With everyone apparently pointing their mobile phone cameras at themselves, this detailed and informative overview of the history of the self-portrait is nothing if not timely.
To preserve one’s own image can seem like the acme of self-obsession, but the desire for immortality is unbounded. From Bak, sculptor to the Pharaoh Akhenaten some 1300 years BC to Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Tracey Emin, artists have painted their own likeness and told us as much about their own age as they do about themselves.
The self is an infinitely patient and cost-free model who will also bend unquestioningly to the will of the artist without making the inevitable demands of a paying sitter. The result may be flattering or revealing, but it can also reflect the mores of the times and the development of what became art movements. Just as the discovery of perspective led to recession appearing everywhere, so the mediaeval “mirror craze” led to an outbreak of self-painting. A more analytical age produced what James Hall calls the confessional works of Titian and Michelangelo and the effectively narrative work of serial self-portraitists such as Courbet and Van Gogh (who certainly couldn’t afford models).
This is a serious and scholarly work that nevertheless retains the reader’s interest and attention and is generously and thoughtfully illustrated so that, just as you’re absorbing a new point, an example pops neatly into view.
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