Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary at the National Portrait Gallery

[The following article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

Self portraits are, at best, paradoxical things. As I was walking through the National Portrait Gallery the other day, looking for the entrance to the new exhibition there, Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary, I was stopped in my tracks by a massive painting — a grid filled with multicoloured lozenges that somehow added up to a portrait — that could only have been the work of an American painter named Chuck Close.

Close is, in many ways, an interesting figure. Having started his career looking back over his shoulder towards the great days of Abstract Expressionism — the fascination with surface, the all-over emphasis, the stubborn refusal entirely to abandon figuration — by the late 1960s he was working in a sort of photo-realism that became increasingly abstracted, distancing itself ever further from painterly mark-making. Over the past few decades, his subject-matter has been the human face. He works from photographs. The result of this practice has been a series of huge, often bright, usually slightly disorienting portraits, where recognisable features flicker in and out from a series of seemingly arbitrary colours and shapes. And since Close has painted, in the course of a long career, many self-portraits — and, it must be said, since I’d read a bit about Close and once watched a documentary about him — as I stood there admiring the National Portrait Gallery’s new acquisition, it didn’t take me long to recognise the large, cheerful-looking man, sporting a distinctive goatee beard and round-framed spectacles, sitting in a wheelchair beneath the painting. It was, of course, Chuck Close himself.

It turns out that this classic Close self portrait was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery for the present exhibition. When I saw him Close was, sportingly, allowing himself to be photographed with the new work. And as I went round the show, he was going round at the same time, so it was hard not to form some sort of impression as to his character. From what I could see, Close appears to be a good humoured, intelligent, practical, in some ways larger-than-life person — confident, certainly, but not overbearing — in short, a likeable man. All of which was odd, because this is exactly the impression conveyed by the self-portraits by Close that I’d seen over the years. There was something neat about this, and the neatness pleased me. Put simply, it was reassuring to see that those paintings had somehow told some sort of truth about the man who painted them. They had not only conveyed a physical likeness, although they had certainly done that — they had captured something else, too, about both the painter and the man, so that when I encountered both I felt as if I recognised the person I encountered. And what more can one ask of a self portrait than to do all that, and to look good, too?

Art and illusions
But as Self Portrait — 56 paintings, mostly in oils, arranged in roughly chronological order over five rooms — insistently reminds us, we virtually never have the opportunity to compare a self portrait with its subject (which is also to say, with its creator) even in the cursory way I did with Chuck Close. And whether we do or not, our relationship with a self portrait is usually mediated by some fairly persuasive wishful thinking. Yes, it’s lovely to think that somehow paint could forge a genuine relationship between two individuals, painter and viewer, conveying to the latter profound truths about the former. It’s lovely to think that a painter might sometimes speak to the viewer in a language he or she comprehends perfectly. It’s lovely to think that art had the power to smash down every boundary of chronological and cultural difference. And at its best, art can, of course, make the viewer feel as if all these things are the case.

But as our eighteenth century forebears were well aware, art and deception are closely related. Sadly, the hopes articulated for portraiture in the lines above are entirely deceptive. And yet one can’t deny their allure. Post phrenology, post Freud (Sigmund, not Lucian), post the ‘objective truth’ of analogue photography, living now in a world where inexpensive surgery can give virtually anyone a new and different face, most of us still believe — which suggests that we must want pretty desperately to believe it — that somehow a good portrait tells us something about what its subject is really like. At the extreme, this can extend to foretelling the future: c.f., among a thousand other possible examples, this note regarding Lucian Freud’s 1952 painting of John Minton. Here we are encouraged to believe that because Lucian Freud paints Minton with sad-looking eyes, it somehow follows that Minton will kill himself soon thereafter. The fact that most of Freud’s subjects look sad, yet (happily) do not feel compelled to follow Minton’s lead, is, apparently, neither here nor there — and certainly not to be construed as some defect either on the part of Freud’s painting, or exposure to his social skills over the course of one of those famously long series of sittings.

Yet Freud’s the perfect example here, because we do know a lot about his sittings, if only because people write about their interactions with this famously reclusive figure so very so often. We know that he paints his mother, (ex)wives, (ex)lovers, children, fellow painters, patrons (if such a word can be used about such a grand figure these days — I mean, basically, the late Duke of Devonshire), whippets, exegetes and friends. We feel indistinctly yet forcefully that in each of these cases, personal knowledge ought to deliver something by way of insight on the surface of the canvas.

We’d be less comfortable with the idea that paint might be used, habitually, to cover something up or to manufacture a myth more durable than the truth. By far the best (and most realistic) moment in Love is the Devil, that film about Francis Bacon, is the longish shot in which Bacon, getting ready for a night out, applies his makeup — his ‘paint’, no doubt, in the language of his Edwardian parents and nanny — with the same skill, seriousness and desire for creating illusion with which he produced his art. Confronted with the face he knew better than any other, Bacon was more than prepared to edit, conceal, improve. And who amongst us can blame him?

A preference for the Primitives
And that, really, encapsulates the paradox of self portraits. It’s not just that we are stuck with whatever partial account the painter gives to us of a third party, compounded by our own flawed understanding of that partial account — on top of that, we have to deal with all the issues of a personal agenda, too — as well as with the usual encumbrances of ignorance, misinformation and anachronism. Painting his own portrait, the artist is up against not only all his predecessors, contemporaries and successors, but everyone who knows him now, who might know him in the future, and of course posterity. Rarely can there be works of art that carry a heavier freight of complexity, obfuscation and sheer mystery. Or to put it another way, self portraits carry before them so many ‘issues’ that it’s a wonder that we can see them at all. No surprise, then, that the NPG’s current show is London’s first on this theme for decades. So many painters paint themselves, but to such different ends in such different situations, that a lack of focus comes with the difficult territory.

Insofar as Self Portrait has a problem, that encapsulates it. The evidence is there from the very beginning. Upon entering the exhibition, one of the first things the visitor encounters is a stunning panel by Jan van Eyck. The work is dated 21 October, 1433 — meaning, rather movingly, that 572 years to the day separate its completion from the opening of the exhibition. This painting — Portrait of a Man, sometimes also known as Man in the Red Turban) — has for centuries, in part because of its punning inscription, been thought to be a self portrait. The fact that even this basic point can’t be established should tell its own story.

Yet the prominent place given to this Van Eyck is, among other things, a proclamation of seriousness on the part of the curators. The painting is, quite simply, a treasure. Its importance is beyond question, especially if one accepts the ‘self portrait’ tag. As one of the first, as well as one of the greatest self-portraits in oils, the little panel exerts a force out of all proportion to its modest size and apparent simplicity. Out from the darkness, beneath the fantastical crimson mass of that towering turban, stares a strangely impassive, calculating face of the sort one might still see today on the streets of Bruges or Ghent — a real face, perhaps one of the very first such faces in the history of post-classical Western art — with such a sharp look, meeting the viewer’s eyes, that no matter how many times one sees it, it still delivers a real jolt. The sense of one-to-one contact is all too real. The painting has the sort of presence one would attribute not to an old piece of wood, which is what it is, but rather to an actual living person.

In terms of art history, there’s plenty that later artists would come to borrow — the accumulation of detail as a signifier (however spurious) of accuracy, the featureless background focusing all attention on the face, or even the exotic costume as a display both of technical skill and perhaps a sign of something ‘put on’ about the whole enterprise — but in a sense, looking at Van Eyck’s amazing picture, art history is hardly the point. Here, at the beginning of a whole self portrait tradition, it becomes incredibly tempting to imagine that what we are seeing is, if only because the suppressed brushstrokes and the apparent lack of painterly self-advertisement encourage us to think so, something approaching reality. No wonder so many subtle and sensitive writers, from Schlegel to Burckhardt and Huizinga, claimed to detect in the work of the Flemish ‘Primitives’ truths that usually lie far beyond the scope of painting per se. Needless to say, however, the truths they found there were as various as the men who went looking for them.

What do we know?
For again, that’s the point about self portraits. It’s easy to admire them, but far harder to understand them, rather than simply to respond to them.

Much ink and ingenuity has been lavished on unpicking the minutiae of Jan Van Eyck’s life, so that we know much more about him than we do about most of his contemporaries. In fact, we know more about him that we do about most pre-modern artists, full stop. Yet at the same time, in some ways we know very little indeed about this tiny masterpiece that hangs at the moment in the National Portrait Gallery, and in general what we think we know turns out to be anachronistic and misguided.

Why did Van Eyck paint it? Who was it for? What was it for? Sadly, seriously, honestly, we simply do not know. All our art historical reading, all our gallery going, all our 21st century post-modern acculturation simply imprisons us in our own little narrowness. Whatever else we know about Van Eyck, we can be sure that our thoughts about this little panel are a world away from his — in our assumptions about verisimilitude, self-expression, creativity, originality, images, mortality, fame and, not least, in what we believe to be the case about ‘art’ itself — ‘art’ being a concept which would have meant nothing at all, at least in our present-day sense, to Van Eyck. Or to put it another way, we see Van Eyck primarily as an artist. Yet there is every chance he’d have looked in one of those small, convex mirrors and seen looking back at him a highly successful courtier, a diplomat and an effective all-purpose spin-doctor (to use a different anachronism) for Philip the Good.

All of which brings us back to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary. As we have seen, the 56 works begin with Van Eyck and end with Chuck Close. In between, there are paintings from Western Europe, North America and indeed Australia. The artists represented here include men and women, young and old, famous and fairly obscure, successful and less successful, reclusive and extrovert, alive and dead. The works were created in a correspondingly wide variety of social contexts, doctrinal climates and patronage structures, with very different levels of access to, inter alia, photography, the work of other artists, and whatever it is that critics provide. Nor are the works all self portraits in the most obvious sense of the term. Instead, several of the works fall into that category of self portrait called the friendship portrait; several simply include other people; one’s a family portrait, complete with maid, fruit, flowers and some miscellaneous allegorical statuary. Many were demonstration pieces, advertising the technical skill of a commercial portraitist in a cool, professional manner, while in a few, the desperate need for self-expression is so palpable as almost to ooze, thickly, from the surface of the canvas. The comparisons could run on for pages, but the point is clear enough. The ‘self portrait’ label is practically the only thing these paintings could, conceivably, be said to have in common, and even then it’s a bit of a stretch.

The problem, then, lies not in quality, exactly — for there are a number of very strong works here, as well as, admittedly, some puzzlingly weak ones — nor in lack either of good intentions or food for thought. Instead, such trouble as there is here lurks in the sheer variousness of the works on display. Oh, it’s a stimulating enough exercise as one goes around, making a little comparison here or being knocked off one’s feet by some masterpiece there. After one leaves, however, there’s a feeling of vague dissatisfaction, perhaps even of indigestion.

Insofar as the catalogue (written by Anthony Bond and Joanna Woodall, with essays by T. J. Clark, Ludmilla Jordanova and Joseph Leo Koerner) attempts to make sense of this embarassing profusion, it does so imperfectly. It’s all very well to write about ‘constructing an identity’ or ‘self presentation’ — be honest here, who hasn’t? — but however much academics may argue to the contrary, it’s rarely very long until they, and we, run into a brick wall of ignorance. For unless we are pretty sure of all sorts of things regarding the maker of a particular self portrait, the circumstances under which it was created and so forth, who are we to judge the success or otherwise of that ‘constructed identity’, the extent of ingenuity underpinning that ‘self presentation’? In short, unless we happen to see Chuck Close standing there beneath a painting he finished a few months ago and hence can compare the two, working within a cultural context with which we’re personally familiar, how much of what we end up saying is simply the stuff of forlorn, if harmless, fantasy?

Girls, girls, girls
It’s easy enough to believe, though, that this concern with ‘self presentation’ has played a part in the organisation of Self Portrait. Not least, the number of women painters represented seems frankly disproportionate to their historical significance.

A few of the works by female painters are extremely strong. Judith Leyster’s self portrait (a loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, USA), for instance, is a brilliantly vivid, apparently rather offhand but actually highly skilful piece of work. Although Anna Dorothea Therbusch-Lisiewska is hardly a household name — at least not in any household I’ve encountered recently — there’s enough real flair in her handling of paint, and enough interest in her story, to make one glad of the inclusion. And despite my reservations about both of them, I suppose that Artemisia Gentileschi and Frida Kahlo are both now such well-established members of a certain sort of art-historical pantheon that they could hardly have been omitted. But I find it hard to justify, for instance, a typically slick, formulaic effort by Marlene Dumas, which comes across as nothing more than a sweetly-coloured amplification of a better painting by Gerhard Richter that hangs nearby.

Whereas possibly the only real reason to include Suzanne Valadon’s The Blue Room — not that it’s a bad reason — is the fact that the work is, intentionally or not, absolutely hilarious. Valadon, the illegitimate daughter of a domestic labourer, had come to Paris to work as a model, but eventually took up painting in her own right, encouraged by, amongst others, Degas. She went on to give birth to Maurice Utrillo. Her self portrait on show here is really quite remarkable. Present are many of the usual Post-Impressionist standbys – the cloisonnisme, the patterned fabrics, a model sprawled languorously across a couch — except in this case the model has somehow metamorphosed from some pretty girl into the Odalisque from Hell. Instead of some decorative creature, ready to shape herself to the daydreams of others, we see before us a bulky, fleshy, middle-aged woman, with thighs like hams and huge saggy breasts, her skin blotchy, her expression surly. She’s also got a cigarette clamped between her lips. In short, this is like a Guerrilla Girlz fantasy, or like Sarah Lucas transported back to Picasso’s Monmarte, fags and all. It’s a genuinely shocking painting, because it looks so much like a very broad parody and yet apparently isn’t. But in a sense that underlines the whole problem with ‘self presentation’. In presenting herself thus, what was Valadon trying to say? Did she like the way she looked? Did other people like it? Did the image look less peculiar then? Or more peculiar? What, exactly, is the point here?

Having stood spellbound by this challenging painting for several minutes, though, and having read about it later in the catalogue, I am not sure I’m any closer to an answer, even though the catalogue labels The Blue Room a ‘manifesto piece’ and claims it represents ‘a glamorous ideal of [Valadon’s] dual nature as model and independent creator’. Glamorous? Shocking modern, probably, with that pudding-basin haircut, the let-it-all-hang-out, full-fat figure and the cigarette, but hardly glamorous. It’s a painting of herself for herself, perhaps, but not an easy one to read today. It is not easy to capture the tone, to feel the distance between rhetoric and reality — and all of that, even though the work was painted within living memory! The truth is that, at least without a great deal of extra research, it isn’t really possible for us to know much about what Valadon was trying to say about herself — in the actual time and place and context in which she was saying it — let alone to compare it intelligently with the works that surround it. Self-creation may well being going on here, but who are we to spot the points where it begins and ends?

Instead, we are left responding to these things partially, anachronistically and superficially. The very breadth and variousness of the exhibition ensures that this remains the case. And knowledge, here, can be as much of a problem as ignorance. I have already mentioned my indebtedness to television films and to books when it came to knowing about Chuck Close. How much of what we know about that self portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi actually comes from her own ‘self presentation’, and how much from a half-remembered interview with Germaine Greer that took place a decade or so ago on Woman’s Hour? How much of our knowledge of Frieda Kahlo stems from her own ‘created identity’, and how much from a biography of Diego Rivera, and that film, and from the well-known art expert Madonna’s appreciative effusions?

Of nothingness, Nazarenes and nudity
All of which probably creates an unnecessarily negative impression of a stimulating, occasionally illuminating exhibition which ought not to be blamed for raising questions it cannot begin to answer. Not least, there are some excellent paintings here, including quite a few rarely if ever seen in London.

Where to start? Jacob Jordaens’ sumptuous family group (on loan from the Prado) is a pure, early modern, unselfconscious delight. So is Anthony van Dyck’s friendship portrait of himself and his old comrade and patron Endymion Porter (the work also a Prado loan), an elegant study in contrasts, where the confidence of the handling has to be seen to be believed. Velazquez’s brooding self portrait (like several works here, an early treasure borrowed from the Uffizi’s Collezionne degli Autoritratti) is at once magnificent and reserved, including one of the most stunningly vibrant, energetic backgrounds I’ve ever seen, featureless yet never less than mesmerising. Despite, or rather because of the apparent austerity of the work — and its fine condition plays a part here, with Prado works looking as fresh as Hermitage ones — one is reminded what a truly astounding artist Velazquez was capable of being. Whereas Sassoferrato’s self portrait comes as much more of a surprise. A crisply effective, luminous painting, it at once resembles his devotional works, yet is infinitely more easy to appreciate for a certain sort of protestant sensibility. (But for a fascinating discussion of the limits of good taste in religious art, see Professor Homan’s recent article on the Social Affairs Unit website.)

That impressive Sassoferrato is hardly the only surprise. Moving on through history a bit (and leaving out some very strong paintings along the way) there’s a powerful portrait here by Victor Emile Janssen, a B-list Nazarene. Dating perhaps c. 1829 (from the Hamburger Kunsthalle), it shows a young man wrapped in a cursory bit of drapery in front of an unmade bed, his hair tousled, his body stooped, intent, melancholy (apparently), possibly even consumptive. It’s a portrait of the artist as a young Durer, it’s canvas as a form of confessional — it’s the testament of someone who’d die at the Christ-like age of 38. It’s limpid, intense and sad. Whereas the much more famous Courbet’s Portrait of the Artist Called the Wounded Man is delirious moment of fantasy, executed with incontrovertible skill, somehow invoking (and this is what I mean about the impossibility of escaping our own limitations) that famous photo of Che Guevara as compellingly as it does the more contemporary yet indeed not entirely unrelated events of 1848. There’s a strong feeling that the bogus aestheticisation of terrorism and civil war starts here, right here, in front of this very canvas. It’s more than possible to admire this picture and deplore it, all at the same time.

And then, finally, there is Stanley Spencer’s Double Naked Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife (better known as the Leg of Mutton Nude). As much as I disbelieve that one can learn much about an artist’s life from the visual language in which he reveals it or fibs about it, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the bodies are not the only naked thing in this picture. Confronted with Patricia Preece’s poignant old-woman breasts, her sagging flesh and with Spencer’s own sagging bits and pieces, the nature of his sexual obsession with this cold, unpleasant, deeply unfeminine woman seems ever more insistently unfortunate, as indeed it proved to be. But then there is a sort of creepy obsessiveness worked into the paint itself. It’s still rather alarming. The Spencer is not, however, illustrated in the catalogue. I wonder why? Surely the youth of today would not be unduly corrupted by the notion that most people, as the years go by, begin to look pretty discouraging once their clothes are off? Or is that simply one bit of ‘self presentation’ too far for the show’s organisers?

Present imperfect
With his slightly queasy collision of humility and exhibitionism, private religious conviction and very public adultery, tidy brushstrokes and warts-and-all nudity, Spencer’s painting seems to bridge the decades connecting our own present-day experience with a largely unrecoverable past. Elsewhere, though, the comparison between past and present is not necessarily a comfortable one. Put bluntly, there’s a distinct falling-off of quality in some of the more recent works. Forget, if only because there’s so little of interest to say about them, near-worthless efforts such as the Baselitz offering, which shows a badly-painted man not much improved by being displayed upside down, or Richard Hamilton’s contribution to the genre, which according to the catalogue ‘deconstructs the mystique of painting and originality in exchange for a very Duchampian visual conundrum’. (Yet it doesn’t, by the way, and in any event it’s hard to see why it would be a good thing if somehow, in a parallel world, it did.)

Forget, too, the paintings that are either not particularly fine examples of the artist’s work, such as a 1971 Bacon, painted long after the artist had slipped into the habit of slickly mannered and highly lucrative self-plagarism, or a 1989 Kossoff that similarly goes nowhere, mired in its muddy, self-congratulatory lack of direction, having forgot the lessons of Bomberg’s explosive orthogonals along with Kossoff’s own early and admirable force of convicition. And while we’re at it, let’s forget artists whose work I simply don’t much like, by which in this case I mean Warhol, represented here by a 1978 six-part image, which leaves me as cold as his oeuvre always does. I much prefer the big, prawn-pink Jenny Saville painting, depicting the artist naked, seated, from behind, which while not exactly up to the level of a Velazquez or a Courbet, is at least animated by a degree of scrutiny, effort, conviction and generous fleshy humanity.

No, the most discouraging comparison must, as it so often does, involve Our Greatest Living Painter himself. Freud, who paints self portraits with reasonable frequency, is represented here by a 1967 work called Interior with Hand Mirror (Self Portrait) (a loan from the Art Gallery of Western Australia). He’s lucky (but then isn’t Freud pretty consistently lucky?) in the choice of work, in that a number of his more recent self portraits have been a good deal worse indeed. For one thing, since he’s not very good at creating figures capable of supporting their own weight, his efforts to portray himself full-length, standing, invariably get bogged down by draughtsmanship so bad that any number of increasingly desperate expedients (painting himself nude, painting himself with a nude woman, etc) cannot entirely disguise it. In this case, in any event, Freud has avoided challenges of that sort by simply painting a small hand-mirror wedged into a window casement in some not-entirely-clear manner, in which the painter’s face can, just about, be discerned. It’s not so much a likeness as a sort of fleeting, broad-brush adumbration, but that’s all right, since by 1977 everyone who might conceivably care what Freud looked like had probably satisfied their curiosity on that point.

Freudian slippage
Instead, I fear, Freud’s self portrait is actually one of those ‘paintings about painting’. But the problem here is less the aspiration — in some sense Velazquez’s great Las Meninas might also be called a painting about painting — than the frankly inept execution. The relationship of the window sashes to each other is difficult to understand. The ‘mirror’ shows no sign of reflectivity. It might as well be a ping-pong paddle to which someone has affixed an indistinct picture of Freud’s face.

And then there’s the glass in the windows. It’s rendered, basically, as whiteness over a dark ground, applied with all the subtlety of a somewhat slap-dash housepainter applying a base coat to a bit of wall that no one is likely to see very much. These passages don’t read as anything — they are only intelligible in the context of the window sashes — but then neither are they beautiful as paint itself. And this simply won’t do. Unlike some of the contemporary painters represented here, Freud claims to paint in a great tradition, the visual language of Manet and Watteau and even Velazquez himself. Yet the sad truth is, if he still believes this to be the case, he must have lost the ability to see these painters’ work — and so must his various pet critics and curators. None of which would matter, even now, were the claims made for Freud’s greatness not so inanely overblown. Here, though, we see it once again. A few square inches of the Velazquez self portrait shown here, even the a few square inches of the featureless background, sdisplays a thousand times more life than do all the smeary, bleary, dead-looking surfaces that Freud has generated over the past three decades. When will the arts establishment accept that Freud may well have painted his last first-rate painting marginally before John Minton did? Or is there too much invested in Freud’s particular project for candour to have much appeal?

Chuck Close and personal
Compared with all of that, one turns with some relief to Chuck Close. As we have seen, unlike Freud’s long, demanding (for the subject anyway) sittings, Close works from photographs. And although there are obviously plenty of issues raised by the manner in which he chooses to convey the information, his paintings show every sign of being about likeness, about seeing, about face-to-face experience. At any rate, this is what Close himself says about them, and indeed, as I’ve seen from my own experience, it’s how they seem to work.

As Close says in the course of a genuinely interesting interview, printed in the catalogue,

I always thought that whatever has happened in someone’s life, there is evidence embedded in that face. If they have laughed their whole life they have laugh lines. And if they frowned their whole lives they have furrows.We almost relate to someone in one of these paintings as we would related to someone that we would meet [ … ] I think this can also happen with my own image and I think that is why I’m so careful to present it so neutrally, so that I’m not bound to get just one reading: that everyone can relate to this image as they would relate to me ….

And this, of course, takes us right back to the beginning. Almost as if enacting Close’s own narrative here, I first saw his self portraits, and then saw him, and was pleased at how well the two parts of the jigsaw puzzle came to fit together in my hands. It’s not just about verisimilitude, either — it’s about mood, warmth, iconography, palette, scale, ambience — and, as often happens with intuition, there’s nothing very objective about it. Let’s be honest. I was surprised, when I saw Close, about the extent of intuitive truth his pictures, for all their glossy contemporary self-consciousness, had been able to convey. Could it be that some of the pictures in Self Portrait, read not seriously but intuitively, whimsically, fantastically, might actually carry more weight than I could have believed? Sadly, yet obviously, the answer can never be proved. All we can do is to look, wonder, smile, grimace and stare, and generally do the best we can.

Some of the most stimulating art history of the past generation has attempted to excavate the circumstances surrounding the creation of specific works in search of context, meaning, purpose. Yet these have proved elusive. Looking back at even the best of such works, what is generally most striking now is not what they reveal about the art in question, but rather the preoccupations, political and cultural assumptions, quirks and blind spots of each art historian — although the datedness of these, like the clothing of ours parents’ day, may radiate as much retro charm as anything else, and may indeed come back into fashion again from time to time. What all of this does suggest, however, is that there is quite a lot one needs to know about a self portrait before it is possible even to begin to understand much about it, let alone comparing it with another self portrait. Beyond that, the rest is lovely, consoling, unsustainable daydreams.

And what’s wrong with that, you might well ask? Very little, probably. In any event, there’s no harm in making your way along to the NPG within the next few months, if only in order to decide for yourself.
Dr Bunny Smedley lives in central London, and wishes that her toddler son liked Van Eyck or even Velazquez as much as he does Rachel Whiteread.

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