Exhibition | Artists in the Frame

Manchester Art Gallery | 21 May – 31 August 2015

How many times do you look at yourself a day? For some, a perfunctory glance in the mirror first thing in the morning is enough, and they’re usually later found with toothpaste on their chins. For the selfie generation (and here I raise my hand), we see our faces copious times a day, pouting at our reflection either on our phone screens or in a Facebook status.

If you really want to get to know your face, and yourself, do a self-portrait. I tried it a few years ago, and by the end of the process I can honestly say if you’d held up a picture of me next to one of Quasimodo I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Raising your face up to that much scrutiny, first from yourself, and then anyone else looking at the finished article, is an anxiety-inducing process. 

But it is exactly this ‘bare-faced’ nature of the self-portrait that has made it so appealing to generations of artists, and also allows us as viewers a privileged insight into not only how the artist sees themselves, but also how they want to be seen by the world.

Due to open next week at Manchester Art Gallery, the exhibition ‘Artists in the Frame: Self-portraits by Van Dyck and Others’ centres around Sir Anthony van Dyck’s self-portrait which was recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery and is on its way through a three-year national tour. There will be 20 other artist self-portraits alongside it, covering the themes of self-expression, self-analysis, social status, and artistic identity.

Van Dyck’s piece is heralded by the art world as one of the most remarkable self-portraits ever painted in Britain. While many wax lyrical about the poise and finesse of Van Dyck’s style, it is more the artist’s position as Charles I’s court painter and his role in raising the status of art in polite society that makes him significant. 

This portrait will be the ‘headline act’ within the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery this summer, but I confess that it’s the ‘and others’ that I’m particularly excited about seeing. The ‘supporting acts’ list is impressive and spans centuries of British portraiture, including William Hogarth, Angelica Kauffman, Wyndham Lewis, Chris Ofili, Sarah Lucas, Julian Opie and Grayson Perry. While the ornate golden frame surrounding Van Dyck’s work is touted as impressive, I suspect the traditional painted portrait will show its age when seen alongside more modern mediums such as photography, digital and graphic works. 

The press preview is next Wednesday and I’ve wrangled my way in. Will the contemporary offering herald a new era for self-portraiture? Or despite their best efforts, will Lucas, Perry and Opie languish in the long shadows cast by Van Dyck? Stay tuned…  

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