Self-portraits as mirrors of personality

An artist’s work is almost always a portrait of himself. Coded in color, shape, texture and light, the language that a painting speaks is foremost the language of its author. An artist who depicts the world, in a strange subconscious way also ends up depicting himself. Could the reverse also be true? How far do self-portraits go beyond simply expressing one’s self-perception. How objective is one’s self-image anyway? And why is it that contemporary artists paint themselves anyway? «I, Me, Myself,» a visually diverse and conceptually multilayered exhibition that puts on view 100 self-portraits of Greek artists, raises these questions. Curated by Eleni Kipreou, one of the two directors of the Nees Morfes gallery – the oldest gallery in operation in Athens – the exhibition, currently showing at the Rethymnon Center for Contemporary Art, delves into individuality. The artist becomes the focus, as he is the subject and the creator of the image, the object of representation and the observer of himself – all at once. This is an all-encompassing view in which the artist is the center of attention. Individuality, originality and artistic creativity are, after all, considered interrelated concepts and self-portraits in many ways express this widespread notion of an artist’s status and personality. However, self-portraits are not exactly a genre much in demand and the extent to which they are is largely due to the how «personal identities» became a trend in contemporary art, beginning in the 1990s. «Around five or six years ago, both portraits and self-portraits seemed completely outmoded. But there now seems to be a return to them, except that portraits are not any more about idealization, which is what they were traditionally about, but about probing into ourselves, sorting out and trying to define ourselves,» says Kipreou. «For certain contemporary artists, self-portraits are a recurring theme. Michalis Madenis, for instance, has been painting images of himself for many years. Pantelis Chandris and Maria Papadimitriou also depict themselves.» «I, Me, Myself» shows this tendency but is not primarily meant to be a consideration of portraiture as a genre. Addressed to sentiment, the exhibition is intended to have a more direct, visual impact and an almost psychoanalytic reach. It is also meant to offer a change from both sensationalism and, at the other extreme, the more conceptual, cerebral side of contemporary art by reminding us of a more human-oriented perspective. One’s face can open up an entire world of emotion and ideas, which is what this exhibition is really all about. «What is touching about the exhibition is that you enter the room and all of a sudden have 120 eyes looking out at you» says Kipreou. Since not all the images are self-portraits in the traditional sense, the «eyes» are meant metaphorically. The most extreme example is Florika Kyriakopoulou’s self-image: an Asian-styled, vermillion-colored buffet whose interior is lit with a soothing blue light seen from the outside through the horizontal slit in a cupboard. A visual metaphor for the human body, the image is austere and insular as much as it is moving. Another abstracted self-image is by Makis Theofylaktopoulos, who has simply painted the outline of his figure. Similarly, Panayiotis Tetsis paints his own shadow. Style and personality converge, making each painting the unmistakable mirror of its maker. Theodoros’s image of himself from the 1970s shows him almost in the nude, sarcastically posing as an ancient sculpture. Representative of the artist’s performance-based art of the 1970s, it also captures his mocking personality. By contrast, Nikos Alexiou’s blurred photograph of himself fits both the subtlety of his style and his unobtrusive personality. On another note, the self-portrait of Nikos Hadzykiriakos-Ghika, dressed in a suit and tie and looking out at the viewer (in fact he is probably looking in a mirror) as he paints his canvas, is a traditional yet playful mode of self-portraiture and suggests the artist’s bourgeois background. By contrast, Yiannis Moralis paints himself as less gentleman-like and more bohemian. But the pose and the bookcase in the painting’s background suggest a social self-confidence similar to the Hadzikyriakos-Ghika self-portrait. The exhibition also includes portraits by Yiannis Tsarouchis, another artist of the so-called Thirties Generation, but also reaches further back in time with a 1913 self-portrait by the expressionist painter Giorgos Bouzianis, a 1880 image by Pericles Pantazis and a portrait of Thalia Flora-Karavia from 1903, one of the earliest self-portraits by a woman artist. An interesting mix, the exhibition not only offers a view of a broad range of artistic personalities but also spans the diversity of styles and artistic movements that shaped 20th century art. The range portrays the more than 40-year history of the Nees Morfes gallery, an establishment which represented some of the most renowned names in Greek art. (Julia Dimakopoulou, the oldest of the present two directors of the gallery, is head of the Hellenic Association of Art Galleries.) One of the first galleries to advance abstract art back in the late 1950s when it opened to the public, Nees Morfes did not become associated with any particular style but strove for diversity. This diversity comes through in the «I, Me, Myself» exhibition. But what the exhibition also expresses eloquently is the personality of Eleni Kipreou, its curator. (Kipreou also curated «Original Replica» a few years ago.) It reflects her caring relationships with the artists, her respect for their work and sense of responsibility toward them as well as the sense that professionalism is never cut off from human relationships. Kipreou chose each work after much discussion with the artists. None of the works were commissioned, for Kipreou believes that a self-portrait cannot be painted upon commission. This is probably because a self-portrait is a very personal image. It is also a very candid and psychologically charged image, which is what makes this exhibition moving, emotionally involving and filled with unexpected twists. At the Rethymnon Center for Contemporary Art through July 2003.

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