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Mirrors, Masks and Skulls For a Phenomenology of Portraiture
1 – Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; and Johannes Gumpp, Self-Portrait (Uffizi Gallery version) The Portrait and the Mirror Usually, we are inclined to think of a connection between a mirror and a self-portrait. Actually, in the history of art there are not few visible or intuitable examples of such a combination of elements. Easily, we are also used to think of a mirror as a means for a reliable reproduction of the image. Yet not always it is so. Let us consider the well known Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, by Francesco Mazzola called the Parmigianino (“The Parmesan”; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: circa 1523-24). Here, the convexity of the mirror gives the nearly half-length image of the young painter an effect of surreal deformation. The main instrument of his art, the right hand, is magnified in the foreground, whereas his face appears smaller in the background. More realistic is a “Portrait of the Artist with His Mother”, by the French Jacques Stella (Musée Georges de La Tour, Vic-sur-Seille; ca. 1635-43). Both figures are portrayed half-length and closely together, as if looking at their reflection in an almost oval mirror.
Indeed the aged and dark dressed lady looks like gently staring at us from a temporal window, while her mature son so pensively gazes at her, that we may wonder if the latter is an image of a living person or rather a visual memory of the regretful artist, which possibility is also suggested by some details of his biography. Other times, the detail of a mirror is included inside the picture itself. This is the case of a triple self-portrayal, by the Austrian painter Johannes Gumpp (Schloss Schönburg Galerie, Pöcking, Germany; a smaller and round version, by the same author, is in the Uffizi Gallery at Florence: ca. 1646). The singular painting shows the artist seen from backward, while watching himself in a mirror and depicting his portrait at the same time. In the version of the Uffizi at least, the face in the mirror is gazing at the painter, whereas that in the portrait rather gazes at an external viewer. Moreover, the figures of a dog and a cat assume some a related symbolism, according to an inclination to allegories in the Baroque culture, sometimes so stressed as to sound somewhat odd. We know, respectively fidelity and autonomy are conventional attributes of the two animals. In our case, the understood distinction is between fidelity and autonomy of the representation, mere simulation and artistic dissimulation, imitation and interpretation of nature. Likely and in particular, what our painter philosopher wanted to mean is that the subject of a real person is often a mystery to others and even to himself. What we can see are the objects of his “exact” reflection in a mirror, or of his autonomous interpretation given by an artist. Not seldom the latter is truer than the former, even when it seems a transfiguration more than a simple representation.
2 – Johannes Gumpp, Self-Portrait (Schloss Schönburg Galerie version); and Norman Rockwell, Triple Self-Portrait In his essay Le Regard du portrait (“The Look of the Portrait”, 2000), the French thinker Jean-Luc Nancy paid special attention to Gumppʼs artwork, noticing that the external viewer, to whom the gaze of the portrait is directed, originally is none but the real painter, whereas the specular gaze in the mirror is turned toward the depicted simulacrum of the artist. Yet, “here and now”, that real place is vacant, or we as spectators have replaced the author. In other words, rather than an apparent dissolution, this multiple and even redundant representation of the subject is a paradoxical defiance shouted by art – or by means of art – at the precariousness and impending absence of the subject himself, with all his personal characteristics and individual limits. Such is a recurrent way, through which a temporary or definitive absence returns to be a memorial presence, every time when it is so revived by our gaze, that the portrait may look at us again instead of nothing. Of course, observations like those may be extended to the best of portraiture itself, peculiarly of self-portraying. Much later, an ironical and nearly comical re-visitation of the same theme will be made by the North-American painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell, in his smiling Triple Self-Portrait (The Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts; 1960). Either Nancy or Rockwell, the critic and the artist, undervalue the roles of the dog and the cat, in the original work by Gumpp. Not only they curiously stand for credible
fidelity and creative autonomy in the art of representation, but also for a complementary conflict between different attitudes of the portrayer toward reality and subjectivity: let us not forget, concerning the self-portrayal, he is even the customer of himself! Above all, in a less allegorical but no less metaphorical way, the two domestic animals are portrayed presences of a possible not human – despite tamed and humanized – subjectivity. They are expressions of a complex relationship between nature and culture, object and subject of the representation, within the artistic activity and process. Hence the representation itself, from an imitation or simulation, grows emblematic and even enigmatic. The simulacra convert themselves not only into emblems, but into enigmas too, probably with all the more reason if we consider that a portrayal is a simulacre du vivant. Whereas most emblems recall some defined meaning or sense, more frequently and willingly enigmas leave an undefined margin of interpretation.
3 – Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait au miroir and Autoportrait aux masques At the beginnings of the 20th century, we meet with an interesting artist of selfportraiture, the Belgian Symbolist Léon Spilliaert. His visionary spirit anticipates both the Expressionism and the Surrealism. His numerous self-portrayals become veritable instruments of psychological introspection. Among them, an Autoportrait au miroir (“SelfPortrait with Mirror”: Musée des Beaux-Arts, Ostend; 1908) and an Autoportrait aux masques (“Self-Portrait with Masks”: Musée du Louvre, Paris; 1903) are surely remarkable. In the former case, we have a sort of weird portrait. The setting is nocturnal, in a lighted interior. Such as rendered by an old and imperfect wall mirror, the image of the bust
of the author shows up deformed and disfigured. Not by chance, Spilliaert was a passionate reader of the North-American writer Edgar Allan Poe. In the “Self-Portrait with Masks”, the painter updates an ancient pictorial motif, that of theatrical masks, which appear in the half dark background. Rather than tragic, indeed they look disquieting masks, so similar they are to human faces and – one of them at least – to the facial expression of the author himself, such as pictured in the foreground. Distinctly, and in a quite traditional manner, a hand mirror and a black mask return to be depicted as important details, in two paintings by the Spanish Pablo Picasso: Harlequin with a Mirror (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; 1923) and Arlequin au loup or “Harlequin with Mask” (Rudolph Staechelin Foundation, Basel; 1918). A half mask is represented also in a fictional portrait of Pierrot, while held in a hand of the melancholic mask-character (Museum of Modern Art, New York; 1918). This picture looks very like “Harlequin with Mask”. Yet here we prefer to focus on Harlequin with a Mirror. The young actor there portrayed wears neither the half mask of the Italian comedy, nor yet the multicolour costume of Harlequin. The boy wears only the typical black and large hat of him, as if he just started to dress as a mask-character, and now is gazing surprised at his reflection in the small mirror. That is the beginning of a simulation game, which cannot leave the subject entirely unchanged. Unlike the mirror, which imitates and sometimes deforms the reality, the mask may transform it in such a way, that not always remains under a control of the subject himself. Nonetheless, better than of fear, the attitude of Picassoʼs boy seems to be of curiosity and surprise, in exploring the uncanny possibilities of his or our own identities.
4 – Pablo Picasso, Harlequin with Mask and Harlequin with a Mirror The Mask and the Visage If we are searching for a modern “artist of masks”, doubtless the outcome of our quest ought to be the German Expressionist Emil Nolde, with his still lifes with masks, or – here more pertinently – the Belgian James Ensor, so many are his paintings on this theme or which adopt grotesque masks as signifying details. The influences he exerted on pictorial Expressionism and Surrealism were considerable. His most famous artwork is the SelfPortrait with Masks, where the author casts the image of his own head with hat and bearded face into the midst of a masked crowd (Menard Art Museum, Komaki City, Japan; 1899). And we have even a Portrait of James Ensor by the Belgian Symbolist Henry de Groux, where our master is portrayed with the instruments of his art, and a painted exemplar of his almost familiar masks – and skulls – in the background (Kunstmuseum aan Zee, Ostend; 1907). Evidently, in Ensorʼs nightmarish vision the real human visage is only a parenthesis – or an exception – between the appearance of masks and the durable countenance of death. Some a cohabitation with both of them is a daily necessary arrangement, but this does not imply a compromise with hypocrisy, what is attested by other works of satiric denunciation by the same author. Some of them look so sharp, as to make him nearly an engaged artist.
Obviously, less pessimistic and gentler representations are not lacking. A nice episode was The Mirror, by the North-American Impressionist Dennis Miller Bunker, a portrayal where a seated young woman seen in profile and white dressed – perhaps, his fresh wife Eleanor Hardy – looks at herself in a hand mirror (Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago; 1890). In Before the Masked Ball the Italian Ulisse Caputo depicted an elegant lady, wearing a 18th century costume and not only glancing at herself in a hand mirror, but also holding a red half mask in the other hand (Private Collection; late 19 th or early 20th century). Clearly, this is a painting of circumstance: nevertheless, a rare example where mirror and mask appear together, “casually” assuming a subtle symbolism, if we calculate that the third important detail is the smiling face of the portrayed person. The very caught moment by Caputo in his picture is before putting on the mask, whereas in different cases by other authors it occurs while or after removing the mask. Wearing and removing it are a game of simulation and dissimulation of the subject, who is never static but rather results from an identitarian dynamics. Actually, an early specimen of such a type of portrait is an Allegory of the Simulation by the Italian Lorenzo Lippi, where the beautiful female model directly stares at us and holds a full mask in one hand (Musée des Beaux Arts, Angers, France; 1640).
5 – Wojciech Weiss, Self-Portrait with Masks; and James Ensor, Self-Portrait with Masks
Indeed a disconcerting detail is a pomegranate in the other hand of Lippiʼs depicted maiden, possibly alluding to Persephone, goddess of the underworld in the ancient Greek mythology. Such a fruit was a conventional attribute of her. And, if a mirror is suitable for the Greco-Roman goddess of beauty and love Aphrodite, as in The Toilet of Venus by the Spanish Diego Velázquez (National Gallery, London; 1647-51), for its own deathlike rigidity a mask may well work as a secondary attribute of the queen of the dead. It is true, in the antiquity different kinds of masks were obvious attributes of Melpomene and Thalia, muses of tragedy and of comedy. Yet in contemporary art, in one case at least, Persephone is figured naked, while wearing a black half mask in shape of a swallow: it is a work by the American woman painter Colette Calascione, exhibited at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery of New York in 2006. A fanciful etymology of Persephonē is “talking mask”. Anyhow, if the above guess is right, Lippiʼs painting would acquire the understood value of a vanitas, a pictorial genre very fashionable at his epoch. As symbols for the mundane appearances, a mirror or a mask can be seen amid analogous objects in other paintings of the 17 th century, as Still Life with a Mask and an alleged Allegory of Faith, respectively by the Dutch Hendrik Andrieszen and Jacob Duck, or else an Allegory of Vanity by the Flemish Nicolas Régnier. In all these cases, particularly a full mask is put in contrast with a skull, a typical detail of the genre. A nude of woman who removes a black half mask from her face, and a skull on a table close to her, form the subject matter of an artwork by the Finnish Symbolist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. It is a middle way between a portrayal and a still life, titled Démasquée (Gallen-Kallela Museum, Tarvaspää, Finland; 1888). The young and fair lady is sitting and smiling, while intensely gazing at us out of the picture itself. The whole is set in a home interior and refined with a guitar near her on the left side, what makes the painting one of the most impressive of its genre, almost a contemporary vanitas vanitatum picture. Not always the portrayed subject is a woman, with possible allusion to the precariousness of female beauty, or with some a reminiscence of the old stereotype of “Lady World”. Sometimes it is a man, with reference to his profession or hobby, as for the Portrait of an Actor – probably Tristano Martinelli – holding a mask of Harlequin, by the Italian Domenico Fetti (Venice Academy; ca. 1620), and a Portrait of Count Grigory Chernyshev
with a Mask in His Hand, by the French paintress Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; 1793), or a Self-Portrait with Masks by the Polish Wojciech Weiss (National Museum, Cracow; 1900). Also the actor with his mask is an antique recurring motif, as in a 1st century fresco fragment from Pompeii on display in the Naples Archaeological Museum, representing a seated actor while resting and musingly contemplating a tragic mask held by an assistant. What is he thinking of, that is a nearly unanswerable question, but which seems to be the actual theme suggested by the scene.
6 – Felix Nussbaum, Painter with Mask: Private Collection; around 1935; and Self-Portrait at the Easel: Felix Nussbaum Haus, Osnabrück, Germany; 1943 (note the small crossbone skull on a bottle) At Herculaneum, the unlucky town near Pompeii buried in 79 A.D. by a volcanic eruption of the Vesuvius, a young couple was portrayed in a wall painting which has been uncovered and can be admired at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. He wears a mask partly removed, that is raised on his head. Thus, we can openly discern his face, while she is still playing a cithara beside him. Likely, they were not professional actors, musicians or mimes, but only theatre amateurs who liked to be immortalized as such. In all these depictions, there is a complex dialectics between mask and visage. Not by chance the Latin term for “mask”, persona, is the origin of the modern one “person” and already in the Roman age it began to be approximately used in the latter sense.
The importance of the mask, generally employed in the ancient theatre, has to be traced in a pagan religiosity. In a mosaic discovered in Hadrianʼs Villa at Tivoli, now in the Vatican Museums at Rome, amid various conventional attributes of the god Dionysus the most remarkable detail is a huge scenic mask. And a fresco fragment from Pompeii, House of the Golden Bracelet, shows two faces which usually are defined as Dionysian masks (National Archaeological Museum, Naples). Indeed, they rather look a face and a mask, so alike as to be difficult to tell apart. Even more than the ritual of a scenic representation, they suggest a philosophical duplicity or ambiguity of the being, as both essence and existence. With an emblematic or enigmatic value, both a mask and a mirror appear in the celebrated murals of the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, which are supposed to illustrate rites of initiation in the Dionysian Mysteries. A deforming mirror is a symbolic object too, in the strange myth of the birth, dismemberment and rebirth of the Hellenic god. The envious Titans gave the divine child such a toy, where he could not recognize his own identity but discern only a frightful, refracted mask of his face. Reliably this legend betrays an ancient aspiration and difficulty of giving the godhead a human visage, but also of ascribing to the nature a godlike personal expression. If the masks respective attributes of Melpomene and Thalia symbolized the tragic and comic sides of our existences, and if there might be an easy mental association between Persephone and a mask of the death, at all the more reason Dionysus may have been associated to a mask of the absolute. In a modern psychological way, the Dionysian ritual mirror and mask seem to have something to deal not simply with our individual selfconsciences, but even with a collective and a wider natural unconscious.
7 – Lorenzo Lippi, Allegory of the Simulation; and Colette Calascione, Persephone Masks and Personhood Whereas a mask or a mask-character were clearly distinguishable from the human face on a traditional stage, or in a backstage, such a distinction grows problematic in the daily life, where the social or legal roles we play – but not seldom are forced to play – may differ from or even clash with our “true” personalities. This is the understood theory of the works by the Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello in the first half of the 20 th century, also known as a poetics of “The Mask and the Face”. According to him, mostly our lives themselves are a fiction. Thus a prominent task of theatre should be trying to remove those masks, even if this effort might be partly vain, because behind them often we occur to find other ones which the society inevitably imposes, so that again our presumed bare being is concealed by a further resemblance. For all these motives, Pirandello himself called his dramatic production a sort of “Theatre of the Mirror”. Probably, he was influenced by a Nietzschean criticism of modern civilization even more than by the contemporary Freudian psychoanalysis. Nonetheless it is in this latter, especially in the dissident writings of Carl Gustav Jung, that a perception of the persona as a virtual mask has been mainly developed. Altogether, persona are our usual aspects we present to the world, but also an image of us which is projected upon ourselves, that is a communicating interface between subjectivity and objectivity, identity and otherness or alienness. Not always this dynamism
works well. Hence, no longer the outer image corresponds to our inner self. The conflictuality may increase, when we happen to internalize that false image, what gives rise to a vicious circle. Then, our visage and behaviour lose their transparency and acquire the stiffness of a mask or the slyness of a mask-character. We may even find ourselves on the edge of a dissociation of personality. Undoubtedly the deforming mirror by Spilliaert of which above, or the grotesque masks depicted by Emil Nolde and James Ensor, are attempts at portraying a state of mind like that and a glimpse of the consequent negative world view. Yet it is in the famed painting Scream by the Norwegian Symbolist Edvard Munch, that a distressing laceration expresses its acme. There, a presumable self-portrait is reduced to a deformed mask and inserted into a coloured but delirious landscape (National Gallery, Oslo; 1893).
8 – Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Démasquée Also interesting is an artwork by the living Canadian painter and Catholic writer Michael D. OʼBrien, titled The Mask (Private Collection; ca. 1984). Not explicitly an actor,
a guy is portrayed against a dark background. Holding a mask in his hand, he is beholding it with a perplexed expression. The author himself so comments the scene: “Man is a mystery to himself, cannot fully know himself except in Jesus Christ. Seeking to know himself without genuine knowledge, he wears masks, false images of himself. Sometimes he creates a new mask. At other times he examines the mask as if it were a true image of himself”. In part at least, this comment coincides with some contents of a noted treatise by the Orthodox theologian John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: D.L.T., 1985). There, it is reported a passage from a singular sermon delivered by the metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon in the Cathedral of Athens on 8 March 1970. Albeit formulated in an updated form, with great probability it is the last criticism of heathenism, and maybe a warning against some a risk of revival of a pagan mentality in todayʼs culture. Let us listen to a few words of the speech, translated from modern Greek: “The phenomenon of the profound and anxious demand of the human soul to be liberated from its daily hypocrisy by the assumption of an anonymous, dionysiac, new hypocrisy is most ancient. The carnival clown is a tragic figure. He seeks to be liberated from hypocrisy by pretence. He seeks to dissolve all the various masks which he wears every day by a new, more fantastic mask. He seeks to expel what has been thrust down into his subconscious and be liberated, but there is no liberation; the tragedy of the carnival clown remains unresolved. His deepest demand is to be transformed” (p. 33, note 18). It may be objected, there is no progressive transformation with no dissolution of previous forms. Along with its propensity to mysticism and hope of resurrection, in the heathen religiosity Dionysusʼ worship was the main manifestation of such a tendency. Renewed and purified of its extreme or licentious components though, in early Christianity something of the Dionysiac spirit had to be recovered and assimilated. With an implicit opening to the function of music and generally of fine arts, not even representations of the Christ as a Dionysian Orpheus were lacking.
8 – Ancient Roman actors, marble relief and fresco fragment from Pompeii; Archaeological Museum, Naples Then, what was the 20th century most scandalous and “anonymous hypocrisy”, which already filtered through the horrific masks of Léon Spilliaert, of Nolde and Ensor? In view of which imminent tragedies, did the mask-person of Munch utter his scream? Faced to which current ones, did the Harlequins or clowns of Picasso let leak out their sadness? Surely it was his historical context to be gazed at from some “Self-Portraits with Mask”, by the German Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum, who will perish in a Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz in 1944. More normally, that is a contingency which still now has difficulty in coming out as a dialectic contradiction, so contrasting is the gap between the realization of a material progress and an inadequate moral and spiritual evolution. Too often during the latest century, that progress was turned to commit the worst crimes ever committed and committable against human persons. Furthermore, that alleged liberated natural or “dionysiac” vitality seems to be illusory and deceitful, since mostly diverted toward consumerism and mercification, giving rise to a new mass modality of inhibition and enthralment, by extensively cultivating false needs or vain expectations. Even more than with a dissociation of personalities, here we deal with the problem of personal alienation under a mask of civilization, such as denounced and partly foreseen by Sigmund Freud in his 1930 book Civilization and Its Discontents. Nevertheless it could be argued that, more or less unfortunately, a certain
predisposition to alienity is congenial with human condition and self-consciousness at any time. Terenceʼs renowned maxim, Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto (“As a man, nothing human I deem alien to me”; The Self-Tormentor, line 77: 163 B.C.), possesses a subtle ambivalence or reversibility in its formulation. Especially if heard by a modern ear, it sounds like a philosophical play on words. Terence “the African” was an adoptive Latin comedy writer. Not only experienced of theatre and masks, in Roman society and culture he had been an “alien”, a war prisoner from North-Africa and freed slave. All this concurs in allowing us, by the way, to hazard an answer to a question transparent in the Pompeian fresco of an actor contemplating a tragic mask, of which above. What is he reflecting about, this artisan of psychological dissociation and compenetration? Probably, something similar to Terenceʼs message. With all their various passions, the parts he interprets cannot remain totally extraneous to his person, so much as to make his own identity almost a sum of identities, historical or fictional they might be. That happens, when empathy grows compassion: in Greek, philanthropia; in Latin, humanitas. As suggested by the smiling Self-Portrait with Masks by Wojciech Weiss, sometimes the concept is extensible to the art of portraiture too.
10 – Ancient Roman portraits and masks, fresco fragments from Herculaneum and Pompeii; Archaeological Museum, Naples Allegories of the Painting Firstly in 1593, the librarian Cesare Ripa of Perugia issued Iconologia (“or Moral Emblems Explained in 326 Figures”), a sort of summa and guide to the imagery in emblem
books, which were in great fashion at his epoch. Edited and illustrated several times, it was translated from Italian into principal European languages, becoming a best seller for intellectuals and artists. Let us read an excerpt about the personified allegory of painting, later accompanied by a relevant engraving: “A beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears, with a chain of gold at her throat from which hangs a mask, and has written in front ʻimitationʼ. She holds in her hand a brush, and in the other the palette, with clothes of evanescently covered drapery...”. In this imaginary description, particularly the symbol of a mask is associated with the ancient aesthetic theory of the imitation of nature, while the gagged mouth is to mean that no words or sounds, but others are the instruments and materials and the way of communicating of a visual art. At the same time, the reference to an “imaginative thought” reminds that such an imitation should not be a banal reproduction but a creative activity, and the “dishevelled hair” introduces an indulgent note concerning the temperament or conduct of the artist. The loose life of Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio had to be a contemporary, extreme example. “We painters use the same license as poets and madmen”: in 1573, Paolo Veronese had so apologized before a Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition at Venice. Actually the figures of Painting, of Imitation and of Simulation, are similar to each other in the original handbook by Ripa. In all of them, the face mask works as an allegory inside the allegory. And a cultural paradox is that, just when he echoes the precept of the imitation of nature, the inventor or forerunner of iconology inaugurates a Baroque art, in the “emblematic” modern sense we give this term. Not few 17 th century artists were receptive to his ideas, albeit not to all his directions, but each one in a creative own manner. So much so that the Allegories of Painting became a nearly new pictorial genre, sometimes not devoid of surreal traits. For instance, in the late Allegory of Painting by the Italian Domenico Corvi (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, U.S.A; 1764) the mask is raised and hardly discernible on the head of the painting woman, while she is contemplating her reflection in a mirror held by a flying cupid. What she is depicting ought to be a self-portrait. The presence of details as a mask and a mirror together, and the easy supposition of a portrait, give the composition a rare symbolic pregnancy and completeness, making it one of the best samples of its genre. As
complementary symbols, a mask and a mirror appear also in Allegory of Painting and Sculpture by the Venetian Francesco Maggiotto (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice; 1768).
11 – Michael D. OʼBrien, The Mask; and Trophime Bigot (ascribed to), Allegory of Vanity In an Allegory of Painting and Sculpture by unknown author, nowadays in the Musei Civici of Lecco (Italy; after 1690 – before 1710), the mask hangs down from the neck of the allegorical lady, by means of a ribbon. In an analogous work by Sebastiano Conca (Galleria Spada, Rome; 1713) or in Pictura by the Dutch painter Frans van Mieris the Elder (Private Collection; 1661), closer to the model proposed by Ripa, the full mask hangs on a golden chain wore around the paintressʼ neck. And, in the well known Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting by the Roman Artemisia Gentileschi (Royal Collection, Windsor, U.K.; 163839), the same object is reduced to a small but meaningful pendant, as well as in a Rococo styled artwork by the French Jean-François de Troy, where it assumes a grotesque aspect (An Allegory of Painting, auctioned on 23 January 2004 at Christie’s, New York; 1733).
Less known is an extraordinary Allégorie de la peinture more, ascribed to the young Artemisia, dating from 1620s and currently in the Musée de Tessé at Le Mans in France. There, a half-naked female figure – perhaps, the paintress herself – is sensually pictured while lying down on the floor, dozing in a pause of her painting work and almost embracing a male mask. What she is dreaming of, it is indiscreet to investigate. For certain, that sneering mask tells us that art is something deeper and more complex than bare imitation. Probably the most famous, and complex, allegory of painting is The Art of Painting by the Netherlandish Johannes Vermeer (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; ca. 1666). There, the artist is seen from the back, at work before his easel. Strangely, the model he is portraying does not impersonate an allegory of painting but Clio the ancient muse of history, with her conventional attributes, which is not the alone problem of interpretation. On a table interposed between the painter in the foreground and the model in the background, a kind of still life is made of a few objects, among which an oversized face mask. Yet this looks a death mask instead of a scenic one. Reliably, there is a relationship connecting the death looking mask, the living model and the allegory of history. What the already modern artist attempts at representing and interpreting is not so much something immutable or else contingent, as rather a reality in historical development, balanced between death and life, the past and the present or even the future. Also when he depicts daily existential scenes, so frequent in Vermeer’s production, never it is a mere imitation but an interpretation. Almost according to a kind of “reversed Platonism”, theorized by the 20th century French thinker Gilles Deleuze, the focus of art can no longer be on an abstract being but on the essentials of the becoming.
12 – Domenico Corvi, Allegory of Painting; and Artemisia Gentileschi (ascribed to), Allégorie de la peinture In the masterpiece by Vermeer, other details hint at a historical and even geographic setting. Generally in a narrative of art, the making of history should not be ignored. Yet let us change the scenery. In the first half of the 17 th century, Naples was one of the centres of European civilization and arts. The 1656 plague killed about half its population and a generation of Caravaggist talents, included Artemisia Gentileschi who had moved to the town, which will never fully recover its leading cultural role. Around that same year Salvator Rosa painted his Human Frailty, the most tremendous vanitas ever depicted, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, U.K. Also a native Flemish painter, Niccolò de Simone, is documented to have been active in Naples from 1636 to 1655, save some clue that he survived his colleagues as late as 1677. To him, it has been attributed an undated artwork, today in the collection of the Pio Monte della Misericordia at Naples. In this middle way between an allegory of painting and a vanitas, a bizarre dressed
woman works at a portrait against a tenebrous, gloomy background. In the rear a musician, sadly staring at heaven, plays a violin. In the left down corner of the picture, one of two “putti” shows up a red mask to the spectral paintress. Sure, this detail is not an unique. In the joyous and somewhat sly allegory Painting and Poetry by the Florentine Francesco Furini, for instance, it can be discerned in a hand of the former allegorical maid (Galleria Palatina, Florence; 1626). Yet their figural contexts are very different, and it is not necessary to have read the renowned horror tale The Red Mask of Death by E. A. Poe, in order to remember how such a mask might be an old, bloody looking symbol for the plague. A tautological consolation may be that life in itself survives. In an Allegory of Human Life by the Bolognese Guido Cagnacci (1601-63; Private Collection), this all overcoming cyclical regeneration is symbolized with a female nude, a skull, an hourglass and the antique Ouroboros: the circular figure of a snake biting its own tail. In about 1690 a younger Neapolitan artist, Paolo de Matteis, depicted a nostalgic Allegory of Naples, with mythic figures as the river god Sebetus, the sirens Parthenopes, Leucosia, Ligeia, the gods Bacchus and Ceres. In the large picture, now in a private collection, the background is a seascape and landscape of the Gulf of Naples with a smoking Mount Vesuvius. In the foreground, some objects allude to arts and sciences. Among them, again a palette with brushes and a near mask symbolize the painting, or perhaps distinctly painting and theatre. If not really a smiling one, this mask has returned to be a normal stage mask. No longer bright red, it is dyed with a less ambiguous colour. What may remind us of a few verse from On Hearing Of A Death, composed in 1907 by the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and translated by A. E. Flemming: “Death/ does not deal with us. We have no reason/ to show death admiration, love or hate;/ his mask of feigned tragic lament gives us/ a false impression. The world’s stage is still/ filled with roles which we play. While we worry/ that our performances may not please,/ death also performs, although to no applause”. Above all, the last lines invite us to “play our actual lives instead of the performance,/ forgetting altogether the applause”.
13 – Frans van Mieris the Elder, Pictura; and Jean-François de Troy, An Allegory of Painting Allegorical Portrayals Especially the 17th century, more generally the periods of the Mannerist and Baroque art, were not simply a golden age of personal allegories and inanimate emblems but of simulation too. Let us think of so many gentle ladies depicted “as St. Mary Magdalene” or “as Venus”, “as Diana” or “as Minerva”, later “as Ariadne” or “as Cleopatra” and so on: it depended upon individual likes or public roles and literary fashions. In the field of selfportraiture, we remember the Caravaggio as Bacchus, Anthony van Dyck as Paris, Francisco de Zurbaran as St. Luke, Rembrandt van Rijn as St. Paul and, more generically, Salvator Rosa as a philosopher or Artemisia Gentileschi as a martyr or else Rosalba Carriera “as Winter”... The bitter ironical Self-Portrait as an Artist by Vincent van Gogh was still to come. Paradoxically, meanwhile the celebration of identity becomes an occasion for a multiidentitarian reverie. Reliably, the acme of this identity game was attained in the SelfPortrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia, of which above. Such is the mirroring and reverberation of the signification, albeit without any superfluous redundancy we may be wont to associate with the Baroque style, that this picture appears as an allegory of an allegory, a conceptual as much as a pictorial device. The tiny mask hanging from the neck of the woman painter looks like a dangling charm, reminding us of the mask-character each one has inevitably to wear.
Evidently, it is not only a matter of physiognomy or features, nor of gender, of race or status. Sometimes the unrepeatable uniqueness of the individual happens to be a trap, we can strive to modify but not really escape from. The Roman artist knew very well it, through a traumatic experience of the events of her life. From Rome to Florence, to London and lately to Naples, in her works she was often varying but reiterating a transfiguration of the memories of those events, in a nearly compulsive way. Moreover, probably all that had become one of the reasons of her success, but even what people and customers were morbidly expecting from her. In other words, it was her mask-character. If we confront the juvenile Self-Portrait as a Female Martyr (Private Collection; ca. 1615), the Allégorie de la peinture currently in the Musée de Tessé at Le Mans and the SelfPortrait as the Allegory of Painting, we can follow a development of Artemisia’s perception of herself with reference not only to her different ages, but also to her evolving states of mind, from a self-commiseration to a self-indulgence and to a full self-consciousness as an artist, which was the main way of sublimation of her own obsessions. Finally, the reflection of her soul and the public personage could coincide.
14 – Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting; and Salvator Rosa, Self-Portrait as a Philosopher Nonetheless, all that is not a mere individual narrative. It was an episode in the acquisition of a new consciousness about the potentiality of art, and the dignity of artists, in an early modern society and culture. In the Self-Portrait as a Philosopher by the Neapolitan
Salvator Rosa (National Gallery, London; ca. 1640-45), it emerged as a polemics against the
“talking masks” of the past and the present. One hand of the self-portrayed painter and poet
rests on an inscription, where it is written in Latin: Aut tace, aut loquere meliora silentio, “Either shut up, or say something better than silence”. Even better than echoing an old Stoic precept, this maxim sounds like an allusion to the specificity and autonomy of painting, as a silent philosophy made of meaningful images, wherever a “rational” speech cannot succeed in expressing a reasonable or credible sense. Otherwise, Rosa has to be taken not too seriously. His satire about The Painting is 865 lines long! Yet in the verse 169-177, long before that in the philosophical criticism by Walter Benjamin, the Baroque inclination to allegories is synthetically explained: “All which is made by Nature,/ sensible or intelligible it might be,/ occurs to be dispensed as a subject matter for the painter./ Not only he has to depict what visible,/ but sometimes what possible and intangible./ Therefore he has to be learned,/ initiated in sciences, and must well know/ history or myths, and the rites of old times”. No wonder, the artist philosopher will become a darling for the future Romantics. Indeed the allegorical modality of representation, an emblematic way to represent “what possible and intangible”, will persist until the Neoclassical age at least. Let us think of a 1766 theoretical work as Attempt at an Allegory by the German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann, or of the funny and explicitly autobiographic Self-Portrait Hesitating Between the Arts of Music and Painting, by the Swiss-Austrian paintress Angelica Kauffman (Private Collection; 1791). Yet here we wish to return to consider briefly Salvator Rosa’s production. Quite traditionally, the symbol of a full face mask appears in his allegory of The Lie (Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence; ca. 1645-48). But it is in the presumed and undated Self-Portrait, today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York, that we can see the detail of a skull. It is put on a book by the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca and the painter is writing on it, in Greek: “Behold, whither, when”. The picture was a gift by Rosa to his friend Giovanni B. Ricciardi, a reader in moral philosophy at Pisa. Anyway mirrors, masks and skulls, were recurrent emblems in allegorical art, with peculiar reference to painting and portraiture. In the pessimistic view of the Neapolitan artist, neither imitation nor a deceptive simulation can resist too long an ultimate dissolving reality. It is only a question of undefined time and place, he says.
Depicting not only “what visible, but sometimes what possible and intangible”, then grows a necessity even better than an option.
15 – Niccolò de Simone, Allegory of Painting or Vanitas As to the portrayal with skull, it was nearly a cliché, mostly a personified variant of the allegories of the vanity of earthly things. The Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols, by the Netherlandish David Bailly, is a magnificent exemplar of this genre (Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden; ca. 1651). And A Man Holding a Skull, by the Flemish Michael Sweerts, most likely is the author himself (Private Collection; 1650). The weirdest portrait with skull is Witch Scene by the Roman Angelo Caroselli, where the apparition of a guy – the artist, or an inquisitor? – is reflected in a mirror (1585-1652; Private Collection, Switzerland). Yet in particular the Self-Portrait with Hourglass by Johann Joseph Zoffany, a German painter resident in England, may look like a late reply to Salvator Rosa (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; ca. 1776). The portrayed portrayer holds an hourglass in one hand and a skull in the other, both of them as conventional elements of the vanitas imagery.
Strangely, he smiles to the viewer. Even the skull seems to laugh, in a specular way. No doubt, that smile or laughter is a melancholic one, so similar it is to that attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, who is also the subject of a dramatic allegory pictured by Rosa, Democritus in Meditation (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; 1650). It is also true, in the painting by Zoffany we can read an inscription: Ars longa, vita brevis, quoted from a Latin translation of an aphorism by Hippocrates. What the ancient Greek physician referred to his own “art”, reliably is turned to concern fine arts by the modern artist. Thus, especially if compared with Salvator Rosa’s pessimism, we may well translate it in a quite optimistic way: “Life is short, but art lasts”. From the mirror to the mask and to the skull, as pictorial symbolic objects, there is a gradual reduction of the identitarian feeling. The portrayed subject who distances his own image in a mirror, or removes a public and private mask from his face, actually are steps of this process. The young or mature or old men and women holding a skull in their hands, or else a penitent Magdalene who sometimes embraces it, other frequent iconography in the Baroque art, even more than a premonition of death show up a mysterious component of our personalities: not so much an ascetic desire of dissolution or a Freudian death instinct, as rather a non-identitarian aspiration. Portraitists or also painters of religious subjects, moreover as keepers and interpreters of an iconic symbolic tradition, were mediators in such an exercise of simulation and dissimulation. One of the most fascinating pseudo-portrayals of the 17 th century is an Allegory of Vanity ascribed to the French Trophime Bigot (Galleria di Palazzo Barberini, Rome; before ca. 1650), akin to Magdalene and Two Flames by his compatriot Georges de la Tour (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; late 1630s). In the former masterpiece, we find a mirror and a skull. The depicted female model – an allegory of the soul? – no longer looks at her reflection. She enigmatically smiles, while gazing at us and pointing at the skull itself. The third important element is no more any mask, but an oil lamp flame reflected in the mirror. Let us suppose, this gleam of non-identity is the true portrayed subject by the unsigned, so called “Candlelight Master”.
16 – Johann Joseph Zoffany, Self-Portrait with Hourglass; and Guido Cagnacci, Allegory of Human Life An Identitarian Storm Pourquoi il y a plutôt quelque chose que rien? [...] De plus, supposé que des choses doivent exister, il faut qu’on puisse rendre raison pourquoi elles doivent exister ainsi, et non autrement: “Why is there something rather than nothing? […] Further, supposing that some things must exist, we should be able to give a reason why they must exist thus and not otherwise”. This is a famed doubled fold question put in 1714 by the German philosopher and scientist Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, in the Principles of Nature and of Grace, Founded in Reason (§ 7), a further development of his 1697 essay On the Ultimate Origin of Things. In the opinion of many, it is a metaphysical basis of modern philosophy. There, we may notice, the main modalities of the being – such as in a modern perception and distinction, at least – are already expressed: the being in itself, or, rather, a bare being; the being otherwise, although in a hypothetical way; the not being, albeit in an exclusive fashion. If we apply these modalities in the same order to human beings as individuals – or as personal “monads”, with a Leibnizian term –, they easily become an individual identity, a relative otherness and the absolute alienity. We have to observe too that, unfortunately or less, the second and third ones of them grow respectively far less hypothetical or exclusive. However, the methodical question might sound in this way: “Why does someone exist instead of none, and why has he to be himself rather than any other?”.
In a history of portraiture and in a metaphorical way, the above categories quite well correspond with the detail symbols of the mirror, of the mask and the skull. Another possible philosophical annotation is that particularly a human being needs to be represented, in order to feel realized or even fully exist, and that portraiture is nothing but the last but not least – nor necessary, of course – step or reflection in this process of representation and selfrepresentation. Yet not always nor necessarily it seems to coincide with a process of individuation, in a strict psychological sense. Sometimes, we have seen, it can express a contradictory desire of self-identitarian dissolution and eventual renovation. It is also true, other times that dialectic contradiction may grow harshly conflictual. Reliably this is the case of Van Gogh’s last self-portrayals. If compared with his previous Self-Portrait as an Artist (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; 1888), the Self-Portrait with Palette contains some a premonition about the tragic end of his life (National Gallery of Art, Washington; 1889). The right hand of the painter holding a palette and brushes, but seen as a left one in the left down corner of the picture, suggests that he was looking at his bust reflected in a mirror. His face has so schematic or stiff features, as to resemble an almost inexpressive mask. This portrait does not need to show any skull, for the simple reason that its figure is usually connected with a different symbolism from that of an imminent death. Yet, if you like better a grotesque pseudo-portrayal by the same author, then get a glimpse of the Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (Van Gogh Museum; 1885-6)!
17 – Vincent van Gogh, Skull of a Skeleton with Burning
Cigarette and Self-Portrait with Palette As a form of representation, we have also seen how willingly the portraiture is associated with the theatrical performance. Occasionally it may even be done with the art of dance, just as in an almost photographic work by the Californian living painter Kenneth B. Kelsoe, The Mirror, where a young woman is portrayed while studying her nude reflection in a large mirror after her dancing practice. Yet, with regard to the portrait tradition, prevalently that word has to be intended in the original sense of “re-presentation ”, that is of something or – rather – somebody who has been made present again or otherwise. This is especially obvious, for that typology defined as funeral portraiture. An astonishing archaeological episode of such a genre, hundred times reiterated, is that of the so called Fayyum funerary masks. Mostly these painted panels are face portrayals of living people, which were going to be superimposed on their mummies, in the Romanized Egypt from the late 1st century B.C. or early 1st century A.D. to the 3rd century. In all these cases, we could affirm the concept of likeness to coincide with that of mask, even if the resemblance with the portrayed subjects was very important, as already attested by the Greek epigrams by Erinna or Nossis. Above all, in a number of cases we can add that their pictorial quality is high. The Fayyum portraits look like temporal windows, from which a host of open emphasized eyes call for a various identification and an arcane complicity. Just to use here a phrase inspired by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, they display an incredible “will of representation”. Through a veil of nostalgic melancholy, it appears so determined as to overcome the centuries, a blind casualness or intentional vandalisms and iconoclasms, and to give us an impression of immediate communication. If we consider well, under an appearance of personal individuation that will of representation is basically impersonal. In the world of life at least, it seems to be immanent in the nature of things, before growing transcendent by flourishing and lastly collapsing within human souls. Jungʼs collective and natural unconscious or Nietzscheʼs “eternal return of the identical” may sound like late metaphysical ideas, after old Orphic or Platonic antecedents. As for not few myths of the past though, they might keep something true inside their affabulations. After all and with all variations deriving from the changed times, what once represented has good chances to be represented again, in the field of art. Also the portraits
from Fayyum have become sources of emotions and a subject matter of re-visitation, by a few todayʼs artists or even scholars. Their imagination has made up for a loss of identity, giving those portrait-masks improbable historical names as “Hypatia” or an updated aspect, by adapting physical or accessory traits of the originals to current standards. One of the best samples of this new simulation is a Fayum Portrait of Silvia, by Timothy Joseph Allen (Collection of the Artist; 2007). The rediscovered exemplar, dating back to the imperial Neronian period, is housed in the British Museum at London. By comparing the former with the latter, we cannot but acknowledge that the intercourse between the unknown Egyptian and the American portraitists goes well beyond any fortunate circumstance. Even better than an episode of late imitation or revival, it is a relationship of virtual cooperation.
18 – Fayyum portrait: British Museum, London; and Timothy Joseph Allen, Fayum Portrait of Silvia At last we have to remark how, in the portraiture, symbols as the mirror, the mask or the skull, not only and always deal with individual identity. Sometimes that is a problem of a collective one, and it grows dramatic when such an identification becomes an imposition,
rather than a free choice or even a critical refusal. An identitarian coercion may be a political form of persecutory individuation, no better than a denied recognition to the identity of disliked individuals or social minorities. An artwork as Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card, by Nussbaum (Felix Nussbaum Haus, Osnabrück; ca. 1943), is highly symptomatic. He is depicted with the badge of a yellow star of David sewn on his overcoat, as prescribed by Nazi authorities, and while exhibiting his discriminatory pass. In a far less allegorical way, this has replaced the detail of a mask, recurring in the previous production of the German Expressionist. Nay, it has become a sort of infamous and lethal “iron mask”. Nussbaumʼs self-portrayal belongs to a renewed tradition of allegorical portraiture in Germany, denouncing some an absurdity of European history and life in the first half of the 20th century, in a middle way between a grotesque and a tragic manner. In a few “postexpressionist” works by Otto Dix and George Grosz or Max Beckmann – not necessarily portrayals –, the effigies of skulls or full skeletons return to be disquieting emblems. Other times, those symbolic elements are rather face masks, according to a “new objectivity” which not simply had to be harshly representative but could exceptionally turn enigmatic. For some artists self-portraiture remained the main stream, as in an extraordinary series by Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, who will die in a Nazi gas chamber in 1940. An early example is Self-Portrait as a Soldier, painted by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner during the First World War (Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio; 1915). To symbolize his traumatic experience, a fictive amputation stump on one soldierʼs arm in the foreground clashes with the image of a female nude model projected in the background. In the same composition, the detail of a half painted canvas recalls the pre-eminent identity of the subject as an artist. The Nazi regime condemned and banned the Expressionist art as “degenerate”, putting an end to its creative season and causing the dispersion of its followers. A consistent number of works got destroyed, and Kirchner committed suicide in 1938. The murder of Nussbaum was but the last act. Paradoxically, such a “degeneration” concurred to preserve a cultural German identity and to assure its rebirth, after the disaster of the Second World War. Of course, the contribution which art can give one peopleʼs identity is not restricted to portraiture. Yet this genre may work as a link between individual and collective identitarian feelings. At least because their means of expression is not limited by a national language, fine arts might work as a bridge toward a sense of shared civilization, in the respect of
particular identities (“The Bridge” was the name of the original Expressionist group). In 1964, the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish will write his best known poem, titled Identity Card. There, he will adopt the same symbol used by Nussbaum in the Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card, but this time for showing up an identity of his fellow-countrymen face to their Israeli antagonists, in an altered conflictual scene where actors play different roles though wearing old masks. By contradicting Leibniz, we may conclude that – in this trouble of preserving or constructing human identities – it does not appear any “sufficient reason” for which the things “must exist thus and not otherwise”. At most, there is a recurrence of elements, or a compulsion to replay the same old performances. We are still in a need of men and women who got really free to become otherwise, which is reliably the main way to realize themselves as individuals and as a wider community at once.
19 – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier; and Felix Nussbaum, Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card Copyright firstname.lastname@example.org 2010 Articles by the same author on like topics, at the Websites below: http://www.scribd.com/doc/2531940/Space-and-Time-of-the-Annunciation http://www.scribd.com/doc/2681466/The-Cat-and-the-Angel-of-the-Annunciation http://www.scribd.com/doc/2913375/The-Hands-of-Mary-States-of-Mind-in-theAnnunciate http://www.scribd.com/doc/2988387/Hail-Mary-Nazarene-and-PreRaphaeliteAnnunciations http://www.scribd.com/doc/3817130/Women-and-Angels-Female-Annunciations
http://www.scribd.com/doc/4597267/Byzantine-Annunciations-An-Iconography-ofIconography http://www.scribd.com/doc/5837944/Marian-Icons-in-Rome-and-Italy http://www.scribd.com/doc/8650381/The-Flight-into-Egypt-A-Transcontinental-Trip http://www.scribd.com/doc/9568413/A-Long-Way-to-Emmaus-Almost-a-SamaritanStory http://www.scribd.com/doc/11517241/The-Bodily-Christ http://www.scribd.com/doc/12902607/Magdalenes-Iconography http://www.scribd.com/doc/15057438/Marys-Gaze-in-the-History-of-Art http://www.scribd.com/doc/14136622/Mimesis-in-Ancient-Art http://www.scribd.com/doc/16420824/Thinkers-in-a-Landscape http://www.scribd.com/doc/19582647/Figures-of-Absence-in-the-History-of-Art http://www.scribd.com/doc/24221344/The-Smile-of-the-Sacred http://www.scribd.com/doc/26251175/On-the-Tracks-of-Alcestis http://www.scribd.com/doc/28930322/Trains-and-Trams-An-Archaeology-ofModernity http://www.scribd.com/doc/30742254/Eros-and-Psyche-A-Hermeneutic-Circle http://www.scribd.com/doc/2075273/Italy-through-a-Gothic-Glass
20 – Cecil Golding, Portrait of a Woman with Mask (Private Collection; early 20th century); and Rossana Feudo, The Mask and the Face (recent; more information about at the Web address http://www.rossana-feudo.it/gallery.htm)
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