The Way Artists See Themselves New Courtauld Exhibition

Portrait of the Artist as

Portrait of the Artist As. Sarah Lucas Marc Quinn Frances Bacon Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh.

The exhibition Portrait of the Artist As… looks at the ways in which artists have portrayed themselves, their peers, and their predecessors over four centuries.  Curated by the students of The Courtauld’s MA Programme Curating the Art Museum, it draws on the holdings of two major collections, The Courtauld Gallery and The Arts Council Collection, and includes thirty works in various media from the 18th century to the present day. 

It examines the ways in which artists see themselves and wish to be seen, and explores the myth of the artist as genius, hero, outsider or tormented soul.  The exhibition is inspired by a unique pairing of two powerful masterpieces by Vincent van Gogh and Francis Bacon, shown together here for the first time.  Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, is one of the most recognisable paintings in the world, and a highlight of The Courtauld’s collection.  This iconic work will hang alongside Bacon’s Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh VI, 1957, one of the most prized works in the Arts Council Collection.  Together, these two extraordinary paintings engage in a dialogue, raising issues of influence, inspiration, replication and change that echo throughout the exhibition.

Portrait of the Artist As… examines how artists have adopted the visual language and even the personae of their predecessors in order to assert their own identities as artists.  Their responses to earlier works and to the tradition of portraiture range from homage and emulation to irony and subversion.  Copy after a Self-Portrait by Cézanne, 1925, by Roger Fry, a lifelong champion of Cézanne in Britain, hangs next to Fry’s own Self-Portrait, painted three years later, which clearly echoes the composition and tone of the 1925 painting.  Glenn Brown’s Decline and Fall, 1995, a radical reworking of a painting by the senior artist Frank Auerbach, introduces the possibility that one can make a portrait of an artist by making a “portrait” of his practice. 

Sarah Lucas’s Self Portraits series, 1990-1998, challenges and subverts portraiture’s historical and traditional modes of representation in order to confront issues of gender and sexuality.  Her work is set in conversation with a series of 18th-century drawings by Jonathan Richardson the Elder, in which the artist depicts himself and his son in a variety of guises.  In Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait, 1895, artistic creativity is inextricably linked to suffering. This sombre image depicts the artist’s head floating in space, eerily disconnected from his body.  Saul Fletcher’s photograph Untitled #212 (S/P Saul), 2009, is a contemporary counterpoint to the Munch, an enigmatic and fugitive self-image of the artist as outsider.

In an early print by Marc Quinn, Template for My Future Plastic Surgery, 1992, the artist superimposes the body parts of talented individuals onto an image of his own body in order to address notions of artistic creativity and vulnerability.  Gilbert and George’s Portrait of the Artists as Young Men, 1972, is an important early work by the artist duo and the first video to be acquired by the Arts Council Collection.  It is a defiant, minimal and provocative slow-moving performance, in which the artists offer themselves up to the public’s gaze, but what they reveal of themselves through their steadfast pose is open to question.

Amongst the most revealing works in the exhibition are artists’ portraits of their colleagues.  Frank Auerbach’s Lucian Freud, 1981, is one of a series of etchings that Auerbach made in return for the portrait his artist-friend had painted of him in the 1970s.  Freud also appears in the exhibition through two photographs taken by another of his friends, Bruce Bernard: one showing the artist posing with his painting of performance artist, Leigh Bowery; and the other showing Bowery with a different portrait Freud had created of him.  In Richard Hamilton’s Portrait of Derek Jarman, 1996-1997, a poignant casual snapshot taken shortly before Jarman’s death is set against a photographic reproduction of one of Jarman’s own paintings. The works in this exhibition come together to show the richness, complexity, and singularity of the artist’s position within our culture, and to address the many and varied implications of asserting an artistic identity.

 26 June to 22 July 2012, Rooms 9 & 10, The Courtauld Gallery

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