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A Self-Portrait is a representation of an artist, drawn, painted, photographed or sculpted by the artist. It may be a portrait of the artist, or a portrait included in a larger work, including a group portrait. (Wikipedia)

Self-portraitures are a staple in the serious artist’s portfolio, where the majority of today’s artists have either released or at the very least, have composed a number of these while honing one’s craft.

One thing I really like about the self-portrait is how its popularity spans both gender and culture, with a great many examples available, by both male and female artists, from all parts of the world and cropping up throughout virtually every era of history, from the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, to the middle ages, renaissance periods and all the way to present times.

Self-portraits became and remained popular, for the artist and the consumer alike. This can be attributed to several factors. For the artist, one of the main reasons often cited is the relative inexpensiveness associated with modeling for one’s self. It is said, that Van Gogh, one of the most prolific self-portrait artists in all of history, began composing such portraits solely as a consequence of economy, where he simply did not have the available funds to commission models to pose for him.

Yet, aside from the low cost associated with this style, I believe it is more of a challenge to the artist, working either from a mirror or from memory alone. Here, he or she must be able to harness all sense of focus, not allowing themselves to get distracted as they look into their own reflection or to allow personal preconceptions, systems of beliefs and learned biases, to interfere with the composition itself. Artists, like all creative minded craftspeople, for the most part, thoroughly enjoy a challenge, and being able to thrive under the most challenging of conditions, of which, I believe is something that the self-portrait certainly provides.

As for the consumer, I think we like to see how artisans view themselves. We like to peer into the nuances of the piece, staring deep into the flaws or perfections, where we can’t help but wonder if the artist was honestly being true, or if he was embellishing even the slightest of details. Such art offers up quite the discussions. In psychological terms, for certain, one can attempt to delve into the rationale and potential symbolism surrounding lines, depth, colors, shading and realism. We also are a contrast-driven society, where we tend to enjoy making comparisons, looking for the details that set are own environments apart from or akin to whatever it is we are examining. Here, we also get a glimpse into the relations and insights each self-portrait offers. We see this in regards to the time(s), places and socio-economic conditions in which the artist lived and worked within, setting up easy comparisons to our own situations, but also useful when comparing this artists situation to any others throughout history. In this sense, we also can use fashion as a statement, where we could notice, say something in terms of appearance. Here, in this regards hairstyle, makeup and/or the clothing worn, can provide clues into, not only the economic situation of the artist, but also into the affluence or conditions of poverty in the societal circle the artist was situated within or near to.

This analysis is alive in virtually any self-portrait, but I have to believe it’s effects are only heightened when it is known, that a particular piece was constructed from the mind alone, without the mirror to guide ones movements. I’m sure this is something the psychologists have a field day with. I know I do. I can’t remember the book, I believe it was A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink, but in any case, the author illustrated a fact as it pertained to brain science, that showed how the brain pulls information differently when a person does a self-portrait with or without the use of a mirror. After reading this book, I tried the exercise myself. To preface, I do consider myself an artist, but I work in the abstract, and find myself to struggle greatly when trying to recreate images of people or animals. That said, when I drew myself using the mirror, while it wasn’t the greatest picture, it was much better than I thought it would be. But here’s the fun part, a week later I tried the same experiment without the use of the mirror, and it was really like I was looking at a stranger. Now, perhaps my artistic limitation had something to play there, but, if not, what does that say? I think it shows just how little we really know about ourselves. But back to point.

Up until now, I’ve led this discussion, purposely, down a path that only reflected upon the self-portrait as an artistic vehicle used by painters, sculptors and those that work within the visual arts. But, this is certainly not the end of the discussion when it comes to what is, and has been shown to be, possible to the creative minded artist when utilizing the self-portrait as his vehicle of choice.

For as long as writers have been writing, they’ve been incorporating pieces of themselves in their characters, narrators and settings. Such inclusions often do reflect a sense of self-portraiture, in regards to their present mood, awareness, mindset and psyche.

However, this is not the same thing as a pure self-portrait, for it is subtle and open for debate, as to what exactly is/was the true nature of authorial intent. While this is not exactly what we’re looking for, these incorporations do offer us the sense that the self-portrait can be composed effectively through ones writing, using word alone.

Yet, these tricks of the author, these incorporations into one’s writings are much closer to the sensibility of the artistic self-portraiture, than, say, the autobiography and/or memoir, which lack in this respect as they are written: for the most part, from a position too far removed from the reflection illustrated on the page, and in the majority of cases, to fit the theme of the work as a whole, where the editorial process may certainly have played its role, thus affecting the essence found within the self-portrait itself. While not perfect, it is a start though.

It is, or at least can be considered to be, as mentioned, proof that the written composition can, in fact, be utilized in self-portraiture. So then, how does the written word ultimately achieve its goal? How can the artist use their pen as a substitute for what paint brushes, chisels and the like have been accomplishing for a much longer period of time?

Well, this shouldn’t come to anyone as a shock, no, no not at all. The method of course is through poetry, the most versatile of the written arts. But now another question must be raised: How exactly does a poet go about doing just this?

The answer to this question is, as is often the case with poetry, wide open and readily available to a vast sea of interpretations and methodologies. The poet has myriad directionality when it comes to the choices he has to use. Each of these offers up unique roadmaps. Possibilities’ that are limitless in their ever-alternating schema, forever aligning themselves with all things pliable, where adaptation is but a choice away, guiding the poet to the self-portraiture found within. Really, It seems to me, that the only time a poet can paint himself stymied into a corner, is when they are dishonest or willingly opting to ignore or omit details that bear uncomfortable yet are much more than relevant to the portraitures internal design. I will only be citing a few of these possibilities, but understand, there are others, many others. The main idea to harness here is that when composing a self-portrait in poetry, you want to strip everything down to its essence.

Visually painting the page: Here the poet uses visually striking choices. He takes a straightforward approach, bringing each line upon his face, the color and shape of the eyes, the symmetry or lack-there of. Here he paints the image one would find, if in fact he were literally painting, dripping oils or watercolors upon the canvas alive and true.

Metaphoric Self: Here the poet uses his most potent of weapons, the metaphor, to truly relate who he is, to those members of society receptive and appreciative of an art steeped in undulated honesty, where fragility and vulnerability eagerly await its next punctuation. Yet, despite working in symbols and allusion, he is alive with integrity and stays true to the image his mind summoned forth from its home within. He is not editing for the sake of editing; he’s allowing each of uncomfortable possibility their chance to be heard, and here, he gives them the gift of voice, allowing both the artist and the consumer, an opportunity to realize what it is that has found it’s shine glossing freely upon the page.

The Essence of Being: This path takes the poet and her self-portrait in a much different direction. Here, she takes her physical image and tosses it aside, yet never keeping it too far away from view. As she stares upon her outward shell, instead of illustrating the rosy blush of her cheeks, or the lonely strand of hair that persistently dangles out of place, she honestly reflects upon the person that is beneath these features. Here she looks to find the truth within herself. But she should not linger in her reflection long, lest the idea of self-portraiture is lost. She should look here, deeply within herself, at these features that comprise who she is, at this point of her story. Here, she is to gaze up into her mirror and instantly write, catching and immediately capturing every nuance of what there is to be seen, each and every conjured piece of self, that precisely is hers and hers alone to uncover, project and share.

There are numerous examples of poetry done from a self-portrait slant. Many of these have been composed by famous poets, such as Emily Dickinson, A.K Ramanujan and John Ashbery.

To close, and to set you free to your mirrors and pens, I’d like to cite a poem from Rainer Maria Rilke. I feel this poem embodies the essence of this exercise perfectly. I see it as falling nicely somewhere in-between the first and second choices I’ve listed above.

Self-Portrait
The steadfastness of generations of nobility
Shows in the curving lines that form the eyebrows
And the blue eyes still show traces of a servant’s,
Yet of one who serves obediently, and of a woman.
The mouth formed as a mouth, large and accurate,
Not given to long phrases, but to express
Persuasively what is right. The forehead without guile
And favoring the shadows of quiet downward gazing.

This, as a coherent whole, only casually observed;
Never as yet tried in suffering or succeeding,
Held together for an enduring fulfillment,
Yet so as if for time to come, out of these scattered things,
Something serious and lasting were being planned.

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