SELF-PORTRAITS exercise a strange kind of fascination. It doesn't matter if they probe or strike a pose, are pompous, evasive, or startlingly frank -- or even if they complain or beg for understanding. There is something intriguing and disarming about a painting, print, or piece of sculpture designed specifically to tell us who an artist thinks he or she is -- or would prefer to be. Whether confessional or confrontational, self-portraits are extraordinarily revealing. Even those that attempt to avoid the truth generally end up telling us a great deal more about their creators than the latter would ever have suspected. The giveaway can be deceptively simple. The pose may be strained or artificially relaxed, the style excessively grand, or the technique too clever and diverting. The image might be so open and innocent as to arouse our suspicions, or the face that looks out at us coul d simply be too good to be true.
We all know of self-portraits that try to stare us down or that insist on informing us of the artist's profundity and commitment. And who hasn't been brought up short by a pair of eyes beseeching us for sympathy, or smiling out at the world with a secret no one will ever be able to share.
There's a world of humanity in this form of art if we are willing to look for it. Without question, self-portraits are more demanding than most other kinds of art, for they seldom provide the expansive good feelings we receive from landscapes, heroic figure compositions, or beautiful abstractions. What we do get, however, is probably even more significant, especially if what we are viewing represents an artist at a moment of profound self-realization and we are provoked by it to go deeper i nto ourselves to match it.
Rembrandt, of course, is the perfect example of an artist whose paintings of himself challenge us to do just that. We are drawn into them -- and toward our own deepest feelings -- the moment we respond to their somber, brooding presences, and we ``emerge'' sometime later deeply moved and aware that we have somehow been profoundly enriched.
The confrontational self-portrait, on the other hand -- while it may also be extraordinarily truthful and revealing -- is primarily intended to impress and to demand compliance with whatever the artist considers important. Who would care to argue, for instance, with the individuals staring out at us in the self-portraits of Delacroix, Friedrich, Beckmann, or Orozco? Or, for that matter, in those of Picasso and most of the Expressionists?
These artists are so intense, so totally dedicated to their visions, and so remarkably present in their pictures, that we are intimidated and back off a bit from all that focus and passion. This is true even of Van Gogh, much as we may admire his humanity and love for all living things. When it came to painting himself, he was so ruthlessly objective that viewing one of his self-images is tantamount to having cold water thrown on our illusions.
But then, Van Gogh belongs to that relatively small but fascinating group of artists for whom the self-portrait is a primary mode of expression, and who feel compelled to document their outer and inner realities frequently and frankly. Rembrandt also belongs in this company, as do D"urer, Munch, Kokoschka, and Kollwitz. And so, as a matter of fact, does Robert Arneson, a talented and wildly idiosyncratic sculptor/draftsman whose career began in California but whose reputation has spread across the count ry.
He achieved most of his success with a series of likenesses of himself executed in clay and glazed and fired in typical ceramic fashion. One's first reaction to these witty and generally ebullient over-sized depictions of his features is doubt as to whether they should be taken seriously or viewed merely as clever three-dimensional cartoons. This confusion would be more easily resolved if his pieces weren't so outrageous and didn't run the gamut from such delightfully outlandish conceits as the portrait
of himself as a dog to works that confront some of the most disturbing issues of our day.
It would also be easier if the majority of his images didn't violate our traditional notions of what constitutes seriousness and good taste in art. We are startled to find large, occasionally distorted but always precisely ``realistic'' ceramic heads painted almost any combination of colors and mounted on columns decorated with what appears to be graffiti. Or large, boldly executed drawings of faces staring, squinting, frowning, laughing, or shouting at us in extreme close-up, and in the most vivid colo rs imaginable.
Because of his iconoclastic attitude and frequently blatant and aggressive methods, Arneson has divided the art world into those who admire him greatly and those who dismiss him as a self-serving clown. This division, while unfortunate, is hardly surprising, considering the provocative nature of his work, and his insistence on making major statements in ceramics rather than in bronze or paint.
Even his large multimedia drawings of his face receive mixed reactions, not only because they confront the viewer so uncompromisingly but also because no one has utilized the self-portrait in quite such a fashion before. It's a pity, of course, that he should be snubbed by some for doing things his way -- but then, that's been the lot of the individualist in art since the beginning of time.