The Self Portrait

There is a way in which almost any piece of art made by almost any artist could be considered a self-portrait.

If one takes as a starting point that the product of any artistic activity involves a degree of self-expression, then any piece of art could be understood to be a self  portrait. Very often you can learn more about an artist by looking at their work then by asking them about themselves. Indeed, for that reason, there are many artists did struggle to even describe their own work. 

But more than this, the self-portrait is in some senses the most fundamental of artworks. To make any mark on the surface of paper or canvas is to state, before anything else, that one exists. The first art, handprints on a cave left 50,000 years ago, illustrate this point. The first art work was, simply, a self portrait.

To lift a brush, a chisel, to lift one’s hand to make a mark or leave a trace in the world is fundamentally an existential decision. It is the result of a choice to make a mark, and for that very reason the execution of the first mark on paper, canvas or stone can be terrifying. It implies an intention of meaning. That mark, all the way through to the finish or abandoned artwork, is before anything else a monument and a trace in the spirit of Descartes’s famous cogito ergo sum. It is not an accident that the he Cartesian moment-I think therefore I am-occurs in the same historical perdiod as the first appearance of the self-portrait in the early renaissance: the artist’s cogito:  I am, therefore I paint.

Steven Holmes - March, 2017