Rembrandt turns to look at you with a defiantly cynical look that says, ‘what now?’ Across centuries, the distance that separates us and one of the greatest artists the world has known, disappears in an instant: with the deft painting of a raised eyebrow and the network of fine wrinkles that traverse his face, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve tapped the aging artist on the shoulder during a moment of deep personal meditation: ‘Self-portrait at 51’ (1657) was painted during a period of financial and personal tragedy after all. A highly skilled artist who left us more than 80 self-portraits, he could convey the nuances of expression in a way that still manages to speak to us, almost four centuries later. Here is where the power of the self-portrait lies.
Made up of portraits taken from the National Galleries of Scotland, the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, an array of insights into artists’ perception of themselves is on offer. The exhibition is not arranged chronologically but into themes. However tenuous these themes may be, the visitor is invited to see the similarities that mark the practice of self-portraiture across centuries. Most interesting is the section detailing ‘Artists at Work’: a dozen or-so artists, paintbrush in hand, record themselves in the process of creating art. Louis Janmot’s ‘Self-Portrait’ (1832) records for posterity the force of intellectual rigor that he brought to his work; Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita invites us into his studio in ‘Portrait of the Artist’ (1926) to show us the space in which he works and the dominating presence of his paintbrushes, drawings and cat.
The variety of styles, periods, techniques and medium is this exhibition’s strength. Even if the artists are divided by centuries, they still seem to be in dialogue with each other: James Nasmyth is grimly fascinated by the passage of time on his body in ‘Back of Hand’ (1874) in the same way that Ken Currie confronts his appearance in ‘Unfamiliar Reflection’ (2006); one can imagine that Marina Abramović and Cecile Walton might have had a lot to talk about considering that they have both confronted the constraints facing female artists in ‘Art must be beautiful; artist must be beautiful’ (1975) and ‘Romance’ (1920) respectively.
Aside from these exciting comparisons, the novelty of this exhibition lies in its digital photo booth – a slightly insipid but terribly fun interactive experience which lets your selfie be part of the exhibition too. This idea links to the work of Ai Weiwei, the political protestor whose Instagram feed forms part of the show. Ai Weiwei’s ‘Illumination’ (2009) in its dynamic (and one must assume – accidental – composition) demonstrates the political and artistic potential of the much-berated ‘selfie’. Self-expression is the name of the game here and if perhaps you feel as world-weary as Rembrandt, this exhibition shows that you have a platform to share this.
Facing the world: Self-Portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei is on at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until the 16th October 2016.