The University of Queensland’s National Self-Portrait Prize (NSPP) is a biennial, acquisitive award that highlights the continued relevance of self portraiture. This year marks the fifth iteration of the NSPP. We caught up with Michael Desmond, independent writer, curator and former Deputy Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, about contemporary self portraiture and the challenges he encountered as curator of this year’s prize.
Q: In the text for the exhibition you curated for the National Portrait Gallery in 2010, Present tense: An imagined grammar of portraiture in the digital age, you note that the advent of photography created a seismic change in portraiture, and suggest that the Internet and digital images have similarly expanded contemporary approaches to the genre. Curating this exhibition five years on, have you observed other advances that are having a significant impact on portraiture?
A: The introduction and popularisation of digital media is a new seismic change, beyond photography. And clearly it has an effect on art and on portraiture, commensurate with the effect on society at large. Digital media has made image making easier, which together with cheaper devices, has made images including portraits, more ubiquitous. Digital media is also easily changed and altered. There is no longer absolute trust in the concept of truth in photography. Today, photography is akin to painting in its ability to flatter, to deceive or to move from objective to subjective description. The notion of an ideal is now embedded in photography but still plays a minor role in portraiture. The cult of selfies is very much tuned to a spontaneous rather than flattering ideal. Expression and the background environment count as much as, if not more than, the serene look of a painted portrait. The other reaction to digital technologies is to value the opposite, as if the digital age is bookended with Etsy. People now rejoice in the look of the handmade, value the one off and pay more for a bespoke item.
The plethora of portraits made with cheap cameras also means that there is no singular portrait, no prime iconic image, and this accords with a post-Freudian perspective of complex, often contradictory, personae. It could be argued that this culture of selfies marks a moment of increased narcissism and a refusal to grow up, a symptom of what, in politics, has been called the ‘age of entitlement’ but might really be media-induced expectations and competition for social resources. The notion that we are ‘one off’ and special can be undermined by portrait swapping and updates with ‘friends’ on social media. Contemporary portraits can be taken as ephemeral rather than enduring. Perhaps they are already in a state of ‘becoming’.
Q: ‘Becoming’ is the exhibition’s central theme. Can you tell us a little more about this?
A: I believe that even the shortest glance at yourself (in the mirror; in a photo) involves some level of appraisal. This inevitably prompts an assessment of the past and forecast of future, mostly at a superficial level but occasionally at a profound level. The examination of self is surely at the core of self portraiture, tempered only by the strictures and demands of public presentation that limit revealing too much. Looking at a face that you have seen since infancy, through puberty, through trials and tribulations, celebration and serenity, you know yourself best. That awareness of change, of evolution and decline, of recording more than the instant is the challenge of the self portrait. The question of how to incorporate this, in what is mostly a static medium – painting, drawing, photography, sculpture – and even in temporal media like video or film, is what the artists in this exhibition are responding to. The idea of ‘becoming’ is an invitation for the artist to convey, and the viewer to read, complexity into what might be just a face. There are any number of answers to perplex and delight the viewer.
Q: You wrote: ‘Count Basie (1904–1984) once said, “I don’t like to write endings for my music… because music is in a constant state of becoming.” Basie’s comments on evolution and progression in music could equally apply to the unfolding of a life; it might be interesting to consider that attitude as a filter for self portraiture.’ Could you expand on this?
A: A self portrait, be it a painting, photograph or video, tends to corral a moment in time. But life is continuous, it is a continuous state of becoming – becoming older, becoming wiser, becoming more aware or more tolerant – changing in ways that can’t be predicted. My take on Count Basie’s notion of no apparent endings is that he is endorsing an improvisational response to life, and equally that the self portrait should avoid being a static image that implies finality. In Myron of Eleutherae’s (active c. 470–440 BC) famous bronze sculpture Discobolus (discus thrower), the movement and action of throwing the discus is summed up in a single pose, always about to throw and throwing. The pose is synthetic, not real, distant from the decisive moment described by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004), who recommended the photographer stalk the precise moment that the elements in a photograph aligned to express the power and significance in the image. Digital media has made that kind of patient approach unnecessary as photographs can be modified as much as traditional media. The decisive moment is always now, the summation of what was, an anticipation of what will be in a self portrait that reflects self as a centre in a constant becoming.
Q: The process of curating an art prize seems like an interesting challenge. How did you approach it and how do you feel about one work being judged ‘the winner’?
A: While appreciating that this was an art prize, I confess to not thinking in terms of a prize but only of an exhibition that would create something for viewers that was meaningful and enjoyable. The theme was picked to challenge and interest the artists and to link the works they produced. This gives the audience an angle, a way of looking that allows for difference and, perhaps, insight. The artists in the exhibition were not picked with a single winner in mind or even to provide a rich field for a prize-awarding judge to glean (though I hope this is a natural product of the selection). I chose artists who, as a group, would represent a broad and balanced visual field, artists whose work I liked and who seemed ready to challenge the theme. I didn’t select artists on the basis of gender, geography, race or age: my aim was for a solid show of work by thoughtful artists with an affinity for visual poetics – whatever that means. I hoped I would end up with established artists with a long history, as well as artists new to art practice, who together would create a dynamic in terms of life experience to illuminate the theme of ‘becoming’. I didn’t want to focus on one style or look and I did seek variety as I wanted to elicit a wide range of responses by the artists in the display. It’s fair to say that a few of the senior artists I approached found competitions unappealing. The work chosen by the judge will be acquired for the Collection, so (perhaps disingenuously) I see this as an exhibition with the bonus of an acquisition built in. I think that the artists participated in this spirit, too. Sure, there will be a lucky door prize, but mostly it will be a great party.
Q: What makes a good self-portrait?
A: John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) once declared that ‘Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend’, but of course a self portrait neatly sidesteps this issue. Its axiomatic that a good self portrait is one that satisfies the artist (who is of course the client) but, on the other hand, a good self portrait is one that meets the viewer’s expectations of what an artist looks like (or should look like).
Mood and self reflection are important ingredients in a good self portrait. I like the changes from the early Rembrandt (1606–1669) self portrait with wife Saskia (1612–1642), both clutching champagne glasses and looking as gleeful as first homebuyers in front of their new house in Paddington, to the later self portraits, ponderous and solemn, but much loved as bearing the burden of age, debt and loss of fame, the distortions of life that arouse empathy. In a good portrait the artist’s technique conveys personality and circumstance, as with the polished slick surfaces of the early Rembrandt in contrast to the crusty, expressionistic monochromes of the late self portraits. It fits with our understanding of the man and his life. We can admire the scrutinising and self-critical aspect of Picasso (1881–1973) or the tempered absorption and satisfaction of Rubens (1577–1640) in their self portraits. A good self portrait ultimately connects with viewer, conveying or at least suggesting with a hint of a backstory that expresses more than what is on the surface. A great portrait is surprising and insightful for the viewer. The insight comes from learning additional information about the subject beyond what they look like, this despite the fact that the artist is trying to project a particular, usually flattering, image of themselves, to reveal while concealing. A good self portrait is not a mask but an image open to interpretation.
Visit the UQ Art Museum website to see the full list of participating artists and for visitor information. The NSPP exhibition runs from 14 November 2015 until 13 March 2016. #UQArtMuseum #nspp2015