Editors' pick

Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century

Painting/Drawing, Photography

Editorial Review

As an Act Of Freedom, Self-Portrait Is Singular

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 23, 2009

There is something about portraits. Not all, but all too many, put into the room a stale, undelightful odor of propriety. You, too, may have smelled it around pictures that are portraits. It comes from deep inside the core of what they are.

The 77 American self-portraits now on display at the National Portrait Gallery downtown give off less than most.

Two collectors, Ruth Bowman and the late Harry Kahn, spent 15 years assembling the pictures in "Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the 20th Century," which are mostly works on paper that came to the Portrait Gallery, a place of much formality, in 2002 as a welcome acquisition. They help to air it out.

Here's what makes self-portraits different: Just one soul is involved; usually there are two.

When looking at a commissioned portrait (whether it's a Rembrandt or an Ingres or a Gilbert Stuart doesn't much matter), it's easy to imagine the scene in the studio (the obsequious pleasantries, the unconvincing smiles), which, of course, is fraught. Here, at the easel, stands the anxious artist (will they complain about the mouth? when do I get paid?); there, in the chair, sits the just-as-anxious sitter (what should I be thinking of? how long will this take?), both of them alert to the compromise involved.

Rembrandt in Amsterdam assuaged the burghers he portrayed by being consistently nice about their haberdashery. Their black jackets in his pictures always fit correctly. The platter-size and starched lace ruffs around their necks are never yellowish or droopy. Portraits are forever. One ought to look one's best.

It must have come as a relief when Rembrandt, on his own, returning to his mirror, could dress up in whatever -- a French beret, a studio smock, a nightcap, a turban from the costume box. In painting his self-portraits, the master could transmute himself from hireling to hero, and heroes get to wear anything they want.

The Americans in "Reflections/Refractions" allow themselves similar license. William Beckman posed for himself in 1974 wearing beltless jeans with his underpants showing. Raphael Soyer, in a 1920 lithograph, stares into his mirror with a New York tough guy's stare. His workman's shirt's unpressed. A half-smoked cigarette dangles from his mouth.

Thomas Hart Benton's swoopy art is often stylized and mythy, but when he drew himself (with a lithographic crayon, in 1972) he left in all his wrinkles, and his bulging belly, and the unheroic (indeed rather nerdy) glasses case clipped to his pocket.

That's one of self-portraiture's freedoms. You don't have to dress up.

Another of its freedoms is, of course, financial. When you're painting a self-portrait you don't have to pay the model, who will pose, without complaining, as long as you want. I don't now how many hours Robert Julius Brawley (1937-2006) spent drawing his amazingly fastidious self-portrait, but it looks as though it was hundreds. Bruce Nauman's, in strong contrast, didn't take that many seconds.

Rigorous conventions shape other sorts of portraits (mug shots, yearbook photographs, tall oils for the boardroom), but this kind does not have rules.

And it doesn't involve chat. One of the key requirements for a successful career in portraiture is skill at conversation. England's superb Lucian Freud is known for offering his sitters the tastiest of delicacies, the oldest of champagne and the most exquisite talk. John Singer Sargent, too, kept his subjects spellbound. So did Alice Neel. When making their self-portraits, all those glib artists could just sit down and shut up.

Because the portraits on exhibit all are 20th-century objects, they display a zoo of different styles. Some are near-abstractions. Hans Hofmann's nose, for instance, is an equilateral triangle. Others are symbolic. In Robert Rauschenberg's "Autobiography" (1968) you get to see his X-ray, snapshots from his boyhood, his astrological chart and a nautical chart of the Texas coast where he grew up. Still others are allegorical. The one Saul Steinberg on view doesn't show Steinberg but a bearded Uncle Sam. ("As a matter of fact," said Steinberg, "this is the tradition of the artist -- to become somebody else. An artist who doesn't become somebody else remains the next-door girl or boy.")

Some of these artists (John Wilson and Rockwell Kent) make themselves rather beautiful. Others -- say John Graham, who supplies himself with devil's horn -- take a very different tack and prefer to look satanic. Some make themselves gigantic. One William Beckman charcoal shown is 7 1/2 feet tall.

Many of these artists supply themselves with props. Some are blatant. Federico Castellon, a follower of Salvador Dal's, shows what team he's playing for by posing at the side of a Dalesque desert landscape while holding, quite surreally, a woman's high-heeled shoe. Other are more subtle. Louis Lozowick (1892-1973), an artist widely known for his confidently muscular urban landscapes, shows himself with gridded shadows falling on his body as if he had been posing underneath the El.

Some of these self-portraits are little more than logos, not likenesses at all but more like Albrecht Drer's monogram or J.M. Whistler's butterfly. For a long time Jim Dine showed himself in his art not as a person but as an empty bathrobe. Robert Arneson (1930-1992) went further. A bathrobe at least has arms, but Arneson, a California ceramicist, was content to represent himself by a single inscribed handmade terra-cotta brick.

In one poignant David Hockney, a 1982 photo-collage, the man himself is missing, at least at first glance. What you see, instead, is the artist's mourning mother. She is seated on a tomb in the grounds of roofless Bolton Abbey in the drizzly English Midlands where she and her late husband had courted long ago. Her glance is to the side, her thoughts seem to be elsewhere, she is wearing a plastic raincoat, clenched against the cold. The leather toes of his brown wing-tips poking into the bottom of the picture are all you see of the portraitist. It's enough. Few artists are as skillful as is David Hockney at revealing who he is.