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'Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century' at National Portrait Gallery

On View

In the Washington, D.C., exhibition, artists turn their media on themselves to put personality on the page.

May 31, 2009|Liesl Bradner

At first look, Andy Warhol's 1966 self-portrait -- with its close-up format, large head and direct stare -- appears as if he's inviting you for an intimate conversation. Yet his hand covers his mouth, denying any further communication and distancing himself from the viewer, a typical trait of his public persona.

Then there's Alexander Calder, best known for his sculptures and mobiles, who created his 1960 self-portrait with ink but made the lines appear as brittle and inflexible as the wires he used in his more well-known artwork. The latter image graces the cover of "Reflections / Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century," a book-catalog that coincides with the exhibition of the same name at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., through Aug. 16.

Curator Wendy Wick Reaves edited the 224-page book, which contains images of 80 color drawings and paintings, each accompanied by the detailed story behind the famous 20th century American artist's self-portrait.

The majority of the pieces are drawn from a collection of 187 portraits donated to the museum by Ruth Bowman and Harry Kahn in 2002, including works by David Hockney, Edward Hopper, Elaine de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg.

"Although self-portraits have been a grand tradition dating back to the Renaissance, there were fundamental, significant changes in the 20th century," Reaves said.

One reason is that the 19th century teachings of Darwin and Freud altered the understanding of the nature of self and identity. "Artists, writers and intellectuals were increasingly confronting and exploring their identities," Reaves said. "The self-portrait was used to navigate this new intellectual terrain."

For example, rather than portraying his own face, Jim Dine's 1964 etching shows an empty black bathrobe, because the inanimate object "looked like me," he explained. Rauschenberg's 1968 lithograph "Autobiography" takes a different approach, incorporating biographical details such as an astrological chart, an X-ray, a narrative from his life and a photo from his childhood.

Though many of the works, such as Childe Hassam's 1933 self-portrait, show a sole figure, some put the artist in relation to others, such as Ruth Weisberg's 1975 "The Gift," which shows her reaching out to children.

And in some cases, pairs of self-portraits created at different stages in the artists' careers highlight the changes they have undergone. With its crisp lines, Isabel Bishop's 1929 etching contrasts with her 1984-85 ink wash on paper, done in barely there brush strokes, showing a woman in the twilight of her career.

-- Liesl Bradner

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