This unique exhibition reveals how self-portraits have shaped our perceptions of art and the artist’s life. Works are displayed in themes exploring the potential for self-portraits to re-evaluate identity. Drawn entirely from the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection, the exhibition demonstrates its extraordinary range and depth. A rich diversity of paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, installations and fashion illustrates one of the most constant subjects in Western art and includes significant cross-cultural examples.
Many self-portraits are conscious performances in which artists play a role, emphasising professional identity or casting the artist as bohemian, philosopher or adventurer. Others, including works by Zoffany, Picasso and Grayson Perry, expand the artist’s sense of self through identification with symbolic myth and narrative, often depicting the artist’s special access to creativity, insight and energy. Most self-portraits depict a process of self-examination. Rather than a predictable image, the mirror presents an opportunity for searching and analysis of the self. Examples by artists from Rembrandt to Ric Amor depict how self-scrutiny has evolved. Yet depicting the self can also be a way of camouflaging or protecting the self. Works by Clemente, Close and Sherman show how a self-portrait can act as a mask, asserting a surface or public persona and implying hidden depths.
Self-portraits are not only confined to the artist but evoke their connections with others or a wider world. An amused, ecstatic and emotional range of works show how artists depict themselves with family or loved ones, or as immersed in nature in a way that augments their sense of self. The exhibition concludes with a radical view of how self-portraits embody the artist, not only by revealing the direct trace of the artist’s hand but also the personal imprint of their bodily presence.
The exhibition creates provocative connections between a wide-ranging selection of works, some highly recognised, others rarely seen. It includes iconic examples by artists such as Rembrandt and Andy Warhol, whose self-portrayals have dramatically contributed to their celebrity status. Examples by Australian artists, including Hugh Ramsay and Mike Parr, and contemporary artists are viewed in the context of the illuminating history of self-portrayal from the Renaissance to today.
Dr Vivien Gaston is Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne.