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Portraying the self

22 October 2005

12:00 AM

22 October 2005

12:00 AM

This is the season of the self-portrait. At the Royal Academy until 11 December are 150 self-portraits by Edvard Munch (reviewed in this column three weeks ago), the depth of his obsession bordering on sheer tedium. Just opening at the National Portrait Gallery is the first major museum study in this country of the self-portrait, from the Old Masters to now. A most distinguished collection of self-portraits by 20th-century British artists assembled by the writer Ruth Borchard, which has been touring this country and will visit America next year, has now found a permanent home in London. And an exhibition of 30 pictures by Cherry Pickles (born in Bridgend, South Wales, in 1950) opens at Piano Nobile Fine Paintings, 129 Portland Road, London W11, consisting entirely of self-portraits (until 29 October).

Munch almost gives self-portraiture a bad name. He had the visual equivalent of verbal diarrhoea (this is a man who left more than 20,000 works by his own hand to the City of Oslo), and he turned to self-depiction again and again for relief from his latest neurosis. Munch was incarcerated in the prison of self, but at least he painted the bars different colours and drew his nightmares on the cell walls. The range of media he employed, and his very considerable skills with paint and line, make this rampant self-obsession (just about) tolerable. A smaller show than the RA’s would have done him greater service, but as a point of comparison with the NPG’s survey it is valuable viewing: Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary is a blockbuster with attitude — 55 painters glaring down at us mere mortals from the Olympian heights of their creativity (until 29 January 2006).

Leaving aside for a moment the (at times) bizarre selection of artists, it’s a great pleasure and a privilege to have a 500-year span of Western self-portraiture to compare and contrast. From van Eyck to Chuck Close via such major modern masters as Courbet, van Gogh and Cézanne, this exhibition is packed with instruction and delight. It’s always possible to quarrel with someone else’s selection, but I do find it irritating when art is sold like CDs and the artists featured here are trumpeted as ‘55 of the world’s greatest’. It’s admirable that so many women are included, but to place Judith Leyster, Anna Dorothea Therbusch-Lisiewska or Sabine Lepsius among the world’s greatest is simply ludicrous. Even the better-known women, like Suzanne Valadon and the ubiquitous Frida Kahlo, are out of their depth in such a categorisation. Interesting artists perhaps, but certainly not great. Neither are some of the male inclusions — for instance, Hans Thoma, John N. Robinson (the token black) or Francis Newton Souza.

Why (one may ask how) are such artists chosen over the dozens more eligible? Souza is an interesting case in point. Indian-born, he came to England in 1949, subsequently living in New York and India. His particular brand of spiky and distorted figuration has its admirers, but its appeal has remained fairly restricted until now. In the new hang at Tate Britain, Souza is designated an ‘important artist’ and accorded a whole room, and the NPG, ever ready to follow the Tate’s lead, has included him in this show. A shame that Souza didn’t live to see his promotion: for one of his political interests it would have been highly amusing. His work is much more at home in the informal Borchard Collection (it’s actually Borchard’s Souza which has been loaned to the NPG), and will eventually find its place alongside the likes of Cecil Collins, Anthony Eyton, Anne Redpath, William Gear and Anthony Green in a new Arts Centre in north London.

Scheduled to open in the autumn of 2008, King’s Place in King’s Cross will be a landmark multipurpose building by architects Dixon Jones, which will include a 450-seat auditorium and an art gallery, as well as offices. The Borchard Collection will be on permanent display there, and the Centre will develop an emphasis on self-portraiture, with plans for a yearly award. This kind of encouragement can only be a shot in the arm for self-portraiture in this country. In the meantime, further details about the Borchard Collection can be found in Philip Vann’s rewarding study of British self-portraits in the 20th century, Face to Face (Sansom & Company, £30).

What makes an artist’s self-image more compelling than a photograph of him or her? A new book of art-world photos by the veteran Jorge Lewinski raises this question. Portrait of the Artist (Royal Academy Publications, £24.95) gathers together some 120 black-and-white shots, dating from the Sixties to the Nineties, of such luminaries as Eileen Agar, Roger Hilton, Carl Andre, Alan Davie, Euan Uglow and Richard Wilson. Like all books of artist photos (the classic of the genre is Private View by Snowdon, with texts by Bryan Robertson and John Russell, published in 1965), it’s a fascinating document, and often revealing. Two photos in particular sum up its strengths: Patrick Heron poised like a dancer in mid-conversation, marking time with a pencil, and Peter Logan looking like Nijinsky doing ‘Singing In The Rain’. Yet no single image, or the whole book collectively, challenges the most meagre self-portrait, for in that we have evidence of the artist’s hand and mind (sometimes even the heart) at work. And the result is often a complex and many-layered thing, a mixture of honest self-appraisal and calculated presentation. The photo book is an excellent addition to the library but can never be a substitute for the art.

Cherry Pickles, however, is the real thing. She has been painting away quietly in West Wales and Greece for the past 25 years, occasionally showing work and building up a reputation among other artists and informed observers. Her work is hardly familiar to the general public, but, as this exhibition demonstrates, it deserves to be more widely known and appreciated. (I must declare an interest at this point: I wrote the essay in the catalogue which accompanies the show.) Pickles is a figurative painter, taught by such masters of the craft as Uglow, Myles Murphy and Patrick Symons, who has worked long and hard to realise her own vision of the world. Although she paints extensively in other genres, landscape in particular, the self-portrait has proved to be her most successful vehicle to date. But these are self-portraits with a difference. Pickles paints her image distorted in old mirrors, often to the extent of being virtually unrecognisable. Her interest lies in how images are interrupted or imperfectly transmitted, how the edges of things appear in a car’s rear-view mirror, or how a wine-glass obscures the features.

Pickles travels to Greece three or four times a year, staying in Delphi, Mykonos or Lesbos, in annexes administered by Athens Art School. There she has painted some of her most telling self-portraits, in a conscious if temporary exile from hearth, home and family. She deliberately uproots herself, and confronts a self unprotected by the cocoon of everyday life. It’s an extreme thing to do, but it perhaps helps to account for the originality and inventiveness of her work. The more I think about it, the more remarkable it becomes. This exhibition offers a powerful group of images: intense and memorable.

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