Many years ago my girlfriend suggested I grow my hair long, so that I would resemble Albrecht Durer’s self-portraits. Here he is in 1493, at age 22, in a portrait owned by the Louvre:
It has been suggested that this was a portrait intended for Agnes Frey, who Durer married the following year. The marriage was an arranged one. In this painting Durer presents himself with a soulful look, and an inscription reading “Things happen to me as it is written on high.” Marriage as destiny? How did he feel when informed by his family that they had found him a wife, one whom he might possibly have never met before? we can only speculate; his expression, sober and intense, contrasts with the luxuriousness of his garb. Whatever the message, it is a complex one. His hands are deliberately positioned; artists are always aware of their hands, being the conduit creativity flows through.
His growing success, and the exhilaration of a trip to Italy, have elevated him. No longer is he isolated, but in a fine setting and clothes even more fancy. He has become cosmopolitan. This painting is in the collection of the Prado in Madrid. For a little art historical context, while Durer was painting this, Leonardo da Vinci was in the late stages of painting his Last Supper, and Michelangelo was working on his Pieta.
And this, his last, aged 28, painted in 1500, owned by the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.
Odd to think that we have no later self-portraits, although he died at age 56. Even odder to think that I’m only five years younger than he was at his death.
I will now frustrate my readers by not including a photo of myself, blocking any chance to see if my girlfriend was right. Certainly I lack the curly hair Durer has, and I’ve never grown my beard to his extent.
Both the 1498 and 1500 portraits have limited color palettes, but the last has a solemnity emphasized by the straight-on composition and soberness of his expression. Numerous scholars have read religious meaning into this painting, speculating that Durer is presenting himself as a Christ-like figure. The inscription merely identifies it as a self-portrait. What is it an artist sees when he or she creates a self-portrait? Certainly something different from creating a portrait of another. A different set of assumptions and values come into play. A self-portrait can be a calling card, a resume in paint or pencil. The photographic portrait, I would say, is something different, because there is the option of letting the image stand as the camera took it, without alteration. In drawing, painting, or sculpture, the beginning is a blank which must be shaped.
What is expected of a self-portrait by outsiders, that is, people other than the artist? A certain pride, worn in the pose or expression like a medal. A psychological openness, even nakedness: this comes largely from Rembrandt and van Gogh, many of whose self-portraits seem intimate rather than than public. A reassurance, connected with that pride I mentioned: that however much the arts might be ignored or denigrated by some elements of society, the artist knows a more profound truth. We expect a sort of Truth, in the philosophical sense.
The selfie, that newest form of self-portrait, is something else entirely, grown from photography and instant gratification. There is some degree of composition in a selfie, but it is documentary, not revelatory. People don’t take selfies to undrape their souls; they’re the equivalent of graffiti, names scratched into walls simply to record “I was here.” That is where they fail. Just being somewhere is not enough. It’s rarely enough to merit comment – of course you’re somewhere, but so what? So far the selfie is a sketch that is never developed into a finished work, or so I assume.
I’d like to think that somewhere there is an artist pushing the selfie toward the self-portrait, learning where one ends and the other begins, and what grey areas might lie between them. The first to succeed, and establish a new branch of self-portraiture, will end up in history books.