Self-portraits through the ages

Self-portraits are a fascinating insight into the mind of artists. Whatever depiction is delivered, accurate or otherwise, they are telling works, statements that reveal a great deal (and often unintentionally).
The subject makes for interesting reading these days, as self-portraits have become one of the great/mundane (delete as you see fit) preoccupations of our time.
Artistic? In small quarters perhaps, but largely, these twenty-first century pictures of oneself – by oneself – produced, by and large, through the tinted lens of a smartphone are either mundane/memorable visual journal entries or embellished representations of who we like to be seen as.
Framing it against this age of selfies, Turner Contemporary reconsiders the role of self-portraiture over the last 400 hundred years with its new exhibition Self, Image and Identity.
More than 100 works of art from the National Portrait Gallery have been selected to discuss and examine the ways in which artists have sought to represent themselves through various types of mediums (painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and film).
The works are arranged thematically, “sparking”, as Turner Contemporary puts it, “conversations on history, celebrity, collecting, gender, mortality, and contemporary approaches”.
It is quite a breadth of subject matter to soak up when observing the works and consequently can overwhelm. Or, as the art critic Alastair Cook explains in a review in the Telegraph, the actual themes come across less defined than the gallery intended, whereby the stories being told “are subplots rather than principal narratives”.
“At times, the cards in the deck of this exhibition feel randomly shuffled,” he writes. “Why, for example, is a brightly coloured self-portrait from 2005 by David Hockney hanging next to a more sober affair by the seventeenth century painter Mary Beale, which claims distinction as the earliest self-portrait by a woman in the NPG collection?”
However, that curious juxtaposition – as well as others that may at first seem anomalous – is effective for the simple fact that this show aspires to develop an even greater understanding of how and why artists from certain generations delivered self-portraits is a very different visual language.
Yet, what we often determine from looking at these works are similar lines of thought. From an examination of oneself, warts and all, to blatant self-advertisement (one eye on posterity), though artists may be working in different eras and styles, there are a lot of interesting parallels.
Self, Image and Identity at Turner Contemporary in Margate runs until May 10th, 2015.
Cadogan Tate specialises in delivering tailored fine art storage solutions.