“Whatever stance they promote,” Frances Spalding wrote in the Guardian, “be it pompous or playful or merely pleasing, self-portraits have much to say. They can show success or indulge in self-mockery; advertise a new aesthetic or celebrate a marriage.”
You might have thought that self-portraits were too simple to say all of that. They’re pictures of yourself. What else can you say?
A lot, it turns out.
Let’s look at an example.
Take a look at this self-portrait from Vincent van Gogh. What does it make you think about him? Does he look proud? Successful? Like a man who would go on to become one of the most famous painters in history?
The National Gallery of Art points out that van Gogh’s pose is that of a self-assured man, but that his “expression and restless brushwork suggest strain and even worry.” The squiggly lines in it looks like “nervous energy.” And since van Gogh painted this “shortly after suffering from a breakdown while at an asylum,” there are good reasons to think van Gogh had a lot of nervous energy indeed!
To compose a self-portrait is to present a side of yourself to the world. It’s not just something famous painters do, either. If you’ve ever posted a photo of yourself on Instagram, you’re doing something similar. Are you showing the world a happy version of you, surrounded by friends and laughing? Or are you showing yourself in a more vulnerable state, when you’re feeling down? And whatever version of yourself you’re showing, you should ask: what are you hoping people who see it will think?
Have a good self-portrait you want to share with TIPsters? Submit it to Hands On and we’ll publish them next month!