Voyage round myself

A portrait is a marvelous way to tell the world precisely who and what we are , or to make us appear particularly attractive, successful, or self-assured. All we need do is commission an artist whose work we like, and he or she will do the rest.

A self-portrait is a trickier proposition. The artist is stuck with his or her own talent and imagination, and cannot depend on another to be objective or to paint a portrait to match an ideal. The actual process itself is more difficult, for it is impossible to see oneself in a mirror as one really is, or to know how one appears to others.

Most self-portraits, as a result, are somewhat stiff, self-conscious, and subtly ''wrong,'' either because the painter couldn't relax long enough to avoid a frozen expression or even a stare, or because the face is reversed (thanks to the mirror). Such paintings also tend to project an aura of painful intensity, as though the artist had put everything he or she had into being fair and objective.

There are other little problems. How does one depict the hand which is doing the painting? If it is shown holding a brush or actually applying paint, certain adjustments have to be made. After all, thanks to the mirror again, a right-handed person will appear left-handed - and vice versa - on the canvas.

There are also such small matters as positioning the easel so that one can see both it and the mirror, angling the lighting so it illuminates without blinding, and deciding whether the picture is to be a formal ''Portrait of the Artist at Work'' or something more casual. And the issue of clothing should not be ignored. Many a good suit or dress has been ruined by paint overenthusiastically applied.

Even when everything is set - the easel, canvas, and mirror in place, paints and brushes within reach, lighting adjusted - there still is one crucial matter that must be resolved. The artist must decide on the style of the portrait and whether it is to be straightforward, especially probing, or possibly somewhat self-spoofing.

Oddly enough, it's not an easy thing for some artists to decide. Confronted with an image of themselves in a mirror, and concerned about producing both a likeness and art, quite a few painters end up with something that is neither a self-portrait nor art.

That, of course, is not the case with professional portrait painters or with anyone who has thoroughly mastered the more traditional modes of painting. For them a self-portrait is nothing new. It can be produced at the drop of a hat, and in almost any style or fashion, and can even run in the tradition of Rembrandt's and Rubens' delightfully self-mocking works of their youth.

Throughout the centuries, artists have enjoyed dressing up in fancy clothing and painting themselves as romantic heroes or grand historical figures. It obviously brought out the actor and clown in them and permitted the more free-spirited side of their art to find expression. It also, I suspect, gave them the opportunity to apply colors and effects they otherwise would have hesitated to use.

Like almost everyone else, painters have particular favorites among the great artists of the past and will frequently emulate them in pictures painted strictly for themselves. James Ensor, for instance, was a great admirer of Rubens and occasionally depicted himself in the manner of that artist. And Picasso often drew or painted himself as one or another of the outstanding figures of art history.

For others, inspiration is often drawn more from schools of painting than from individual masters. In such cases, the resulting portraits reflect the styles and technical methods of anything from 17th-century Dutch to late 18 th-century English or possibly even early Renaissance art. The Baroque period, for instance, is often favored by painters with robust talents and personalities who prefer pictorial drama and excitement, while the pre-Raphaelite ideal is preferred by others who like their art more inward and sentimental.

Frank Mason is a contemporary artist with considerable personal and painterly flair and with a remarkable knowledge of traditional art styles. It is only natural, therefore, that his 1981 ''Self Portrait'' is dynamic, broadly painted, Baroque in spirit and form, and openly art-historical in focus. This is self-portraiture as Rubens and Hals understood it - right down to the self-assured stance, oversize hat, quickly dashed-off collar, and dramatic light-dark contrasts.

It is not, however, an academic study. The expression on the face and the vitality of the figure alert us to the fact that the man inside the rather flamboyant outfit is a very real and serious human being. He may be acting up a bit, but his eyes give him away.

Mason is indeed a serious artist, as his numerous portraits, figure studies, and landscapes testify. In addition, he has been very vocal in reminding American museums of the importance of art conservation and restoration and in telling art students of the importance of learning from the art of the past.

Small wonder, then, that he should want to relax occasionally and paint himself in various informal guises. Knowing him slightly, I find it altogether appropriate that he depicted himself in this instance as a Baroque-period master. I suspect he would have felt very much at ease discussing technical matters with Hals and Goya and would have told them a thing or two he had learned as well.

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