A good artwork is multilayered and subjects itself to multiple meanings. Given its title, Self-portrait, this artwork is part of the historically woven chain of other works of art purporting to reveal, or explain, the very self being represented. Self-portraiture aims to reveal and to mask, to explain and to shroud in mystery. Every self-portrait is a subminimal message to the viewer about what to look for and how to navigate the very self that wishes to announce itself. Here, the viewer is asked to accept the logic of postmodernism: that reality is not what is seems, that truth is elusive and is coded in ways that are simultaneously enlightening and confusing. As such, Self-portrait is not the ‘actual’ likeness of the artist but a representation that contains and transcends the self.
Being a sociologist, I can’t help thinking that the word ‘me’ in the artwork is an invitation into the very heart of sociological and philosophical traditions. American George Herbert Mead (d. 1931), who represents both intellectual traditions, wrote that the self is made up of the ‘me’ and the ‘I’. Accordingly, the ‘me’ is how we believe others see us; the ‘I’ is our own response to that perception. While looking at this image, I feel that the artist is challenging me to judge who he is, but at the same time he is artfully playing with what I can and cannot see. I can, for instance, distinguish a face mischievously peering out through the shape of the letters, but it can also dissolve into myriad shapes and symbols, forcing me to relocate and reconstruct the shape of the face in my mind. Perhaps the artist is reminding us that although we think we can see him, in reality we do not.
While I gaze at the face in the painting, I also sense the face is gazing back at me. In this way it is challenging me to a contest, inviting me to reflect on who I am and reminding me that we are all constantly framed by the curious and judgmental observations of others. From here there is no escape; we must concede that we are trapped in this never-ending and enriching dynamic of seeing and being seen, of attempting to construct an image of a self and yet being powerless in how we are seen. The never-ending dance that makes us human.
As Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel observed, ‘[T]he love of art is not love at first sight but is born of long familiarity’. When I first saw Self-portrait, I was drawn to it, but as I become more and more familiar with it, I discover this portrait is not so much a self-portrait of the artist as an invitation into a dialogue.