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Uncertainty with precision

By Christopher Andreae / April 8, 1981



"I made it for friends. I was not very pleased with it.I had a poor plate . . . ." -- Camille Pissarrohs remarks on this, his only etched self-portrait (he didn't make many self-portraits in any medium) are concerned with technical dissatisfaction as much as anything. It has been suggested that he only made this portrait of his own features to practice etching. The zinc plate he used was of bad quality, and few rich impressions were pulled. Some are much paler than others. The artist did not include any of them in the selection of his finest prints he gave to the Luxembourg museum. This "failed" reprint is an unforgettable and much-loved instance of an artist presenting his own face for others to enjoy as art: he made it for his friends, and something of the amiability of that motive is captured in it.

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It's a spiky image, and the artist has obviously enjoyed the Rembrandt-like way in which the process of etching can be used to make dark and deep shadows out of which a subject emerges in a sudden light. His own patriarchal beard must have seemed ideal for this scratchy exploration of light and dark by means of needle-sharp hatching. The whole face takes on a hirsute quality, the cheeks , the shadow under the cap, the soft cap itself, and out of this hairiness (as well as out of the darkness) gaze Pissarro's eyes with a momentary, quizzical, even startled look.

There is no vanity in this self-image, and there is no hint of that opposite sort of furious self-criticism seen in some self-portraiture. Equally absent is the fierce direct stare mistaken for psychological penetration in an artist's study of his own features, and which sometimes really does seem to bore through to an inner being with undaunted accuracy.

But Pissarro's etching of what he saw in a mirror is nearly evasive. It is tentative in its approach to his physiognomy, uncertain, apparently, that this face has any more significance as a revelation of character or genius than any other depiction of a rather gentle, white bearded old man might have had. The half spectacles, the beret, the beard, are Pissarro "attributes" or to his friends they were instant marks of recognition. They photographed and painted and drew him frequently, and these attributes inevitably hid rather than revealed his character. They were obvious features and would have been more telling to a caricaturist than to a portraitist.

In his etched self-portrait he manages somehow -- and this is where the work's unfixable, elusive quality is secreted -- not to look exactly at himself.He avoids his own gaze as though his thoughts are elsewhere. The spidery spectacles contribute almost humorously to this distraction: they look downwards.

As an artist, Pissarro was restlessly in touch with the innovative adventures of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism, and of a wide variety of artists, his own contemporaries as well as those far younger than himself. His own personality continually moves and changes position through his art, and he never seems to be just one man ruthlessly pursuing to its conclusion some burning individual idea. And yet, paradoxically he had great influence on other painters, many of them treating him as an adviser, a wise friend, a model, and even something of an Old Testament prophet.

Was his unassuming appearances in any way true to his character? He was dissatisfied with this self-portrait. Perhaps he was also dissatisfied with his own face. Perhaps those eyes -- mildly astonished, mildly amused, mildly hurt, mildly wondering -- didn't truly disclose some of his undiscovered or half-known strengths and originality.

There was a period when he and Paul Cezanne made a number of portraits of each other. Cezanne's of Pissarro have something too generalized about them, but Pissarro's portraits of his friend are surprisingly bold and truthful. It is as though Cezanne's monumental character, as well as the quicker, more mercurial quality which cuts across this monumentality, transfers itself to the actual style and procedure of Pissarro's drawing. The subject influences the manner of its depiction.

The etching technique Pissarro used in his self-portrait may also have been a response to feelings he had about himself. It is a case of uncertainty expressed with precision. As such it takes the impermanent, changeable, indefinite appearances of things which so concerned the Impressionists (including, of course, Pissarro himself) and studies them in the terms of a printing medium that traditionally was all lines -- all definition and delineation. It is a remarkable thing to have done, and with so little apparent effort.