Ways of Seeing

by Cass Art

If self-portraits are studies of the artist as self, then the portrait of the artist offers us up something new.

When artists decide to paint themselves, often it is because they are telling stories about themselves, or channelling the feelings, the peaks and troughs, of their inner lives, mapping their trajectory and creative learning.

But when someone paints someone else, something else happens. Portraiture sites artists in a different way: these images are of the artist, yes, but from a new perspective, ironic maybe, playful.

In times past the portraitist was something of a servant – there to produce an attractive work showing the sitter in a good light.

But increasingly, portraits of artists can be about something else, opening up a new way of seeing that might help us appreciate an artist, their works and their cultural role in a different light.

An important addition to this sphere featuring the British contemporary artist Damien Hirst goes on show at the National Portrait Gallery next month.

Is he smirking? Annoyed? Detached?

Jonathan Yeo’s 6ft (1.83 metres) high oil painting depicts Hirst sitting in a display case wearing a chemical suit and clutching a gas mask.

But the aspect that makes it typically Hirst, best known for works in which he preserved animals – including a sheep and a 14ft (4.3 metres) shark – in formaldehyde, is that he gets the same pickling treatment.

Discussing his thinking behind the piece, Yeo said he wanted to reflect elements of both who Hirst is and what he has done.

“The mask in his hand helps create an ambiguity, suggesting possible military connotations, that he might be diving or confronting a riot,” he said.

“Even when we realise it’s a chemical dry suit, which he uses to make his formaldehyde works, it’s not entirely clear if he is making something or whether he is being pickled in one of his own tanks. This power balance is something of which we were both conscious through the creation of the portrait.”

Hirst is ‘detached’ from the piece in some way, yet is still having an input. It is this sense of ‘looking in’ on the artist that portraits have – a power that many self-portraits do not.

Another good example is this 1995 portrait of the feminist and writer Germaine Greer by Paula Rego.

“A portrait that is kind is condescending,” Greer said. “The last thing I would want is for Paula to condescend to me, and it’s the last thing she would think of doing.”

The portrait of Damien Hirst is one of several works by Jonathan Yeo on display at the National Portrait Gallery from September 11 2013 – January 5 2014.

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