Saturday Book Interview with James Hall: The Self-Portrait

Saturday Book Interview with James Hall: The Self-Portrait December 12, 2015

Selfies: Are They New?

James Hall is an art historian, lecturer, and broadcaster.  He is also a visiting research fellow at the University of Southampton.

His beautiful book, The Self-Portrait: a Cultural History, comes with over 100 color pictures.

David Moore conducted this interview.  Dave blogs at

Moore: Selfies are quite the craze these days.  Is this kind of activity new, or are we simply availing ourselves of new technology?

Hall: It’s too early to say how new it’s going to be, in the sense of it creating a new genre.  But what’s clearly different is the ease, spontaneity and quantity.

The systematic self-portrait series is surprisingly old.  The first artist to make a self-portrait series is the British portrait painter Jonathan Richardson (1667 – 1745).  In 1728, shortly before retiring from full-time portrait painting, Richardson began to draw daily self-portraits in tandem with daily poems meditating on topics like time, ageing and personal morality.  It coincides with the beginnings of the epistolary novel.  The poems were written first thing in the morning (in summer he often rose at 4am) and it is possible the self-portrait drawings were also made at the dawn of the day.  He made hundreds, of which around fifty have been traced.  The systematic quality of these self-portraits, often precisely dated, is unprecedented, and would only be repeated in the twentieth century.  Hand held cameras have been around since the 1890s – Edvard Munch made shaky, off focus ‘selfies’ while recovering in a sanatorium; Claude Cahun made staged ‘selfies’; and Warhol used photo-booths and Polaroids.

To an extent, the novelty of selfies lies in their high levels of narcissism. But then we have to decide what we think about Narcissus, the beautiful boy who, as punishment for rejecting the nymph Echo, was transfixed by his reflection in a pool, then turned into the eponymous sterile flower.  Narcissus was redeemed in Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955), which became a bible for the 1960s counter culture.  For Marcuse, the pool gazing Narcissus symbolized the liberation of self: he had overcome the opposition between man and nature, and repudiated the capitalist culture of toil and production.  Seen in this light, the selfie epidemic should be considered a protest, or a cry for help from a young ‘lost’ generation that feels marginalized and exploited, socially, spiritually and in terms of employment.

Moore: Among other things, your book covers the unfolding use of mirrors.  When do we start to see something that mimics the function of today’s mirrors?

Hall: In the twelfth century there is something I call the medieval mirror craze. Everyone became obsessed by the science and symbolism of mirrors. Dante refers to mirrors thirty times in his writings, with half of these references occurring in the Paradise section of the Divine Comedy.  Beatrice tells him to do a scientific experiment involving three mirrors and a light to prove that God is ever present with the same intensity.  On the other hand, when Beatrice criticizes his dissolute lifestyle, he sees his face, flushed with shame, reflected in a stream. Mirrors tell the truth, empirically, morally and spiritually.

Moore: You mention that St. Augustine is the first to use the idea of “mirror of Scripture.”  Why would someone writing during the ancient period use the mirror to describe the Bible?

Hall: It is because if you read the Bible, it gives you a clear ‘mirror image’ of virtue and vice, and of the meaning of life and the divine plan.

Moore: Albrecht Dürer believed great artists had “a creating power like God’s.”  Unpack that provocative comment.

Hall: It does sound a bit heretical.  What he means is that the artist is imitating God – and God’s instrument, Nature – when he makes figures.  But unlike God, he is not making them from scratch.  In Durer’s famous self-portrait in Munich, he adopts the pose of Christ the redeemer, again in imitation of Christ.  Meditation manuals encouraged this kind of sympathetic identification and emulation.

Moore: When most people think of self-portraits the first name that comes to mind is Rembrandt.  How influential is he with that particular genre?

Hall: Initially, neo-classical critics found Rembrandt’s self-portraits rather baffling and in bad taste – they were alarmed and embarrassed by their burlesque qualities, bizarre hairstyles, weird costumes and general grossness (big nose etc.).  In a period where people liked portraits and self-portraits to be definitive, consistent and to have gravitas, Rembrandt was suspect.  This changes with romanticism, when psychological roller-coasters become fashionable. The quixotic version of Rembrandt is beautifully encapsulated in a New Yorker cartoon from 1987.  It shows Rembrandt in his studio turning away from his easel.  The caption reads: ‘Hendricke, I feel another self-portrait coming on.  Bring in the funny hats’.  The late self-portraits have become iconic images of unflinching self-scrutiny on the threshold of death, part of a modern Ars Moratoria.

Moore: You write, “Self-portraiture in the twentieth century has been many things, but its most distinctive quality is its tendency to conceal or suppress the face and head…”  What are the reasons which make this occur in the twentieth century?

Hall:  The traditional portrait and self-portrait focusses on the face, with the eyes supposedly being the windows of the soul.  But in the twentieth century there has been a reaction against the idea of the self-portrait – centered on the face and eyes – as intimate autobiography and transparent soul-music.  The self-respecting modern gallery artist now needed to protect themselves from type-casting and misinterpretation by an incomprehending yet insatiable public, even as that same public paid the bills.  The philosopher Nietzsche, who despised mass society and the vulgarization of culture, made the point forcefully in Beyond Good and Evil (1886):

every profound spirit needs a mask … even more, around every profound spirit a mask is growing continually, owing to the constantly false, namely shallow, interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he gives.

In 1888 the Belgian symbolist James Ensor went back over his earlier work adding masks and skeletons, and in Self-Portrait with a Flowered Hat (My Portrait Disguised (1888) – itself a revision of a self-portrait painted in 1883 – and a further adaptation, Self-Portrait with Masks (1899), made a template for the eternally elusive and independent artist, whose mask keeps on growing.  The best known modern masker is Cindy Sherman, but artists also adopt a mask of anonymity.  Think of the ‘salary man’ suits worn by Magritte and Gilbert & George.

Another popular strategy for concealing or marginalizing the face is by focusing on the body, which is more anonymous, and on bodily functions and desires.  Naked self-portraiture emerges around 1900 in the work of Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele.

Moore: What are a few takeaways you would like your readers to get from reading The Self-Portrait: a Cultural History?

Hall:  I would like readers to realize that self-portraiture is a genre that starts properly in the Christian Middle Ages, rather than earlier in antiquity, or later in the Renaissance.  It is an art form connected to personal salvation and reckoning, involving penitence as well as self-advertisement. And it still is.

I want people to understand the emergence of what I call ‘tracker’ self-portraiture, multiple self-portraits that mark the development of an artist’s life and art.  This is a fascinating and crucial development.

I hope they will realize that the history of self-portraiture is much more than a history of narcissism, and that conceptions of narcissus have changed down the ages.  He can be a contemplative hermit as well as deluded loser.







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