least that many sketches and engravings, but Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, says this one at the Arts Center is the most remarkable.For one, it's large. About 3 by 4 feet, it's his second largest ever. For another, it comes very late in life, when the artist seems content not to make himself out to be any more - and no less, either - than what he is.

"Something that arose unintentionally, or at least unconsciously," Liedtke says in an essay in the catalog that accompanies "Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London," is candor. "There is no equivalent in Dou, Van Dyck, or almost any contemporary [of his], and it ultimately came from Rembrandt's sympathetic study of real people, in order to make biblical and historical figures appear human - with all the hopefulness and fragility that condition entails."

This wasn't always the case. Much has been made of the artist's midlife self-portraits (1630-1650) in which his bearing is self-assured, his fashion patrician, his message clear - he had made it.

It's this phase that compares most favorably to Little Rock artist Warren Criswell, who has invested still more attention and oil into the exploration of the self-portrait. The 77-year-old has used himself as the model for the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, the mathematician Fibonacci - "I'd even planned a whole series of myself as the guys who invented quantum mechanics.".


In one particularly narcissistic exercise, Criswell depicted a scene from the Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevski's "The Grand Inquisitor" in which he, Criswell, is the Catholic cardinal inquisitor and the naked prisoner being interrogated.

"In other words for a long time I had my head up my ass, you might say."

So he switched to still life, but not a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers, modern subjects. Objects in a bathroom, for instance. A toothbrush holder. Toilet paper. Everyday things we pass several times a day without seeing. What he called "totally existential" subjects, as in, all they do is exist.

"I thought I would do a whole series of those [and] disengaging myself from myself."

Can you guess what happened?

"People looked at them, they said they thought that those were some of my most intimate self-portraits.

"Seems to me in the creative process you can't really get away from yourself, even when you try. I guess the self-portrait is a caving into that."


Four years before his death, Rembrandt flexed his fingers and drew from the peaks and valleys of his experiences and gave us Portrait of the Artist, circa 1665 (No. 28). It's him, and from its vantage (eye-level) and accompaniment (palette, brushes and mahlstick), the subject isn't inviting us in so much as presenting himself before our Western history.

We may take him or leave him, though almost certainly the artist believed we would take, and history has borne him out.

Temporarily, and in a manner of speaking, Rembrandt lives in a medium-size arts center in the far northeast corner of a particular neighborhood, the Quapaw Quarter, in a medium-size American city.

Now, far across this neighborhood, at the Hearne Fine Art Gallery, Garbo Hearne is today showing 30-year-old LaToya Hobbs. In sex, in skin, in time, Hobbs is Rembrandt's other. Add to that the years - about 400 - and the fact that Hobbs' preferred medium is woodcut relief, ink and print. Yet, this they have in common - they're very interested in themselves.

"Every year or so I do a portrait of myself, sometimes because I don't have a model, but more than that … it causes me to take a look at myself, physically as well as internally, where I am, and in terms of where I want to go," she says.

But Hobbs and Tammy Harrington, a University of the Ozarks in Clarksville professor and Neal Harrington's wife, say there's something darker, more confrontational at work in a self-portrait, and it doesn't involve the artist so much as the viewer, and it's more poignant for women.

"I call it the triadic dialogue," Hobbs says.

There's the artist as creator, and the artist as created. Then, there's the viewer - he precipitates a transaction

"As an artist, you're aware of 'the gaze,' and not only an artist but a woman artist," says Hobbs, who this spring graduated from Purdue University with an advanced degree in art. "In my thesis, I quote John Berger's The Ways of Seeing which, in part, examined the ways men and women act in a space: Men are free to just exist in a space, but a woman, she watches herself being watched by other people."

In other words, men more easily appreciate themselves for whatever powers they possess, while women more likely appreciate themselves for what they perceive others' appreciate about them. Hobbs' women, if not demonstrative or brazen, are neither coy nor oblique, and it's "me inviting the gaze … more to where I'm dominating the conversation about the gaze."

"OK, a lot of this is I'm just off this grad school kick, and so I can't just say, 'I like to draw pictures.' We have to really, really go into [theory]."

Tammy Harrington says this aspect of self-portraiture - the inherent power dynamic - reminds her of Edouard Manet's famous 19th-century painting Olympia. A nude prostitute, Olympia is nonetheless adorned with certain unmistakable markers of wealth - a gold bracelet, a handmaid, an opulent boudoir - and then, in a kind of ultimate face-off, she's pictured glaring directly at the viewer, as if, says Harrington, "'I know you are looking at me.'"

Here's where the power dynamic goes both ways. If the subject of a portrait (or self-portrait) invites the viewer to stare, the subject is free to stare back.

Harrington, an American of Asian descent raised in Sioux Falls, S.D., often feels "looked at," and "out in public, I'm not going to stare people down, but in my artwork I think I can stare out at the public not like I would in the real world."

In this way the self-portrait is, at its most powerful, not frozen in time as a photograph, but an artist's stab at immortality. If that seems presumptuous or narcissistic, then, as Criswell would say, sorry.

[Style, Page 4E on 06/02/2013]


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