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Self-portraiture is a unique feature in an artist’s body of work. This is when an artist relays a persona to an outside audience. Here, we take a look at seven artists who have given us some world-renowned self-portraits.
We can’t make a list of female self-portrait artists without mentioning Frida Kahlo. The self-taught Mexican artist had painted 143 pieces of work in her time, 55 of which were self-portraits. Her self-portraits were auto-biographical and political. They depicted significant moments in her life, feature Mexican political and social issues as a backdrop of the artwork as well.
Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico City in 1907. At the age of 6, Kahlo contracted Polio, which weakened her right leg (and was later amputated due to gangrene). In 1925, Kahlo was in a serious bus accident where an iron handrail impaled her pelvis. She then spent the majority of her life in and out of surgery, restricted to her bed and suffering from excruciating pain. She took up painting as a pastime and soon her artwork became world renowned.
Little is known about the American street photographer, however, Vivian Maier is regarded as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. Born in New York City, Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for families in New York and later Chicago. During her days off, she would capture street life.
Maier was often her own subject in her photographs and would photograph self-portraits using mirrors, shop windows and other reflective surfaces. In 2007, over 100,000 of Maier’s negatives were found and it was only then that the world discovered her talent.
German painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker is considered a major figure in the modern art scene. She is the first known female painter to paint nude self-portraits.
Born in 1876, Modersohn-Becker studied in Berlin and later joined the artists’ colony at Worpswede in northern Germany. Her love and fascination with the avant-garde movement led her to regularly visit Paris and she soon became friends with artists she admired such as Matisse, Gauguin and Cézanne.
Her painting style changed over time, practising realism and naturalism and later moving into Fauvism. Modersohn-Becker’s self-portraits portray herself intimately, asserting her identity as a woman. Her legacy lies in her bravado and is celebrated for pioneering the modernist art movement.
Her career was short lived (a mere 10 years). She passed away in 1907 at the age of 31 due to postpartum embolism. Friend and poet Rainer Maria Rilke paid tribute to Paula Modersohn-Becker in the poem ‘Requiem for a Friend’ after her death.
Another self-portrait photographer (and filmmaker) on our list, Cindy Sherman. Sherman shot to fame with ‘Untitled Film Stills’, a series of photographs that depict Cindy Sherman posing in various stereotypical female roles. The characters she portrays are all inspired by Hollywood, film noir and European art-house movies from the 1950s and 1960s. The cliché feminine characters such as the office girl, the blonde bombshell, the housewife, for example, were depicted in the series and are “deeply embedded in the cultural imagination”.
Since 2017, Cindy Sherman has been using her Instagram account as an extension of her practice. Sherman uses digital airbrushing to falsely alter facial features, not to improve the appearance, but to exaggerate her features. The process is intended to draw attention to the delicate line between inhuman perfection (the type promoted on social media platforms such as Instagram) and inhuman, unnatural, alien-like alterations.
REMEDIOS VARO URANGA
Spanish surrealist artist, Remedios Varo Uranga, moved to Mexico in 1941, fleeing war-torn Europe. It was in Mexico where she became a member of the Mexican artist community, socialising with other artists such as Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington.
Varo Uranga was one of the few female surrealist artists that came out of the first half of the 20th Century. Her unique approach to surrealism was synonymous with fantastical concepts. It often included fantasy creatures such as unicorns and minotaur’s. She regularly used herself as the subject in her artwork with an elaborate backdrop.
Remedios Varo Uranga died of a heart attack in 1963. French writer André Breton commented that her death made her “the sorceress who left too soon”.
TAMARA DE LEMPICKA
Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka’s painting technique stemmed from the avant-garde art movements. To be more precise neo-cubism, futurism and art deco. It was in 1929 when a German fashion magazine called ‘Die Dame’ commissioned Lempicka to paint a self-portrait for the front cover of an issue celebrating female independence. Lempicka produced ‘Self-portrait in the Green Bugatti’. Wearing a leather helmet, gloves and a green scarf, Lempicka depicts independence, wealth and beauty.
“I was the first woman to make clear paintings”, Tamara de Lempicka described to her daughter her work and legacy, “and that was the origin of my success. Among a hundred canvases, mine were always recognizable. The galleries tended to show my pictures in the best rooms because they attracted people. My work was clear and finished. I looked around me and could only see the total destruction of painting. The banality in which art had sunk gave me a feeling of disgust. I was searching for a craft that no longer existed; I worked quickly with a delicate brush. I was in search of technique, craft, simplicity and good taste. My goal: never copy. Create a new style, with luminous and brilliant colours, rediscover the elegance of my models.”
A pioneer of modern Indian art, Amrita Sher-Gil is commonly likened to Frida Kahlo. She is considered one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century.
Sher-Gil had a natural talent for capturing the female form and she had produced several self-portraits during her time. One of the most recognised self-portraits was painted as a gift for her ex-lover, artist and fellow student, Boris Tazlitsky. The self-portrait depicts a woman in love. The fiery red background and luscious red lips, fierce facial features and vivid, intense eyes.
Amrita Sher-Gil died at the young age of 28 and her work had become a beacon for women and is considered an icon of Indian art. The Government of India declared her body of artwork as National Art Treasures.