One of the most popular genres of artwork is self portraiture. Whether this is because schools love to assign self-portraits as projects, artists have constant access to their own faces, or because artists tend to be somewhat narcissistic, self portraiture has been a frequently recurring subject in the art world since the Early Renaissance. Go to any museum or gallery and chances are that you’ll be surrounded by an innumerable amount of self portraiture. Not to emphasize the narcissist theory too much, but I can currently see three of my self portraits from the desk in my bedroom alone.
When we move away from the typical self portrait (Frontal/Three Quarters/Profile, shoulders up, fairly naturalistic, etc) things start to get really interesting. One of the subgenres I find the most fascinating is the Self Portrait with Model.
Self portraits with models are a very gender specific format. With few exceptions (None of which are very well known as far I can tell) the artist is a man and the model is a woman. The artist is clothed and meets the viewer’s gaze, expressing a sense of power. Out of the numerous examples I have been able to find the artists are all white, male, and generally upwards of thirty years old. The models are young, white, conventionally attractive women who pose in various states of undress. They seldom meet our gaze. The tone I am picking up on is one of possessiveness. Artists gesture towards the models (as seen above), touch their bodies, or simply loom aggressively over the figures. There is a sense of bravado at the power they hold over these nude, young women that I’m sure fellow art students have witnesses amongst their peers (We get it art boys! You painted this from a live model! Naked women will pose for you! Congratulations!)
Were there merely a few paintings of this nature I would accept them as an artist displaying his work environment, his skill, or simply something he enjoys. But the fact that there are so many self portraits with models raises important questions.
First! More Self Portraits with Models:
More after the jump!
Pretty formulaic, really. Although the theme spreads across different artistic styles and mediums the basic gist remains the same; an artist (A man with clothing and a personality) with a model (A woman who acts in the role as beautiful, nude muse).
One of main problems with this format is why there are close to no Self Portraits with Models that feature female artists and male muses. In my search I was able to locate this painting:
Some online sources (Which may all stem from Wikipedia, so take this with a grain of salt) claim this to be the first painting by a woman artist depicting herself with a nude model. Note that the model is also a woman. This speaks volumes about the way the art world (during this era at least) privileges the nude female form over the nude male form as aesthetically pleasing. Knight’s painting displays how artwork is generally created for the male gaze and that women are often painted as objects to look at, even in paintings by other women.
Take a look at this image:
This illustration accompanied a magazine story entitled, A Kiss from Johnny. In this scenario the artist is a woman, the model is a man, and yet the power exchange is very different. The model has swept the artist backwards, encroaches upon her space. He can hardly be seen as powerless. Of course, this is not a self portrait, simply a depiction of the artist/model relationship that I felt to be applicable to the situation.
Arguably the most famous of these works is by Kirchner:
This piece typifies the Self Portrait with Model. Kirchner looms in the foreground, unconfined by the boundaries of the painting. He stands confidently with what could be read as a smirk upon his face. The colorful robe drapes over his body, but is obviously unbuttoned, emphasizing the nudity underneath. In contrast, the model in the background is small. She huddles inward with hunched shoulders and legs turned slightly away from the viewer. Her hand is held in her lap, drawing attention to her genitalia. The model’s expression is hard to read. She is clearly unhappy, but whether she is upset, angry, or fearful is uncertain. There is a tension in the air that could be read as an erotic charge, but with the unhappy model it implies something darker. I’ve heard arguments that Kirchner is implying that this model has been violated, but I could not say for sure. Whatever the sexual relationship between the two may be, there is an obvious power dynamic at play, with Kirchner having control over his model.
The narrative becomes more obvious when one realizes the longstanding history of artist/model relationships. Famous artists like Picasso, Modligiani, Renoir, Degas, Schiele, and so many more have a history of sleeping with their models. Some artists (Like Otto Dix, as seen above) call attention to this relationship in order to satirize it. Other artists (Like Kirchner) call attention to the relationship while reinforcing it.
This subgenre could be understandable were it not for the lack of gender dynamics other than masculine artist/feminine model. As women gain more prominence in the art world and queer artists fight for a larger platform it would seem reasonable to see more women depicting men, women depicting women, men depicting men, or any combination of gender identities rather than the limited one seen here.
Here is a Self Portrait with Model I found refreshing, in that while many factors of the artist/model relationship remain the same, the model is not what society considers conventionally attractive. This entirely transforms the tone and meaning behind the piece, with Hanson referencing the implied sexual relationship behind Self Portraits with Models. (Although the implied lack of sexual attraction specifically because of the woman’s appearance is a whole nother can of worms).
So share your thoughts in the comments. And if you know of interesting Self Portraits with Models, please share!