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Pictures of picture makers

Is a self-portrait a portrait or an accumulation of the artist’s ideas about herself and her surroundings?

Pictures of picture makers
Philip Pearlestein on grass at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, ca 1948.

Artists create images that last longer than them. Sometimes, they turn the artists invisible too. No one recalls the face of Johannes Vermeer, but the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ is a widely recognised portrait. Visitors admire the serene visuals of Mark Rothko in museums around the world without being aware of his personality. ‘Sunflowers’ and ‘Starry Nights’ are the two most popular paintings in common imagination, but only a few know the facial features of the painter, Vincent van Gogh.

Ben Shahn looking at postcards in a museum in Italy 1956.

Ben Shahn looking at postcards in a museum in Italy 1956.

Many artists have rendered themselves in their works including Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Velasquez, Bichitr, Frida Kahlo, David Hockney and Sadequain along with those who made their self-portraits like Rembrandt, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Egon Schiele, Lucien Freud and innumerable others. Probably the earliest found self-portrait (ca.1353-1336 BC) is of Bak, the chief sculptor of Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Sadequain photo.

Sadequain photo.

In depicting themselves, artists usually forge a blend of actuality and fantasy. A combination of observation and imagination, a mix of inspiration and aspiration. In a sense, a self-portrait is never a portrait. More than mere physical resemblance, it is the accumulation of an artist’s ideas about herself and her surroundings. This is felt in the art of Cindy Sherman who creates photography-based works, with reference to her face or body but in different personas, characters and situations; often reminding of the clichéd imagery of media, advertisement and cinema.

Other artists also use their self to create works of complex meaning, for instance Amber Hammad photographs herself to comment on the system and structure of society, occasionally appropriating the history of art as well.

I dream of microwaves: Amber Hammad.

I dream of microwaves: Amber Hammad.

Apart from these individuals, who either make self-portraits or incorporate their figures in their works, several artists with works of great merit stay hidden behind their creations — a painting, a miniature, an illuminated manuscript, a carving, a needle work, a quilt, a tapestry. Forget the face, we don’t even know the names of those who fabricated the fabulous sculptures of ‘lion man’ from Hohlenstein, Germany (32-28,000 BC); bronze head of an Akkadian Ruler (Naram-Sin?), from Mesopotamia (23,00-2200 BC); and wooden statute of ‘Sheikh el Baled’, from Saqqara, Egypt (c, 25,000 BC) — all examples of high art in the history of mankind.

In modern times, although many artists are not present in the minds of viewers who throng their exhibitions and retrospectives, there does exist a link between the physical appearance of the artist and the work he makes. To an extent every art piece, no matter if it’s the image of a room, a lover, a few bottles, ‘becomes’ a self-portrait of the artist. For example, the sculptures of Giacometti of various personages eventually remind of the frail figure of the artist.

Perhaps, it is important to see the face behind the work in order to have a deeper understanding of the art and the artist’s ideas, views and habits. There are many photographs where the artists are caught in their creative process — Picasso drawing a line in space and Pollack throwing paint on a canvas spread on floor. Both these pictures provide a glimpse — a clue on how they approached art. Other photographs document who was where, at what time and with whom. It’s important because art making cannot be separated from the act of living. The way a person moves, speaks, dresses (for instance Hockney) defines his art practice. A sloppy man can have a similar attitude in his paintings, or a sleek individual may handle his surfaces in the same manner. However, at times, a neatly dressed and polite person may make works that are rough, raw, and repulsive — in direct contrast to his ‘known’ (outer) self.

Jackson Pollack cutting the hair of his father, 1927.

Jackson Pollack cutting the hair of his father, 1927.

A photograph is a valuable source of knowing various dimensions of an artist. Although it never tells the truth, it still suffices some segments to reach ‘truth’. Like the photograph of Ben Shahn ‘looking at postcards in a museum in Italy’ 1956, indicates the artist’s activities during his sojourn. A book on the ‘snapshots from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art’ presents a number of photos (all monochromatic) of artists either at their studios or elsewhere. Named ‘Artists Unframed’ by Merry A. Foresta, the book (2015) “features snapshots selected from thousands of images scattered throughout the documents, letters, and diaries of artists”.

In these snapshots (a term that connotes more factuality than theword photograph) artists are classified in four sections: ‘Work’, ‘Paly’, ‘Family & Friends’, ‘This is Me’. In these some unusual photos are collected, such as ‘Jackson Pollack cutting the hair of his father’, 1927. Pictures like this tell the reality of the artist rather than art: that an artist, behind the layer of a creative individual, is also a ‘normal’ human being who does indulge in daily chores, debates of everyday existence and family disputes. It is only when we dissect a person from his routine life and elevate him to a higher level that we forget his ordinary existence. In the book, there are a number of such pictures like ‘Alexander Calder wrangling toy bulls’ 1927; or ‘Philip Pearlestein on grass at the Carnegie Institute of Technology’, ca 1948.

Zubeida Agha in her studio.

Zubeida Agha in her studio.

Alexander Calder wrangling toy bulls, 1927.

Alexander Calder wrangling toy bulls, 1927.

These images of artists in casual settings may not offer much about how a creative mind operates, but these disclose that an artist has a life besides art too. A possibility that never occurs in the main discourse of art history. Imagine Shakir Ali buying fresh yogurt each morning, or Anna Molka Ahmed arguing on the price of apples in a market or Zahoorul Akhlaq collecting his luggage at an airport or Shahid Sajjad changing the tyres of his vehicle.

The only issue is how to negotiate or navigate between the two realities: the reality of art and the reality of life. How far do the two interfere and intermingle with each other. Is art a means to experience life or escaping it? Difficult questions, particularly in the case of each artist, but the present age, the age of selfies, has opened up a new dimension.

In the past, taking a photograph meant that a person was of some significance at some point — regardless of the level of attraction and duration of attention. Someone else approached, observed and captured her for posterity no matter how mundane or profound those moments were (Sadequain posing as Fasting Buddha next to Ghandhara statue or Zubeida Agha painting in her studio).

With the popularity of selfies, artists are preserving themselves as best as they desire and decide. On social media, one comes across numerous posts of artists’ selfies, liked by multiple friends and followers, and not just portraits but whole figures. Along with their selfies on social media, artworks produced by artists are also in their pictures. Thus, for a viewer, an abstract canvas or a carved cat or photograph of a meadow are all selfies of some sort.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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