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A sprawling history of women’s self-portraits rattles along without ever really getting under the skin of the artists in question
In 2019, the Royal Academy staged an exhibition by the great Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck. On the day I saw it, the galleries were preternaturally quiet – the crowds who are so mad for Frida Kahlo seem not to have heard of Schjerfbeck – and in the room where the curators had hung 17 of her self-portraits, a time-lapse sequence dating from 1884 to 1946, I was amazed to find myself entirely alone. Only I wasn’t, not really. She was all around. Schjerfbeck’s colours are often mossy, shades of grey-green that bring to mind not only nature at its lushest, but also gravestones, mottled and cold to the touch. In the spectral hush, I saw a woman first grow into herself, then move beyond that self – as death tiptoed ever closer, the self-portraits grew ever more abstract – and it was indescribably strengthening. I could have taken on anyone that day. An unseen presence had sprayed courage on my wrists.
Why might an artist choose to paint herself? When women were still excluded from life classes – it was 1893 before female students were allowed to gaze on a “partially draped” body at the Royal Academy – it was a case of being one’s own best model. The artist turned to herself, familiar and available, both as a means of introduction (“here I am, see what I can do”), and by way of making an artistic statement (“this is what I believe”). But there’s also the question of self-realisation – and it’s this that has more recently stoked the impulse for self-portraiture. “People are like shadows to me,” said Gwen John. “And I am a shadow.” Women are all too often invisible; it’s left to us to point out what others refuse to see. In A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (1907-09), an umbrella resting against the arm of a cane chair famously stands in as a substitute for John; she is absent, elsewhere. Her self-portraits, however, are not shadowy at all. She looks like a person to whom we would do well to pay attention: solid, determined, unashamed.
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