painting the fragile self

This post was prompted by an image I came across today when perusing faces to help me along with the characters I’m developing in my ever elusive writing. It also stems from a musing on the memoir, as one of my characters writes in her red notebook, the fragments of which tell her story…

First let me preface this by saying how much I love autobiography. Actually I love self-portraiture in all forms. How endlessly interesting it is to me to view not only how a person is on the surface (albeit a highly relative and subjective thing) but how they view themselves. Even that is a misnomer, for in most cases self-portraits, whether they be of words or pigment on canvas, or created by any other means, are not so much about how we see ourselves but how we want others to see us. This is not a new phenomena, although more present now, for in this public world we live in part of our daily lives involves crafting our image, whether we realize it or not. People represent themselves from the moment breath enters their lungs, and continue to do so until the last is expelled. We are in a constant pursuit of representing externally, be it through art, or dress, or how we walk or what we put on our shelves, what is within.

This is an incredible portrait, and no, this is not Johnny Depp, although it does resemble him in a way. It is Gustave Courbet, who painted this self-portrait, titled “Le Désespéré” when he was in his mid twenties, in the 1840’s. He does indeed look desperate, and the image has an immediacy about it which belies the fact that it probably took months to complete.

He also, I found in my meanderings, painted some incredibly beautiful but almost surprisingly graphic images of the nude. One in particular called “L’Origine du Monde” came up on my screen as I was looking at this one and I nearly fell from my chair, only to read on to discover its incredible story which involves not only James Whistler (the model was his lover), an Ottoman diplomat (who’d commissioned the portrait) and two novels, published relatively recently, one which uses the model as the narrator, the other whose main character is the painting itself.

But I digress, as often I do… the point being what is portrayed is not one dimensional but complex and always, always has a story, multiple stories, behind it.

Even more than I love self-portraiture I love courage, and am drawn to the brave telling of ones life, ones thoughts, that divulges not only the ideal, the perfect, but the flawed, the fragility of self. How envious I am at times of that ability to open oneself up to the world yet how careful  I am when I approach this auto-exposure, ever aware that they hold the power to manipulate, to craft exactly what they wish me to know, to see of them. But in this telling they are many levels, each significant, for underneath always lies the truth (whatever that is, and ever elusive), and what is revealed is often merely a clue to what is not.

One more self-portrait for you before I go, actually two, by the photographer Kimiko Yoshida. Perhaps more didactic than self-revealing (although this is my first encounter with this artist, so who am I to say?), but above all just… so… beautiful, no?



5 thoughts on “painting the fragile self

  1. The self portrait of Gustave Courbet is hauntingly beautiful. It always fascinates me that someone can hold that much talent at such a young age. It somehow reminds me of Eugene Delacroix’s self portrait. If you have never read “The Journal of Eugene Delacroix” I think you would enjoy it. An incredible artist during the same period, but I find him a wonderful writer as well.

    The work of Kimiko Yoshida is new to me,but I like what she has captured very much. Thanks for introducing me to new works of art. You have also made me a fan of Rumpus.

  2. The self-portrait by Courbet is very powerful, and yummy (Johnny sexy) and also (to me) shows a lot of self-consciousness about how he is portraying himself. I feel his ego all over the canvas. Of course, once you mentioned “L’Origine du Monde” (and I love that the title is so literal), I looked it up. So realistic, and impressive that in 1866 they didn’t string him up for that! Yoshida’s photos are quite lovely (the first one) and intriguing (the second). Can’t wait to look up more of her work. Thanks for enlarging my world, today. I enjoy your posts very much.

    1. I think I did read that the painting did have its censorship issues, but I may be wrong. I do plan, at some point, to read more about it, maybe starting with one of the novels about it…it is quite a story. There were, I suppose, a great many works commissioned by private owners which were never exhibited publicly. We forget in the age of flickr and tumblr and other net sources of art that very intimate (and often intimately personal) relationship between patron and artist.

      I totally agree about the ego in every stroke, which brings up another thought of how many great artists and creative geniuses in all fields had (or have!) humongous egos….

  3. I did think that was Johnny Depp! Very interesting. Love the last ones too.

    “People represent themselves from the moment breath enters their lungs, and continue to do so until the last is expelled. We are in a constant pursuit of representing externally, be it through art, or dress, or how we walk or what we put on our shelves, what is within.”

    Extremely well-said. We want to be seen and heard and understood. Why is that I wonder? What is it about us humans in that way?

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