Reflections on Portrait/[self]-Portrait
The term “self-portrait” evokes individuality and inward focus. What activity could center the actor more, and separate them from the rest of society, than the study of one’s own image? The artist sits down with their tools and reproduces their own likeness, their own identity, their own self. The self-portrait, on its surface, seems like a solitary and individualistic activity. However, study of self-portrait contradicts this. Self-portraits often reflect the societies and the times of the artists, and frequently incorporate they outside world as much as they include the subject itself. The self-portrait thus evidences the loose, shaky nature of the self. It demonstrates how we, as individuals, do not exist on our own, but rather exist alongside our peers in symbiotic fashion. The self does not exist per se, walled off from the rest of the World. Rather, it bleeds out into the other and into society. The self-portrait shows this.
The self does not exist on its own. It does not spring from the mind as Athena sprang from Zeus’ forehead. It develops as the mind incorporates tendencies from the outside world and attempts to reconcile these with its own inclinations. Any student of psychoanalysis will understand Freud’s tripartite psychic apparatus. It includes an Id - an unconscious and animalistic being which originates within the mind and concerns itself with such basic things as eating, drinking, homeostasis, and sex, the necessities of survival and reproduction – a Super-ego – a semi-conscious and self-assured being which originates from the internalization of moral authority, especially religious and parental authority, and seeks to keep one on a narrow and righteous path – and an Ego – a conscious being that comprises the self as we most readily understand it, controlling our conscious thought processes and existing to resolve the contradictions between the instinctive and spontaneous Id and the moralistic and contemplative Ego. These three beings together comprise the self, and only one of them originates organically within the mind. The other two, wholly or partly, originate as internalizations of the wishes of others.
Self-portraits evidence this. How many self-portraits reflect another as much as they reflect one’s self? Diego Velázquez’s 1656 Meninas show the artist working alongside ladies-in-waiting at the Spanish court. Its title references the ladies rather than the artist, and it includes many figures besides him, including a mirrored depiction of the King and Queen of Spain. Nevertheless, it depicts the artist himself, and therefore qualifies as self-portrait. That Velázquez shows himself among others does not discount the painting’s nature as a study of the self. Velázquez served as court painter. Thus, his identity necessitated the existence of a court society. Velázquez as we understand him did not exist on his own. He existed in the context of a king and of a queen and of ladies-in-waiting, and presumably of jesters, advisers, nobility, and the like. We should thus consider Las Meninas as a whole, not just the depiction of Velázquez within it, as a self-portrait.
Las Meninas makes a ready example of a self-portrait that incorporates the other alongside the self. However, self-portraits need not include explicit depictions of another to display this tendency. Consider Albrecht Dürer’s 1500 Self-portrait at Twenty-eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar. The depiction contains no image of anyone besides Dürer. Nevertheless, the artist appears in Christ-like fashion. Symmetry and somber colors reflect the conventions of religious painting, while Dürer’s pose and long hair invoke Jesus of Nazareth himself. This reflects the Super-ego’s tendency to internalize religious teachings as moral guidance, and to browbeat the Ego into following them. By painting himself as Jesus, Dürer shows his conscious ego’s devotion to following his semi-conscious super-ego’s religious instruction. The 1500 Self-portrait […] thus demonstrates the importance that others, especially others of religious or moral significance, have in the shaping of the self.
Dürer and Velázquez show how for other people go in shaping the self. However, the self can include beings beyond the human realm. Frida Kahlo’s 1940 Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird shows the artist alongside a titular hummingbird, as well as a monkey which bleeds Kahlo by pulling on her thorn necklace, dragonflies which accent butterfly clips in her hair, and a panther watching over her shoulder. We can interpret these animals and their behavior as reflections various parts of Kahlo’s psychic apparatus and, by extension, her self. The monkey represents the id-driven tendency towards self-harm that those under psychological distress often exhibit. The watchful panther represents her super-ego, monitoring her ego and looking to correct it when it strays from the right and just path. The butterfly clips, by sitting upon Kahlo’s person, show the need for one to incorporate other beings into oneself in order to develop an identity. Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird demonstrates how we incorporate not only other people, but also non-human beings, into our identities.
Despite the ready examples of self-portrait in painting, the medium exists beyond the realm of visual art. Self-portraits existing in non-visual art display the same tendency towards including the other as an element of the self. Consider James Joyce’s 1916 novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The title indicates that the novel has roots in autobiography and self-portraiture. Consider opening lines, which Joyce tells from the perspective of the protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, a Mary-Sue for Joyce himself. Joyce writes
“[o]nce upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo… His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.”
These opening lines introduce us to Daedalus ego, his concept of self, as well as his bestial id in a “moocow” and his paternal super-ego in his father. The line that Joyce uses to introduce the reader to Daedalus includes not one figure but three, all of them forming essential parts of Daedalus’ self. Daedalus incorporates others into the self in other parts of the novel as well. Consider the scene in which Daedalus hears a sermon concerning death, judgement, Hell, and Heaven; internalizes its teachings; and resolves to lead a moral, Christian life. This reflects the Super-ego’s role in impressing religious teachings upon the Id, and reflects the Catholic instruction that Joyce likely received growing up in Ireland. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man demonstrates how literary self-portraits reflect the self’s need to incorporate the other as much as visual ones do.
The self-portrait exists as an exercise in selflessness, as a study of the other. As you read our Summer 2017 Issue of Bombus, Portrait/[self]-Portrait, consider how the self-portraits within it reflect the other as much as they do the self.
JENNIFER ROMINE is an undergraduate at Temple University, studying History and Spanish. Fae enjoys modernism, critical theory, Beethoven, and peanut butter sandwiches. Fae worked as an editor at Danse Macabre, an online literary magazine now defunct.
Portrait by Peach Bloomfield.