Facing the World: Self-Portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei is a major new exhibition at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery this summer. This exhibition is a collaboration between SNPG and two other major European collections – Lyon’s Musee des Beaux-Arts in France and Karlsruhe’s Staatliche Kunsthalle in Germany and covers six centuries of self portraiture from the 15th to 21st century in a wide variety of artistic media reflecting how both painters and photographers view themselves.
The desire to depict ones own image is probably as old as art itself, and over the centuries many artists have used their own image in their work. There are many reasons for this ranging from no money to hire subjects to an almost obsessive interest in depicting ones own image throughout a lifetime. Rembrandt famously recorded his own image throughout his life in more than 80 paintings and the advent of photography allowed almost instant access to a self portrait – self images from Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe in this exhibition help show just how accessible the use and manipulation of the self portrait had become in the 20th century. The almost instant imagery of photography has not replaced the modern artist and their vision of their own image though, as many works here clearly show.
This is a well curated exhibition offering something for everyone as the spectrum of images and the use of those images is so diverse. A few personal favourites here though – including a self portrait of Edward Munch with a wine bottle in a lonely looking bar or café from 1930 which almost lets you hear “The Scream” from his famous paintings, Annie Lennox from 2003 and an image used for her “Bare” album, a large John Byrne self portrait from 1971-73 painted on his return from the USA and looking very much of the times and very much like Frank Zappa.
Two very interesting works here too are from women. A self portrait of Anna Marie Ellenreider who was one of the few successful women artists of her day - eventually becoming a Court Painter, and a small watercolour portrait by Sarah Biffen who was born with no arms or feet.
There are huge contrasts in styles in this exhibition too reflecting how the style of self portraiture has developed over the centuries with some striking examples of new approaches from German artists in the 1920s.
The use of the self portrait as a political protest is also explored by the way high profile Chinese artist Ai Weiwei used his images on Instagram to highlight his severe injuries after arrest by the Chinese authorities.
Look out too for the Andy Warhol in drag photograph...it is surprisingly small.
A final installation at the end of this exhibition of “selfies” of Museum staff taken on mobile phones clearly illustrates just how relevant self image is to us all. In fact, we seem now to be living in a world completely obsessed with one’s own self image as online sites such as Instagram and Facebook have millions of self portraits uploaded to them every day.
This exhibition runs from 16th July to 16th October. Admission £9 /£7
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