Self-portrait: mirror of the soul

ONE of the most fascinating things about art is that it can be and do so many things. It can be playful, somber, frivolous, or profound, act heroically or humbly, bitterly, or with love, and preach passionately or refuse to take sides. For some it is primarily entertainment or decoration, for others, the precipitator of some of life's deepest and most significant experiences. For still others, a pleasant and effective form of cultural exchange.

For artists, however, it can also be a form of confrontation and self-analysis, a relatively easy and painless way of challenging oneself to be truthful and of getting to know oneself better. Here, the self-portrait reigns supreme, whether it be of the brooding, introspective sort favored by Rembrandt, the frank, open kind preferred by Rubens, the stark, confessional type made famous by Van Gogh, or the coolly detached variety best exemplified by Matisse in his drawings.

Even the great formalists occasionally fashioned revealing images of themselves. C'ezanne, for instance, who insisted that he painted his own form and features as impersonally as he painted apples and trees, produced a number of remarkably penetrating self-portraits. And Mondrian, that most dedicated champion of the abstract in art, left behind one of this century's most intriguing depictions of what a modernist ``sees'' when he or she looks in a mirror.

Art lovers have always shown a special interest in what painters and sculptors have confronted in the mirror, and have either recorded directly or edited for purposes of vanity or style. And they have for good reason. Such depictions not only provide important insights into an artist's emotional state and philosophical outlook (Van Gogh and Rembrandt immediately spring to mind), they also present valuable clues to an artist's level of frankness and commitment.

Some go even further and reveal the degree to which an artist is willing to probe beneath surface appearance in order to give form and expression to painful or otherwise difficult-to-accept aspects of reality.

It is in this intensely analytical kind of self-portraiture that 20th-century artists have excelled. From Edvard Munch and Oskar Kokoschka to K"athe Kollwitz and Ivan Albright, our major creative figures have tended to pay at least as much attention to complex and often disturbing psychological factors as to purely formal or descriptive ones. The result has been an extraordinary display of pictorial self-analysis, in which ``stripping the soul bare'' to expose every twist and turn of the artist's psyche has been viewed as essential to a work's serious consideration as art.

Unfortunately, most artists are better painters, sculptors, or printmakers than psychologists. For all their good intentions, only a handful avoided the pitfalls of amateur analysis to produce images of genuine insight. For every George Grosz, Otto Dix, or Max Beckmann, there were dozens of otherwise good artists whose ventures into pictorial self-discovery led more to posturing and affectation than to truth.

Among those who were successful, however, none produced more frank and uncompromising self-portraits than Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), the Swiss painter best known for his dramatically simplified mountain landscapes, executed during the last decade of his life.

For pure, unflinching honesty, few 20th-century figurative works succeed as brilliantly as his 1914 ``Self-Portrait.'' This is Hodler the man and artist as he himself saw and knew him, without pretension, and with full awareness of who he was and what he could do. It is no-nonsense painting at its best, and the sort of thing only a consummate master could produce.

It took Picasso, however, to come up with this century's ultimate confrontational self-image. And in many ways that was only appropriate, since it was he who gave us ``Guernica,'' one of the bluntest, most searing antiwar statements of all time, and who, over the roughly 70 years of his career, had proved repeatedly that total honesty could indeed pay off in art.

``Self-Portrait,'' a colored crayon drawing executed in 1972, less than 10 months before his death at the age of 92, proves how honest Picasso could be. It is anything but an attractive picture. The colors, greenish blue, mauve and black, are garish and jarring. The draftsmanship is unsophisticated and graceless. And the image itself is stark and inescapably ``final.''

It depicts the same dark-eyed Picasso we've seen in countless other self-portraits and photographs. But this time there's a difference. All the cocky self-assurance is gone - as are all hints that we are face to face with a genius. What we have left is an image of a mortal and very vulnerable man fully aware of the brevity of human - but most particularly his own - life. And yet there is no suggestion of fear, or any wish to evade the truth. As always, Picasso knew precisely who he was and what was confronting him. And like Rembrandt before him, he transformed that moment of awesome self-awareness into a penetrating and haunting work of art.

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