Self Portraiture in Isolation

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‘If, however, we want to work we must submit both to the stubborn harshness of the time and to our isolation, which is sometimes as hard to bear as exile,’ wrote a sequestered Vincent van Gogh in a 1889 letter to his sister. After taking a knife to his own ear in May 1889, Van […]

‘If, however, we want to work we must submit both to the stubborn harshness of the time and to our isolation, which is sometimes as hard to bear as exile,’ wrote a sequestered Vincent van Gogh in a 1889 letter to his sister.

After taking a knife to his own ear in May 1889, Van Gogh spent 53 weeks in the walled asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, removed from both the art world and everyday life. This year of isolation marked a period of huge creative output for Van Gogh in which he produced 150 complete paintings including Self-Portrait (1889) which holds a mirror to Van Gogh’s sense of self in isolation.
    
In Self-Portrait (1889), Van Gogh depicts himself alone, holding a palette and brushes. The painting’s background is made up of thick overlapping brush strokes that decontextualise the figure of the artist while formally foregrounding Van Gogh’s solitude. Van Gogh’s self-portrait is just one of many acclaimed portraits painted in isolation. Self Portrait (1889) bears striking resemblance to Edward Munch’s Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu (1919). Painted in quarantine, Munch is similarly depicted alone, sitting in an armchair with a loosely articulated bed behind him. While Munch’s surroundings are more defined, his self-portrait similarly serves to emphasise the artist’s isolation amidst the outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1919. In both portraits, it is the defined figure of the artist that anchors the indefinite backdrop of each image.

These portraits made in isolation take on new meaning in the age of COVID-19.  Faced with our own tiny reflections in an endless loop of Zoom calls, lockdown has proven to be a period of literal and metaphorical self-reflection. Many an artist has been known to
favour

almost mythic seclusion, forgoing the company of friends and family in the name of their creative process. Yet, in 2020 self-isolation is no longer a choice. Contemporary artists, confined to their rooms, houses and neighbourhoods find themselves in a similar position to Van Gogh and Munch, working with their immediate surroundings. Artists and non-artists alike have been confronted with their selves and surroundings anew through the lens of solitude. Ruth Borchard Collection artist Ishbel Myerscough’s lockdown works have ranged from pencil renderings of her own face and feet, again similarly decontextualised, to detailed illustrations of rooms within her home. Myerscough’s detailed drawings of her home serve almost as a taxonomy of her living space, another facet through which one’s self is reflected. While Myerscough has used her space as a subject, street artists such as Lionel Stanhope have taken to using London as their canvas, using space as medium rather than muse. Stanhope has recreated Jan Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait?) (1433) with COVID-chic in mind, depicting the turbaned figure donning a medical mask.

Likewise, isolated art enthusiasts have taken on the Getty Museum and Tussen Kunst & Quarantine Challenges, recreating iconic paintings in their own homes. Unable to visit galleries and museums, art lovers have inserted themselves into famous artworks, transforming pieces into reflections of the self in quarantine. In these recreations elements of everyday life are metamorphosed into motifs of masterpieces: a dog leash is suddenly the serpent of Klimt’s Hygieia (c.1900), an avocado the wailing face of Munch’s (1893).

The domestic sphere has been transformed into not only a canvas but a hub of materials for art recreation. In a time where virtual viewing is the only way to see art for many, these challenges provide a portal through which art can be brought beyond the screen into the our living spaces, our own bodies instruments of connection to our favourite pieces. Each of the aforementioned variations on the theme of self-portraiture do not only allow artists and art lovers to explore the self, but also what the way we depict ourselves reveals about the world around us.