Friday, January 2, 2015

Our Portraits Our Selves…Why So Serious?

The third in a series where we explore the female self-portrait in contemporary realism.

When we show our self-portraits, one of the more common questions is why we’re so serious.

If we’ve spent the better part of the month staring at ourselves in the mirror, trying to perfect a likeness on a face so familiar you don’t even know WHAT it truly looks like anymore, the answer should be obvious. But, the general public…and the people who know and love you…want to see you smiling and happy like you are in your facebook party posts. That’s how they know you. Not as an intense art professional perfecting their craft.

Hey honey, smile!

Shana Levenson has often been told to smile in a painting. From her series, “Supermoms” where super-hero clad moms perform miracles, her painting, “Birthday Girl” shows a supermom drained from making life fun for everyone else. Ironically it is this work that got the “smile!” comment.

Detail from Birthday Girl by Shana Levenson

She did succeed in making her point with the painting. No one should tell a post-birthday party mom to smile, they should just hand her a glass of wine and clean up for her. The smile will happen naturally.

Self Portrait by Karen Kaapcke

Karen Kaapcke, blogged and painted each day throughout her 50th year. During the course of this project, many no-holds-barred self-portraits were created. (She is currently working on a similar project often posting nude self-portraits in stages of completion …more about this in later installments of “Our Portraits Our Selves”). At one point she was asked why she doesn’t smile in her self-portraits. Rising to this challenge, she gave this viewer a smile…of sorts…

Untitled Self Portrait by Karen Kaapcke

Self-Portrait with Beard by Terry Strickland

And Terry Strickland was told to smile…though her mouth wasn’t even showing in her painting, “Self Portrait with Beard.” It was actually Van Gogh’s mouth that wasn’t smiling!

Terry talks about how one person quizzed her at a Women Painting Women Show Opening Reception.

“I was talking about how it was Van Gogh’s beard, and though it is humorous on the surface there is an underlying commentary about gender inequality. I’m raising questions about how my life would be different if I was a man, if I could just put on a beard and instantly be held in equal regard to a man. I think it points out the ridiculousness of prejudice. But the person I was talking to thought I looked sad in the painting and said, ‘Well that’s not worth looking sad over.’ Which kind of took me aback, because actually gender inequality is a pretty big deal.”


Art Historians and museum patrons also LOVE to analyze artists through their paintings. Little do they know that we’re not flailing mental patients, but cold, calculated professionals that often (but not always) control our outcomes to elicit certain responses, visual, symbolic and emotional; we can paint happy even when we’re sad, and vice verse. And often painting makes us happy…or sad, so there’s that too.

Nonetheless, psychoanalysis and gossip about artist’s lives is a fun gallery boredom-buster for the masses that throng to art museums but didn’t get the headphone package and are forced to look at the pictures without being told the right answers… ;o)

Some psycho-analyzing visitors had fun with Leslie Adams’ portrait, while on display at her solo show at the Toledo Museum of Art.

The Art of Life by Leslie Adams

Leslie says, “I came across a group of nursing students studying The Art of Life. They all had clipboards so I asked them what they were doing? They said that, for their psychology class, they had to analyze one work in the museum and they picked mine.

I asked them what they thought, to which they responded, “Oh, you really don’t want to know.” Me, being the curious me, said, “Oh sure, try me.”

“They said that I was a hoarder, that I was an alcoholic (note the bottle of wine with three wine glasses), and that I had my head down because I was so depressed and disappointed with my life and my career. Ironically, none of the NURSING students mentioned anything about the MRI scans in the picture.”

Tucked into all her finely rendered detail, was a picture-within-a-picture of another of Leslie’s self-portraits, “Sensazione: A Self-portrait.”  The original of this drawing, depicting Leslie in front of her own MRI scans, was at the time on display at the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Maybe the nurses didn’t want to be graded on how well they interpreted MRI scans?

Sensazione: A Self-Portrait by Leslie Adams

The turbulent relationship with a self-portrait

Alia El-Bermani’s The Skeptic stops you in your tracks and doesn’t let go. Of her self-portrait below, Alia says:

The Skeptic by Alia El-Bermani

 “I think I tend to accentuate my “flaws” instead of glossing over them. It’s my way of saying “here I am, accept me or not” as much to myself as to the audience. For me, the canyons across my forehead and the constellations of acne scars tell some of my stories and are as much “me” as the shape of my eye or the ball of my nose. And instead of concealing them, in my attempt to paint honestly, I think I inadvertently end up exaggerating them.”

Midway through “The Skeptic,” Alia realized that in addition to painting her face, she was also painting “the mental gymnastics I tend to go through for all my work that turns out any good. There is a part of my creative process that can be pretty brutal. It starts off all nice, in the honeymoon phase where I’m desperately in love with the idea, and the act of painting. And then, at some point doubt starts to creep in. That nefarious friend, doubt. I tend to beat myself up, disbelieving in my ability as a painter, in my validity as an artist, as a thinker. If I can fight my way through that stage, then I know I have a work that will speak volumes.”

And then, after “sticking her brush in her heart and spilling it out all over the stage” (thank you Mick Jagger) someone comes along and tells her the portrait’s not pretty enough…

If you’re not already in the choir I’m preaching to, and you’re still reading, I hope you do realize just how egregiously trivializing it is to damn an artist with such a back-handed compliment.  We know you mean it nicely, but kindly please stop saying it.

The self-portrait as an act of defiance

And now I’ll leave you with one last self-portrait. This one was an act of defiance against higher education powers that marginalize portraiture.

Self-Portrait by Felice House

When Felice House was 30, she went back to get her MFA in Painting at a major university art department. Thrilled to be accepted into the program, she says “My excitement soon turned to dismay when I realized that representational figure painting was not a genre that fit into their conception of the art world. I was required to work on campus in a studio with no door. Faculty would wander in at random times during the day and give “off the cuff” unsolicited comments.

I felt exposed and humiliated. In reaction, I made this self-portrait and placed it by the door of the studio. I think it effectively sums up the claustrophobia and depression that I was feeling at the time. My husband has the drawn study for the painting in his closet. My father on the other hand can barely look at it.

I think we, as representational figurative artists coming of artistic age in the last 30 years or so can all relate to Felice’s frustrating scenario…where the painting of humanity, so very central to our core has been dismissed by art institutions in more ways than we can count.

In searching for a wonderful closing phrase, I came up with this one, “In painting ourselves we take back the reins; the control of our selves, our bodies, our faces and our art.” But, strictly speaking, this isn’t true, unless the viewing public “gets it” and understands just what it is we’ve done!

So, in giving you a myriad of motivations and experiences, this is what the Cecilia Beaux Forum blog attempts to do…to help the viewer “get it.”

If you’re painting yourself and other people too, take heart, there are many others out there like you. 

And if you’re a patron of the arts, eternal thanks to you for reading to the end and perhaps putting some thought into what you’ll say to the next artist you meet as she’s standing next to her self-portrait that isn’t nearly as pretty as she is. Unlike artists, sensitive patrons are not plentiful and we value you more than words can say.

And, dear patron, remember, perhaps our most favorite comment of all still remains, “I love it. I want it. Here’s a check.”

Written by Judy Takács
Cecilia Beaux Forum

Chair New Media Relations
Portrait Society of America


  1. Fantastic post, Judy. The number of times I've been told to smile more!

    1. Thanks Kate! I'd love to see some of your self portraits…even if they're not happy ones. Maybe if you painted yourself holding a kitten? ;)