How Do Artists See Themselves?

Some artists struggle with imposter syndrome, others with self-obsession, and many with both simultaneously. The self-portrait stands as a time-honored way for artists to step into the frame and depict themselves how they see fit as part of their artistic legacies. A new exhibition, Art of the Selfie at the National Museum Cardiff (NMC) in Wales, features some of the most iconic self-portraits in art history, exploring the ways in which artists have seen and represented themselves through time.

“Self-portraits and selfies are two different things, but they do have something in common — both are used to show who you are as a person,” Director of Collections and Research Kath Davies told Hyperallergic.

“Out of all the ways we document our lives, selfies have become a popular method of self-expression and individualism,” Davies continued. “But the human impulse for visual self-representation is not a new thing. Artists have always made self-portraits.”

The lynchpin of the exhibition is Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of the Artist” (1887), on loan from Musée d’Orsay, Paris, in exchange for the NMC’s Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting “La Parisienne” (1874). At NMC, van Gogh’s self-portrait — one of around 20 that he painted while living in Paris between 1886 and ’88 — is joined by a venerable cohort of other fine art “selfies.”

“Whilst ‘Portrait of the Artist’ is the star of the show, we wanted to display him alongside a selection of artists from the national collection of Wales, to showcase a wide range of different methods and artistic approaches to the concept of the self-portrait, as well as highlight the national collection,” explained NMC’s head of exhibitions and design, Lowri Angharad Williams.

The exhibition comes at a time when some institutions are examining their policies on selfies in the museum. Earlier this year, a study conducted by the fine art division of the insurance company Hiscox warned of a “growing trend” of visitors backing into artworks while taking a photo of themselves, and some museums are banning selfie sticks to avoid damage.

Fellow self-portrait-makers on view include Rembrandt, Francis Bacon, Sir Cedric Mullins, and Brenda Chamberlain. Mullins and Chamberlain both present themselves from the shoulders up, gazing steadfastly at the viewer. But Mullins set his visage in a domestic environment, with a painting behind him, while Chamberlain paints herself outside in a rolling landscape, her hair flowing in the breeze.

“Self-portraits are about much more than physical appearance,” Williams said. “They are a way for artists to explore identity, a means of self-reflection or self-interrogation. They can tell us not just what the artists looked like, but about their life, environment, even their state of mind.”

The NMC is also excited to model a “pay what you can” system for the exhibition, encouraging accessibility for visitors and availing them of a unique opportunity to see not only the way artists viewed the world around them, but how they saw themselves.

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