Unit 2: Future – Future self-portrait further research/context

I felt my experiment in the future self-portrait (capturing the view of self when we are able to see through the eyes of others in a telepathic future) was successful, but I wanted to think more around this notion of self-image and how we are concerned and influenced by how others perceive us. This had me think back to previous research of mine around the male gaze and female depictions of themselves . This seems to be a recurring concern of mine!

I was aware of a new BBC series presented by Mary Beard around the nude in Western art, and was particularly interested to take a look as I knew that as part of this she had explored being the subject of a life drawing study. She was driven to do this from the sense that ‘I am still looking for a naked portrait of an older woman who looks like I feel.’, and from using an example from Rodin that typical mainstream western art uses the naked form of an older woman as a symbol of what has been lost (the beauty of youth), and not depicted in a sympathetic way as we do see with nude depictions of older men.

She who was the Helmet maker’s once-beautiful wife (1887), Auguste Rodin

She wanted too to put herself in the position of the people she has been studying throughout the two programme series (the nude models). There is a self-consciousness though to this and it’s interesting to hear the feelings she had around this situation and her own perceptions of self in this scenario. She simultaneously casts herself as old (in her physical appearance) and adolescent (in her psychology).

I do feel a bit apprehensive about this – I think oh, I hope I don’t look too fat you know it’s a terrible kind of, well, adolescent vanity really.

She asks Catherine Goodman, who has agreed to draw her nude, if this is a common apprehension in her models. The artist answers that actually many of her models enjoy the gaze of another, the opportunity to just ‘be themselves’ for a short while. This is intriguing I suppose. It’s a unique sort of situation in the modern world, to be looked upon naked without judgment or sexualisation. This is perhaps the draw of nudism. But I am less interested in the impulse to be seen naked as the desire to understand how others perceive us per se.

Mary is still aware that some viewers are going to think ‘Did she have to?’ about her being a nude model – implying again that she feels herself an undesirable sight, “whereas I feel quite sort of, slightly brave about doing this”. It is literally bearing all in front of national television after all! Something I think many people would outright refuse to do. But it is interesting she is surrendering to this vulnerability and displaying that most private view of herself. Having sat for Catherine twice, on her third visit Mary allowed the cameras in, and admitted to being nervous.

It’s funny not having seen anything that you’ve done… of me I mean. It’s funny because I’ve never looked at how somebody else sees me. Which is really what it is, isn’t it.

This is a curious phrase I will return to below, but particularly since Mary Beard is a familiar face on our television screens now, presenting many documentaries and now regularly appearing as a presenter on Front Row Late. Indeed, her first documentary series caused a stir from some quarters, as trolls and commentators such as A.A.Gill felt her unapologetic aged appearance should have no place on our screens. So she must be aware of how some view her, but perhaps the intimacy of life drawing is affording for her a glimpse of the view of someone with a deeper (and more human) understanding of her. We then see Mary’s nudes and hear her first reactions to them, alongside Catherine.

Oh wow! I thought I’d be a bit horrified of them. And I’m not remotely horrified by them and I think that, you know, the fleshy over-60s bits kind of work fine. I look at myself and I don’t think ‘Oh god she should lose a bit of weight’, I think ‘that’s me‘. And you know to some extent, I feel happy with it.

I notice I wasn’t much looking at you. You know, we were chatting quite a lot but I wasn’t looking and well I saw you looking at me and thought you are actually trying to work out how to do my tits.

So she was happy with the result, and seems she came out of the situation feeling good about the depiction of herself by another. What most interests me though is what she said prior to seeing these drawings. “I’ve never looked at how somebody else sees me.”

This is intriguing to me, because the role of the artist here can only approximate or mimic how someone might view us in real life. In this modelling scenario, they are manufacturing an intimacy that would not otherwise exist, and therefore the view of the model is not a real one from their own lives. Yes, the artist can and often does seek to establish an understanding, a relationship with the model to more accurately capture their perception of that person, but the perception itself is not natural, it is not quite the same kind of perception that the people in our lives will have of us (beside the fact that each person in our lives probably has a unique one). This I suppose has parallels in the research problem, and the observation effect. It is impossible for us to observe or research naturalistic behaviour because the very fact that we are observing them warps the results.

There is a deeper problem however, to do with whether someone could accurately depict how they view another person. So imagining that a person in our lives was an artist, could they draw how they see us? This is the problem of validity in self-reporting – if we were to ask someone exactly how they viewed a person, even if they were fully compliant and adopting a ‘no-holds-barred’ response (throwing social convention bias to the wind), we would not get an accurate response, because this is something they are making conscious and rationalised which would otherwise not be. We simply cannot escape the cognitive biases that oversee our rationalisations to give a pure answer (though one question to consider is if we in fact do want to know how people see us through this cognitive lens)

This can be considered with allusion to identity theory accounts of how self-reporting of individuals around their own behaviour can be inaccurate. An oft used method is to ask people (through a self-administered survey) how much exercise they perform, and then compare this to direct observation of their exercise (unknown to the respondent) – for instance we might see someone over-report how much they exercise in a week. Answers usually reflect not only the actual self that we observe ourselves, but also the self that we wish to be (ideal self – reflecting the people we aspire to be), or the self we feel we ought to be (ought self – reflecting the internalised norms we have identified from the behaviours valued in our society). It can therefore make sense for someone to pep up the account of their exercise routine to paint a picture of themselves that is more flattering to their idealised or normative perceptions of self.

So wouldn’t these idealised and normative notions of identity also play a part in how someone consciously describes another person? If we are incapable of reporting our selves devoid of such influence, it is dubious we could do so for reporting of another. The act of portraiture in this sense is a projection of the values of the artist. We can better understand under such terms the male gaze in art, though perhaps not excuse it. The male has internalised norms around the female – what is valued (sexual appeal, physical beauty, submission, virtue, etc.), and so depicts or judges models based on this – hence how Rodin’s elderly woman is seen in terms of the loss of such qualities, rather than a more sympathetic depiction.

This reminds me of the famous destruction by Winston Churchill of the portrait Graham Sutherland created of him in his later life, now dramatised in the series The Crown. He reportedly said that it made him ‘look like a down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand.’ and fought against it being publicly presented to the House of Commons for being unsuitable. It is therefore not always to our benefit to be shown how others see us, as it might well conflict with our self-perception in a way most unnerving.

It too has echoes in the early Dove real beauty campaign adverts – where the comparison was drawn in the forensic sketches drawn based on the physical descriptions of individuals and a stranger who had met them. The point drawn here was that we have less flattering self-images than a stranger would and should be more accepting and less judgmental of our appearance.

It’s interesting how none of the sketches actually bear much resemblance to the models though! A little like the exercise we had back in unit 1, describing an object to another person. Translating what we visualise in our minds into words so that another can visualise it accurately is very challenging! It is challenging enough to translate our mental visualisation into a visual representation on paper.

So all this means I come to some key questions. Is it ok that when we see a portrait/self-portrait we are not seeing an exactly true representation of how someone is immediately perceived, but something filtered through the artist’s own values (shaped and influenced by the time and place they are in). In fact are we seeing that person at all or is this a depiction of what they signify based on the artist/society? Or is that actually how we see the world – would an ‘exactly true representation of immediate perception’ actually not relate to the human experience at all, and this signifying and valuing actually be closer to the truth? When we want to understand how others see us, do we instead mean how do they place us within the world we live in based on these values and signifiers, or do we mean how are they immediately perceiving me? I think it might in fact be the former – we want to understand what we mean to people, not solely what we look like. Am I beautiful on a deeper level to you, not only superficially?

And this is where it becomes so emotionally charged – we find it tangled with the ideas we have ourselves of our actual, ought and ideal selves. Will you flatter me by reassuring me that I do conform to some of the characteristics I hold in the idea of the ought and ideal? Is my perception of my actual self accurate to how you view me? Or worst of all, do you reject all these views of myself and see me as something utterly different to my self-perception?

I suppose in my ‘future self-portrait’, under this identity theory, the ability to view ourselves through the eyes of others, and fully grasp their perceptions (not only immediately but alongside the value judgments and signifiers they see) might distort all sides of our self perception – the actual, ideal and ought. We might find these perceptions merge with that of another, or contrastingly experience a visceral disconnection when observing ourselves through their eyes – an ultimate outer body experience. That we do not naturally consider these 3 separate elements of self perception as distinct in our minds makes me think that this process too might be unconscious and hard for us to fully comprehend.

It could be interesting to ask various people in my life (from different social groups) to provide their perception of me, in either drawing or description. Of course, this self-reporting would be highly flawed, but perhaps as I have just discussed, we are more interested in this flawed lens than the pure view. That it would be moderated by social conventions, and likely a sense of not wanting to insult or embarrass, could be interesting to explore. It could also help to combine my instructional work with this other avenue of exploration which I have continued to be interested in.

Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition: research/reflection

This weekend I visited the RA to see the retrospective on Helene Schjerfbeck, the first solo exhibition of her work in the UK. Born in Finland in 1862, she was an active painter until her death in 1946.

I was keen to visit this exhibition, to continue my run of women artist retrospectives in 2019, begun with Lee Krasner and Natalia Goncharova. This is motivated by various reasons for me – to do what I can to ‘vote with my feet’ and support the rewriting of art history to include women who deservedly should be included within it, in the process educating myself and reflecting on their practice, and further because something about observing depictions of female subjects devoid of the male gaze is palliative and reassuring to me in some ways. I have often felt very uncomfortable in the more historic wings of art galleries, filled with idealised and sexualised female forms, and while some women artists have continued in this convention in the hopes of subverting the narrative, I find it most interesting seeing depiction go beyond this.

The exhibition itself was divided into 5 sections, split across 3 rooms, suggesting that the curator could have filled a good number more rooms if given the space!

Dreaming does not suit me. To work, to live through work, that is my path.”

Helene Schjerfbeck

I think this artist held a deep emotional intelligence, and conveying complex emotional narratives in her work. I will highlight the works I found to be most interesting here, in the order in which they were presented in the exhibition.

Section 1.

The Bakery (1887)

For this painting, Schjerbeck had set up her easel in a working bakery but chosen not to depict the bakers who no doubt would have been present at the time. In this sense she is already subverting the conventions of naturalism. I found this painting a little unsettling, and reflected on it for some time. The scales, just off centre, are unbalanced. We see a large table filled with fresh baked buns, just laying there (the perspective of this feels like it is exaggerating the size and dominance of this in the space). There is a sense of stillness and murkiness in the room, which is contrasted by the vivid light from the furnace emanating from around a corner in the distance. It implies for me a sense of waste, empty endeavour, inequality in a land of plenty.

Shadow on a wall (Breton landscape), 1883

I was intrigued to see this painting in the exhibition, following my own thinking around depiction of shadows and impermanence. For me, this painting was interesting as she had taken great care to depict the detail of the young branches on the foregrounded tree, to a very fine degree, but the subject of the painting itself, the shadow, contrastingly feels slightly sketchy or blurred. I wondered if this could be defying the convention of the object of focus being also the main subject of a piece (as in photography for instance). The effect is such that it is as though we are only seeing the shadows in our peripheral vision, as though they are some ever-present looming darkness. I think this must be the intention, since the landscape itself is fairly sparse, and the space taken up by shadow is quite large, you cannot focus on the tree without seeing it.

Section 2.

Silence, 1907

There is an interesting quality of light in this painting, her blue dress and delicately lit face contrasting with the plain dark background. The shape of her long neck and sloping shoulders makes her look ethereally elongated, and removed. Again here a sense of stillness and reservation – even regret from the downturned eyes?

Section 3

This room was dedicated to her self-portraits, painted throughout her life. Her style became more abstracted over time, and she confronted her mortality and the deterioration of age head on, with the final works completed within a year of her death at 83.

I found it quite a challenging room to be in, and felt that not only was she exploring that physical change she was seeing over time, but also capturing perhaps her self-perception and attitude towards herself. It is not a sympathetic view of aging we see in her final works, the figure abstracted to almost not being human. I wondered if here the figure of Nosferatu from early cinema might have been an influence (the film was released 20 years prior) – if so characterising oneself as a monster is certainly suggesting a troubled internal world.

Schjerbeck’s technique involved applying paint and then scraping it off or rubbing it back. She repeatedly reworked surfaces with a brush, palette knife or cloth and even sandpaper. The layering and erasure emulate the effects of time in paint. In some cases, parts of the canvas are deliberately left bare, using this texture as part of the picture.”

RA notes – Helene Schjerbeck exhibition

I was interested to read about her techniques with paint – she used oils which I am not familiar with but if applied thickly I imagine a similar effect can be achieved with acrylic? Could be interesting to experiment with this.

Section 4

Girl with beret, 1935

In this room, we saw more of Schjerfbeck’s portraiture, and here her style has developed further. She is using a variety of source material, including the latest fashions from Marie Claire and Chanel, as well as using her own memories and imagination to influence her work. This results in something more abstract and generalised, and though here again there is a woman with downcast eyes, here it suggests a sort of melancholy or regret for me, with a sharper light being cast on the figure.

Section 5

Her still lifes are for me really interesting. The exhibition notes stated that she would work on multiple canvases at a time, doing these as a counterpoint to the many portraits she did. As such I think she may have been a little freer here and we see her particular approach to painting clearly evidenced.

I especially liked seeing the variety of marks she used for the pumpkin still life and how the intent with these marks is not to recreate/emphasise what must have been a very rounded shape.

This exploration and experimentation with abstraction did not quite take her far enough in my view, and I left feeling like if only there had been a further section to her working life we might have gotten somewhere exciting. It left me somewhat unsatisfied, having seen the broad experimentation of Lee Krasner and Natalia Goncharova. But I certainly enjoyed seeing the depths of emotion contained within her works nonetheless.