Self-portrait with peristalsis

Actually it’s not a self-portrait—I certainly wasn’t operating the camera—but it is a picture of me. Since my blogging is generally short on personal details and I’ve never even posted a photograph of myself before, I suppose a shot of the inside of my colon seems like a rather radical step. But what the hell, it’s not like any of you are are likely to get the chance to pick my bowel out of an identity parade.

The inside of my bowel

My local hospital consists of a whole lot of buildings added at different times, all joined together by labyrinthine corridors, and all the buildings are referred to as ‘wings’: the Golden Jubilee Wing, for example. I can’t help feeling that it does serious damage to the metaphor; it would be a seriously deformed bird that had five wings, all pointing off in different directions.

They didn’t seem to be terribly worried by anything they found up there, btw. Although I suppose they might be trying to hush up the fact I’ve been impregnated by aliens.

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Self-Portraits from the Uffizi

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:

Self Portrait by Gwen John

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.

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama

I’ve only read two books by Schama; Citizens, his book about the French Revolution, and this biography of Rembrandt. Both have been excellent. They’re also quite hard work simply because he’s so thorough. Thoroughness is no doubt a virtue in a historian, but it does make for large books. Rembrandt’s Eyes is frankly too large to read in bed, as it weighs a whopping five and a half pounds. The reason it’s so large is that it’s printed on thick glossy paper and full of beautiful reproductions of the paintings. Amazon’s price of £13 is almost worth it just for the pictures.


Self Portrait at an Early Age, from the Rijksmuseum. Click on the image to see a larger version.

I was slightly taken aback when the first chapter of a Rembrandt biography was about Rubens’ father. Schama’s obviously feels that Rembrandt can only be understood in the context of his predecessor (who was born 30 years before him), since he devotes 200 pages, nearly a third of the book, to Rubens. I actually forgot that the book was supposed to be about Rembrandt at one point. This kind of attention to context — not just artistic, but the political and religious background of the region – is perhaps unsurprising given that Schama is primarily a historian, rather than an art critic. He’s brilliant at evoking the everyday reality of life in C17th Holland, as well. There’s one tour-de-force where he introduces Amsterdam by showing the city via the five senses, one at a time. So for example, the section on smell begins:

First, the Zuider Zee itself, sucked through the inlet of the IJ, washing against the slimy double row of palings separating the inner from the outer harbor, carrying with it a load of tangled wrack and weed, worthlessly small fish, and minute crustaceans generating a briny aroma of salt, rotting wood, bilgewater, and the tide-rinsed remains of countless gristly little creatures housed within the shells of barnacles and periwinkles. In the yards behind the first row of houses facing the docks there were better things to smell. Lengths of green timber were stood on end to season, some already bent to form a rib in a ship’s hull. A man might walk down the alleys parallel to the harbor, inhale the sharp tan of fir (for masts) and oak and beech (for hulls), and for a moment think himself in a fresh-cut wood in Norway.

And on through the smells of taverns, the night-soil boats, the tanners, the plague-pits, the nosegay sellers, the bakers; and then each of the other senses in turn.

Having said that Schama is primarily a historian, I still think he does a great job writing about the paintings. That’s just as well, since it becomes apparent during the book that there is very little surviving material written by Rembrandt. There are no journals or essays, and Schama only quotes from letters once or twice. Really, the only times we get direct written contact with Rembrandt’s life is when he’s dealing with the law – buying a house, writing a will, being declared bankrupt, or indeed having his ex-mistress declared as of unsound mind.

Those things are interesting, but by themselves they give a skewed and incomplete view of someone. So Schama has to fill out the gaps though the paintings, and does it admirably. There can hardly be a more appropriate painter to do that with, since Rembrandt was an almost compulsive self-portaitist. Not only did he produce nearly 100 self portraits in different costumes and different personae, but he painted his own face into most of his history paintings as well. There was a part of me that wanted to hear Rembrandt’s voice more directly, to be able to read his words; but perhaps it’s fitting to tell an artist’s story though his art.


Self Portrait at the Age of 63, from the National Gallery.

I can’t think of anything bad to say about this book. I enjoyed reading it, and learnt a lot about Rembrandt, Rubens and the Low Countries in the C17th . Most of all, I was introduced to a lot of beautiful paintings I didn’t know before.

Self portrait (revised)

Well, I’ve managed to de-purple it and worked it up a bit. I think the result has a bit more three-dimensionality to it, but I’m not sure it’s any better, exactly. I think it looks even less like me, for a start – apart from the non-purple skin, obviously. Still, it’s all a learning process.

[self portrait - not purple any more, but a bit of a mess anyway]

self portrait attempt #1

Well, I’ve made my first attempt at a self-portrait in Gimp. It was kind of fun – it’s been years since I tried doing any drawing/painting, computer or otherwise. The first thing you’ll notice about it is that it’s purple. That wasn’t what I started out intending to do – I was just playing around and wanted a midtone background so I could use both light and dark colours on it. Something like this:

[self-portait in purple, beige and black]

Anyway, I started adding colours for the hair and so on, and found I’d made it very difficult for myself to change the skin colour without fucking the whole thing up. There’s probably a cunning techy way of doing it involving replacing colours, but I didn’t find it. There’s also a brute force way of doing it – painting over the purple with another colour – but I couldn’t face it, today at least. I may use this as a starting point and try to rescue it later, but I think I’ll probably start again on a new version. I’m quite tempted to try a Rembrandt-esque approach – start with a very dark ground and build up the picture with lighter colours. Just to see what it’s like.

[self portrait with mauve skin]

Old computers

I know there’s not much more boring than people going on about how much computers have changed. But having just bought a new computer, I’m in the mood to do it anyway. The very first computer we had in the house was my brother’s ZX81:

[picture of ZX81]

The ZX81 came with 1Kb of RAM. As a comparison, my current computer has 512Mb, so that’s approximately 500000 times more powerful. However, help was at hand if you needed to do more demanding tasks – we had a memory expansion pack for the ZX81 that boosted it to a heady 8Kb of memory. No hard disk, obviously – it used audio cassettes to store software.

Despite 3D Monster Maze, which seemed genuinely scary at the time (yeah, I know, it seems a bit pathetic now, but I was only about 8, and computers were still a brave new world for all of us) the appeal of the ZX81 was basically the idea of having a computer at home and learning how to do simple programming. The next computer, a Spectrum, actually had some quite good games. Relatively speaking. But then it did have a mighty 48K of memory, and a colour display. There’s a review from 1982 which you can read here that draws attention to its “powerful colour and sound commands”. As you can see, we were easily impressed in those days:

Anyway, my brother and I did eventually (1988, probably) buy a proper computer – an Apple Macintosh IIcx. We shelled out a bit extra to get 8Mb of RAM and the ability to display 256 colours; I can’t remember exactly what it came to, but it would have been three or four thousand pounds, so my new computer has 64 times as much memory for less than a third of the cost. Not even allowing for inflation. Those were the days when I was pretty excited by the very idea that you could store samples of sound on a computer, and we used to have all these little two or three second snatches of dialogue from Monty Python and 2001 and suchlike. The idea that one day you’d be able to store your entire music collection on your computer’s hard disk, let alone on a little thing like an iPod, would have astounded me. Or at least, even then it was pretty clear that things were moving quickly, so perhaps I wouldn’t have been astounded. Impressed, though. Still, even if I wasn’t able to edit movies on it, it was up to the job of running Freehand and Word and so on – all of which I naturally pirated from my school’s computing or design departments. In fact, I imagine we got a Mac in the first place because the schools we went to used them. Those were the days when Macs were much much nicer than PCs (which were referred to as ‘IBM compatible’ at the time, before Microsoft took over the world), because PCs still made you do everything through the command line.

Anyway. About the only relic I’ve got from that time is this self-portrait from 1989 (when I was 14), which I did on a piece of software called Digital Darkroom. I didn’t actually use DD for photo-editing; apart from anything else, I didn’t have a scanner and digital cameras hadn’t been invented. I just used it as a painting program. The picture is in black and white, not because of any aesthetic choice on my part but because with only 256 colours to play with, it was bloody difficult to work in colour. It seems to be slightly posterised – I’m sure it originally had more shades of grey – but I can no longer open the original file and this version is the only one I’ve got:

[self-portrait]

I may try to do a new self-portrait in Gimp; it would be a good way of getting a feel for the software. I’m not sure I’ve still got the knack of drawing with a mouse, but computers are so much more forgiving than, for example, paints.

One final thought – I appreciate that computers have come a long way since then, and I’m very much enjoying my lovely fast new machine, but is it really necessary that the built-in calculator is using 15Mb of memory? 15Mb? I used to run Word and Freehand together on a machine which only had a total of 8Mb.