Psychology student by day; artist, writer & devoted collector of music by night; striving for a simpler existence through minimalism!

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Identity in Art: The Significance of the Artist’s Self-Portrait

Artists have been using self-portraits as a means of self-expression for centuries, and artists such as Parmigianino and Brett Whiteley pushed the boundaries of traditional self-portraiture by creating unconventional and imaginative interpretations of the genre.

One of my favourite paintings is by Australian artist Brett Whiteley. Whiteley was a prolific artist who worked with various mediums, often mixing paints and textures to create some outstanding pieces. The one I love the best is “Self-portrait in the studio“.

This iconic portrait depicts him in his studio, standing in front of an easel, holding a mirror reflecting his face and the beginnings of another self-portrait on the easel canvas, which contained an actual cutting from his hair! With his lover, Wendy, lounging on the bed, scattered about the room are various items that he must have felt formed part of himself, while the view from the window depicts the Sydney Harbour, where he said he felt most at home.

With this artwork, he won The Archibald Prize in 1976, breaking conventions as his new interpretation of a self-portrait burst out of the conformist box that history had previously contained it to, and this generated an interesting controversy as the first of its kind for the contest. The painting is known for its vibrant colours, including ultramarine blue, which I often use in my work. I have yet to see it in person, unfortunately missing the exhibition when it came to town, but I look forward to seeing it before I leave the world.

Remembering this painting had me thinking about the theme of artists painting reflections of themselves in the mirror, and I wanted to explore some possible meaning behind this. The theme of the artist’s self-portrait looking into a mirror or holding a palette has been a recurrent theme in art history. Many famous painters such as Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, and Rembrandt have used this method to depict themselves. However, the actual mirror was not present in the image; they only used this to capture themselves. Albrecht Dürer has an interesting story if you’re interested to see a review of his work. Photography is another art that produces striking results with this theme.

My thoughts are that many artists use self-portraits as a way of self-reflecting and exploring their own identities. By including a mirror, pallet or camera in the self-portrait, the artist could be suggesting their connection to the creative process or perhaps even an attempt to convey their sense of themselves as an artist, to share the ‘worker behind the work’, or possibly symbolic of their technical skill.

It may also be a way for the artist to explore different aspects of their personal experiences and emotions, as Whiteley did, including elements aside from his physical appearance to convey who he was. It’s also possible that it wasn’t a conscious decision at all and one that happened organically.

Artists have been using self-portraits as a means of self-expression for centuries, and each artist portrays their perspective, experiences and vision in their portrait; it is genuinely fascinating to see how each one of them approaches it.

Rose Stark, Master Draughtsman. 2022.