The full title of this exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is Artists’ Self-Portraits from the Uffizi. But I don’t think it’s overly pedantic to point out that self-portraits are pretty much always by and of artists. The Uffizi has a collection of 1600 self-portraits, apparently; 50 of them are currently in Dulwich, arranged in roughly chronological order from Filippino Lippi in 1485 to Mimmo Paladino in 2003.
The Uffizi isn’t apparently in any hurry to embrace the internet age, so I can’t illustrate this post with any pictures from the exhibition. Instead, here’s one by Gwen John which is in the Tate:
I wandered into the exhibition whimsically wondering if I was going to be able to see some kind of common trait in the portraits; some kind of physiognomical identifier of artiness. Well, if this exhibition is to be believed, artists are much more likely to be men, but apart from that they didn’t have much in common physically.
There was a certain kind of expression, though: whether the artists were presenting themselves as glamorous men of substance or bohemians or just unadorned faces, they all tended to share an expression of quizzical detachment.
It would be tempting to see this as indicating a painterly scepticism about portraits; the expression of someone who has seen behind the curtain and knows that a painting is deceptive: contingent, unreliable, manufactured.
In fact, though, it’s probably just the expression of someone examining his own face in the mirror.