David Caldwell was born in Helensburgh, ‘a small town on the West Coast of Scotland. I studied at the Glasgow School of Art (1994-98). and the Prince’s Drawing School [in London] (2003-5). Of course these places are all in the work somewhere. I found the Prince’s Drawing School very useful in that [it] added rigorous drawing to my natural tendency towards paint and colour.’ (from an interview with the artist on Cassart.co.uk, 18th July 2013.)
For Caldwell, self-portraiture is at once perennially personal and archetypally revealing. ‘The self-portrait is an ever-intriguing subject, perhaps for its embodiment of the self-reflection that we all face. The artist looks out of the picture back at himself and for a moment we the viewers are placed in his shoes. It is a unique insight into how the creator regards himself.’
In his 2011 self-portrait, the artist’s lean form – head, bearded neck, taut shoulders and upper torso – stands alert and foursquare against palpitatingly pale background walls of diversely coloured, unemphatic rectangular forms. ‘This self-portrait was done in my bathroom mirror. I always liked the light in that room, perhaps due to the effects of the stained glass window there. This picture was an attempt to be completely honest with myself, to scrutinise myself in this familiar and intimate setting. I have painted myself in the act of painting with raised arm. The expression is one of concentration, at once quizzical and pondering. The background is blurred. A series of ambiguous rectangles hover but don’t pronounce themselves, nevertheless they quietly hold the composition together. The light coming through the left ear is the one moment of high key colour in the picture. It was done over several sessions with some over-painting. Initially I was painted wearing a brown jumper!’
The penetrating sensitivity of the artist’s gaze, his nakedness in such a personal daily setting, the strong definition of skin and sinew (with scintillating highlights) and dark hair, moustache and beard against the impressionistic, geometricised background, all combine to make this a quite startlingly intimate portrait of the artist in the act of painting himself. It is perhaps the heat of the bathroom setting, and stained glass window reflections, which give ruddy tones to the bridge of the nose and the left ear (the latter so pronounced and transparent). The artist’s senses – along with a heightened awareness of the ineffable enigma of self – appear to be operating here at a keen pitch, one of alacrity and acuity.
‘I have always done self-portraits. I try to do them periodically. They map my development both artistically and in years. If I ever brought them all together I suspect that they would make a fairly linear sequence covering the past twenty years or so. I will no doubt continue to do make self-portraits throughout my life. And of course you can always rely on yourself as a model if there is no one else around.
‘Self-portraiture is a unique genre. The concentration and unselfconsciousness that solitude allows is not available in other portraiture. Alone with oneself one is allowed to look deeper and longer into one’s eyes; to scrutinise every aspect of the subject without the imposition of any brief. Also, one knows the subject inside out. There is a familiarity and history invested in the subject that separates it from any other.’
In the history of art, the naked or vulnerable (though sometimes assertive) near-naked male self-portrait plays a significant part – notable modern examples include Picasso’s 1906 Self-Portrait in which his youthful, creamy white-pinkish upper body appears hewn out of marble, Lovis Corinth’s provocatively fleshy and hirsute Self-Portrait with a Glass (1907) and Lucian Freud’s 1985 Self-Portrait, depicting ageing head and upper torso with writhing, sinewy linearity. Caldwell says his own artistic ‘influences are wide and varied – from Giotto to Titian, Velásquez, Corot, Morandi, Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso, Braque, and especially Cézanne. Also, the modern British School of Freud, Auerbach, Kossoff and Hockney have helped encourage me. There are so many great self-portraits, but the ones that spring to mind as particularly poignant are those by Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and perhaps Bonnard.’
A 2009 Self-Portrait shows Caldwell in a dark jacket or coat with a long, thick scarf sinuously wrapped around his neck. He is beardless here but with a slight moustache. This is a close-up of his face, with burnished left ear, and muddy-hued backdrop. Not so quizzically self-confrontative as in his 2011 Self-Portrait, his mien here appears at once pensive and reserved, full of quiet dignity; in its subtly orchestrated tones, it looks back fruitfully and with painterly flair to earlier periods in western art.
In 2010, Caldwell was awarded The Founder’s Purchase Prize at the ING Discerning Eye Exhibition, London, and in 2014 he attained The ING Discerning Eye Regional Prize Award. In 2013 he was awarded an artist’s residency at The Royal Drawing School’s Dimplex Dumfries House in Scotland.