Strange and wonderful egos

There was another fascinating BBC4 programme on Monday evening called Ego: The Strange and Wonderful World of Self-Portraits.

I only caught about half of it, and mean to watch it on iPlayer over the weekend. Below are the things that struck me, but there was a lot more. I hope you’ll watch it over the next few days, and share your thoughts and impressions on WeAreOCA.

The presenter, Laura Cummings, explored how self-portraits through the ages reveal “how artists saw themselves and how they wanted to be known to the world” and the “various ways artists have managed to get their inner and outer selves to match up.” They say: This is who I am. This is what I do. This is where I stand in society. See me painting — I am an artist, and a woman! I have a turbulent past — my eye sockets are in shadow, there are dramatic highlights on my brow. I am a teller of the uncompromising truth — I choose to show my worst profile and paint in detail the wart on my cheek…

With Rembrandt, there is an extra dimension. We can see he is looking inwards. As well as the visual clues about his status and character, he is transmitting what it feels like from within to be himself. And what it feels like to be aging, to look back over a lifetime of experiences, to be aware that the inner and the outer self doesn’t quite match up. Cummings said that there is a debate as to whether Rembrandt could have been so self-aware in an age before Freud and Jung started to explore and up open up the previously uncharted territory of our minds. But Cummings was sure — he knew. And we can see that he knew.

What did you think of the programme? Looking forward to your comments.


  1. Tracey 4 February 2011 at 10:07 pm

    I really enjoyed this programme. I had just been reading about Durer for my Understanding Western Art course. It was great to see the development of the self-portrait through the years & an insight in to how the artists viewed themselves.

  2. Eileen 6 February 2011 at 9:01 pm

    I thought it was a really good programme, and would have missed it without this link, so thank you for that. There’s so much in it that I would like to watch it again, time permitting, to be sure that I have really picked up on the key points. It was interesting to see the differences and similarities in approach across the ages.

    It’s particularly timely for me as I am trying to make a composite self-portrait just now and finding it very challenging. So many decisions to make. Seeing how artists have addressed those challenges over the ages was very illuminating.

    I am also certain that Rembrandt was looking inside himself and expressing a sense of who he was in these images. I was fascinated by the additional analysis of him as a performer in various roles, and enjoyed the session with Simon Callow which explored that. The contrast and similarity between Rembrandt and Andy Warhol – both playing often parts and making lots of their own image, but one looking for inner meanings and expression and the other essentially imaging and reproducing the surface – is particularly striking to me. And I really liked “Self portrait: Times New Roman” – fascinating.

  3. Lainey 6 February 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Thanks for this link I too did not know it was on so would have missed it otherwise. It was fascinating, seeing all these self portraits and learning about the history of self portraiture, I have been looking at Durer’s work a lot recently and was delighted to learn more about the man himself and not just his work. Laura Cummings was engaging and a joy to listen to, she was so enthusiastic about the subject and brought something of herself to the programme which was a nice touch too.

  4. Alison 8 February 2011 at 10:48 am

    I watched the whole programme last night, and was struck this time by the section on Van Gogh, which helped me to see the self-portraits in a completely different way. I was used to thinking that the swirls and energetic marks were a reflection of the artist’s inner torment/distress. However, Laura Cummings said the opposite. In the “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear”, the paint is applied slowly and carefully and the colour on the face, for example, is exquisite. Rather, the painting expresses calm and dignity, with no trace of self-pity. He looks out of a window filled with light. “Self portrait, 1889”, is filled with light, and he is one with the background of pale blue swirls, the same swirls that he for him were within the landscape and the stars.


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