Magazine of art press and reviews from London
David Franchi – Saturday, 9th January 2016.
“The Self – Portrait. A cultural history” of James Hall is a captivating and erudite art book, by Thames and Hudson, London.
I have been recently involved in many events about self portraying, a private gallery exhibition Autoritratti, the Goya show, and I have seen many self-portraits in various art events.
Every artist, of every style and period, experimented on self-portraying at one time or another. The Self-Portrait by James Hall is an extensive study from an historic point of view. This book is a broad cultural survey of the genre. James Hall is an art historian and a critic. Covering the full range of self-portraiture, the book is a mapping from the earliest examples to today contemporary artists.
The book starts with a prologue focused on antiquity, from which the first examples of self- portraying can be dated, in particular, the Egyptian ones which are the most consistent. The best of them are by Bak, chief-sculptor to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (1353 – 1336 BC). Despite, antiquity generated examples of genre it is not enough to draw an articulated history.
To find the real starting point of self-portraiture, we need to arrive to the Middle Ages. Terminating with the twelfth century, a strong growth of the tradition is recorded, mostly referring to the monastic environments.
Afterward, the improvement of the mirror technology allowed a significant step forward in self-portraiture. An obsession for mirrors aroused in Europe and the second chapter examines that. To possess a mirror became a status symbol for both writers and artists in general.
In the following chapters James Hall describes the craze for mirror that characterizes the Renaissance. Making parallels with the fecund period the author explains that from this moment self –portraiture is a must for every artist. However, he supports the theory that the flourishing of self-portraiture and the advances in mirror manufacturing are not strictly linked, because the interest in such art genre started long before the technology progress.
The artist became a mirror of society himself during the Renaissance,. It is from this period, in fact, the differentiation between artist and artisan. Artists used self-portraiture to affirm their role in to the society, to show their skills, to spare on model, and to create networks.
During the XVI century, the artist became a sort of hero for the society and this brought to the opposite consideration, defined by James Hall, as mock –heroic self-portrait, and to which he dedicates a chapter.
During the seventeenth- century the artist starts to be considered as a sort of myth and everything connected to him has a special reference. This period sees also the birth of the first self –portraiture broad collection.
Passing through the centuries, “The Self – Portrait. A cultural history“ explores the passages and defines the genre as typically British, but without forgetting the authors of other nations, including Goya, Van Gogh or Picasso. There is an entire chapter dedicated to the influence of personal situation of artists. Considering also the sexual aspects, artists were in search of a balance between their private and artistic lives.
The last chapter focuses on the modern and contemporary self-portraiture. We learn that the name itself is a modern adoption dating the 1920s, when the old definitions ‘Portrait of the Artist’ and ‘Portrait by/of Himself’ were abandoned. During the last century, the head and, above all, the eyes, considered the mirror of the soul, are left aside and portraiture focused on other parts of the body.
Last paragraph cites the ‘selfie’ as the new frontier of the self-portraiture. Selfie was even named word of the year by the Oxford Dictionaries in 2013.
“The Self – Portrait. A cultural history.” is an exquisite book, full of accurate information. James Hall can show here his notable culture and the profound knowledge he has of the matter. It is even too much, such information is important and a bit overwhelming, and can confuse light hearted spirits, such the artists themselves.
James Hall is an art historian lecturer and broadcaster. He is visiting fellow at the University of Southampton. He holds an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art and a PhD from University of Cambridge. Formerly art critic of the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian, he also wrote art books.
“The Self – Portrait. A cultural history.” is a key book, not ot be missed, by James Hall for Thames and Hudson edition, London.