The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History

Description on Amazon

In this broad cultural survey, James Hall brilliantly maps the history of self-portraiture, from the earliest myths of Narcissus and the Christian tradition of bearing witness to the prolific self-image-making of todays contemporary artists. Along the way he reveals the importance of the medieval mirror craze; the confessional self-portraits of Titian and Michelangelo; the role of biography for serial self-portraitists such as Courbet and van Gogh; themes of sex and genius in works by Munch and Bonnard; and the latest developments in our globalized age. Hall covers the full range of self-portraits, from comic and caricature self-portraits to invented or imaginary ones, and looks deeply into the worlds and mindsets of the artists who have created them. Offering a rich and lively history, this is an essential read for all those interested in this most enduringly popular and humane of art forms.


detail from Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (1402)

Detail from Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (1402)


Reviews

We live in an age of addictive self-portraiture  except that the selfies who so unstoppably document the busy banality of their lives aren’t really making portraits, and it’s unclear whether there is a distinct individual self behind their lookalike grins. A digital camera’s gaze is skin-deep, and can hardly compete with the almost surgical penetration of a painted self-portrait. Photographs are instantaneous and ephemeral; it takes time to represent the advance of sagging, wrinkled mortality, as Rembrandt does when scrutinising his own face.

‘The images James Hall discusses in his enthralling book are therefore exercises in self-appraisal, not self-celebrations like the happy snaps on Facebook. Unusually, Hall’s history begins in the middle ages, because for him self-portraiture emerges as a reflex of Christian conscience, a homage to Christ’s imprinting of his agonised face on the Turin shroud. But the imitation of Christ takes courage, and it usually ends in the artist’s self-castigation. Previewing the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo actually flays himself: St Bartholomew grips the painter’s empty epidermis, which has been painfully peeled off with a butcher’s knife.’ Peter Conrad, The Observer 


The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck (1434)

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck (1434)


‘There is never a dull passage in this book: the detail is crisply imparted; the content richly arcane at times, but more usually profoundly human; the ideas come freshly coined. Hall manages to retain the intellectual high ground while writing with verve and enthusiasm. It is a creditable achievement, and, like all the best gifts, comes beautifully wrapped, in book  production of the highest quality.’ Frances Spalding,
The Guardian


‘Hall’s range of references is polymathic and his writing often pithy, but the democratically even tone – in which geniuses and nonentities are accorded the same level of interest – can feel monotonous. The book gives a good account of the role of the self-portrait in the elevation of the artist from craftsman to cultural hero. Yet Hall is so keen to avoid aggrandising the better known figures that you’re left yearning for a contrast between what’s of historical interest and what’s genuinely extraordinary. Occasionally you wish he’d let his dispassionate scholarly mask drop and scream out, “This is a freaking masterpiece!”’ Mark Hudson, Daily Telegraph


‘Topical it might be, but modish this book is not. Ranging from Akhenaten’s chief sculptor to Tracey Emin and drawing on art-historical, historical, philosophical and literary sources covering the three-and-a-half millennia of the intervening period, this is a stimulating and demanding book that requires an equally serious engagement from any reader.’ Honor Clark, The Spectator


Take care and keep laughing!

Sarah