A Long, Hard Look in the Mirror

Inspector Artsy

For my spring break, I exchanged drunkenness for drizzle and returned to my hometown, that gloriously unprepared host of the 2012 Olympic Games, London. I spent much of the week catching up on the blockbuster art exhibits around the capital, as any self-respecting artsy would.

By far the most remarkable show I saw was a retrospective of Lucian Freud’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. Freud, who died just last year, was by far the most influential British painter of his lifetime, and as far as I know, no one has stepped up to fill the admittedly enormous shoes he has left behind. The exhibition charts his work chronologically, moving from the far more whimsical and stylized portraits of his first wife, Kitty Garman, to the remarkably luxuriant depictions of the obese social worker Sue Tilley, who famously came to be called “Big Sue.”

Toward the end of the exhibition comes the last of many self-portraits in the show, “Reflection (Self-portrait)” from 1985, which is featured on the banner and paraphernalia, as well as on buses and billboards all around London. It is an arresting work that depicts Freud’s distant gaze, naked shoulders, and chest in full face view. I spent a solid five minutes in front of it, which, in an art gallery, feels like a lifetime.

The exhibition guide claims that this work marks a departure from the “youthful arrogance” of earlier self-portraits and is instead a harsh, introspective look at an aging subject. I beg to differ. I think the extraordinary care that Freud lavished on this work—the precision with which he rendered every wrinkle of his furrowed brow, his fastidious use of light—shows a skill and attention that are noticeably absent from many of the other portraits, as if to showcase his mastery of both the form and his own likeness. Its almost excessive technical flourishes, compared to his earlier self-portraits, makes it a supreme display of arrogance. This is not to say that the other works are anything short of extraordinary. They just don’t have the special something that this self-portrait has in abundance—that something that makes you forget how many more rooms there are to go in the show, and makes you stand for what seems like hours in front of it.

Self-portraiture is a funny thing. You have to try to be objective about a subject you cannot possibly be disimpassioned about—your very own person. Freud grasped this when he said, “The way you paint yourself, you’ve got to try and paint yourself as another person.” But it is impossible to paint yourself as another person.

Facebook is a kind of digital canvas for self-portraiture, and who can claim that their Facebook pages are utterly unbiased self-portraits? If any of your friends make this claim, this is your cue to de-friend them instantly—it’s bollocks. No one is honest about what he or she looks like on Facebook, least of all artsy people so concerned with aesthetic representation. No one puts up pictures of himself or herself that are physically compromising. Sure, you might be making a silly face. Your hair might be out of place. You might be cowering from the camera. But you still look good. Or at least you think you look good enough to be seen by the world.

Artsy people love to affect a demeanor of nonchalance about their physical appearance. “Posing for pictures which you know will be visible to your 1,000 friends and then some is so lame,” their devil-may-care expressions and tussled hair seem to say. And yet, their photos are arguably as staged as anyone else’s, complete with all the enhancements that iPhoto and Instagram can muster. The phenomenon of “muploads” is the single most galling offender of staged self-depiction. These photos masquerade as candids—snapped and uploaded to Facebook without any forethought—and yet muploads are most likely to be staged. They are often “mirror pics,” quick snaps of one’s reflection in a bathroom mirror or some other horrendously contrived setting. And this is not strictly a female vice; men are also liable to upload a self-glorifying picture via Instagram.

This all brings me back to Freud. His self-portrait, which had such an effect on me, was as much of an exercise in self-effacement as a “mirror pic,” in which the subject is flexing for the camera. How could the exhibition guide claim that it was less arrogant than previous portraits?

Perhaps the very act of painting one’s own portrait is intrinsically an act of egotism. Freud was making the most of his medium to exhibit his extraordinary skill in rendering a likeness. Yes, he looks drawn and wrinkly in the portrait, but that’s not the point. The point is that it is a painting of such consummate skill that it cannot but glorify its maker.

I said earlier that Britain has yet to fill Freud’s shoes. I sincerely hope that in this age of digital depiction the art of painting portraits has not died with Freud. Self-glorification in a portrait as phenomenal as Freud’s is permissible, even admirable. In muploads, however, it’s revolting.

—Columnist Anjali R. Itzkowitz can be reached at aitzkow@college.harvard.edu.

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