In this 2011 self-portrait by Fred Crayk, his face and tall, lean, angular upper body attired in a simple white vest, are set in baroquely illumined relief against a pitch-black plain backdrop (itself mitigated by a faint fluctuating radiance to the left of the subject). What may be either a small square window – looking out onto a leaden sky – or perhaps an austerely framed, smeary mirror reflecting such a glowering sky – is placed at top left; on its sill rests a small crucifix which could be made of lead or pewter. The dramatic use of chiaroscuro here can be linked to Crayk’s admiration of Venetian painters Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto, and Baroque artists Caravaggio, Velázquez and Reni. In this at once candid yet visionary self-assessment – in which (as in much of his work) fugitive fleshly figuration teeters on the verge of painterly abstraction – an emphatic, interrogative light transfigures the artist’s bare, vulnerable-seeming form. Natural asymmetry of features, a wrinkle here and there etched on the face, sinewy tautness of flesh and bone, are all searchingly highlighted.
The self-portrait’s title, The Seventh Last Word, alludes to the final saying of Christ on the Cross, ‘Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands’ (itself a near quotation from King David’s appeal for divine delivery and succour in Psalm 31). Out of a Dark Night of the Soul, a numinously perceived (yet still very human) body of light emerges.
Crayk says, ‘I paint self-portraits for two reasons. The first is entirely practical and possible mundane: I’m always available as a model. The second may be slightly more profound – I want to get to know the person I know least… that is, myself! Knowing oneself is virtually impossible. Montaigne, in his Essais, I think, bears this out. Trying to catch the visual facts that make up your person is a fairly faulty way of doing this. The process is riddled with pitfalls and illusions one has about oneself. The religious iconography in this self-portrait is perhaps a way of neutralising all these misconceptions. The most potent myth (and I don’t use that word pejoratively) and belief system in the West is Christianity. We are all subject to it and grapple with it to a greater or lesser degree (the former in my case). It’s a powerful story which underpins our ideas about injustice, cruelty, physical pain and suffering, humility, kindness and love – as well as providing structures as how to behave in society. It is also the parabolic narrative of Western tradition of painting – something which is largely left unacknowledged today. My self-portrait is an addition to that tradition, albeit a modest and flawed one.’
The artist finds Bertrand Russell’s chapter on the philosopher David Hume (in his 1945 History of Western Philosophy) resonates with his own speculations on self-portraiture. Hume observes that ‘for my own part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat and cold, light or shade [‘particularly apt for painters’, notes Crayk], love or hatred, pain or pleasure’. Hume goes on to ‘venture to affirm… of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions… in perpetual flux and movement’. Crayk remarks that ‘I understand this to be, simultaneously, an argument for the practice of painting and a negation of its fundamental objectives.’ Noting Russell’s comment that ‘the Self, if there is such a thing, is never perceived and therefore we can have no idea of it’, Crayk goes on to question the point of attempting any self-portrait ‘if the real possibility is that it can only fail to achieve its objectives’.
Crayk is then keen to quote Russell’s ‘significant conclusion’ (which he relates to ‘the religious context of my own self-portrait’): the abolition of ‘all supposed knowledge of the soul’…is [also] important in the analysis of knowledge, since it shows that the category of subject and object is not fundamental’.
Born in 1952, Fred Crayk was raised in Malta and northern Scotland and studied painting initially in Paris, then graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in 1976. His studies continued at Edinburgh College of Art. Since 1978 he has lived and worked in the Netherlands, Hungary, France and Italy; his work is in public collections in the UK, several European countries, Canada and Australia.
Purchased from the 2011 Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait competition.