30 Aug 2014

The Selfie.

10th January, 1963. “Love Me Do” moves up to number 17 from last week’s 24. Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender” at number two has already made me a music fan. The Beatles ensure it will remain a lifelong passion. My art teacher has set me the only worthwhile homework he manages to dream up in the seven years I will know him. His problem is he doesn’t dream. Maybe two years National Service took that away. I am a grammar school boy, identified as an arty type, but only ever directed to copy from books, add some lettering, and contemplate the painting of roses on tea trays at the nearby Metal Box factory as a better career option than the coal mines. I don’t know why. It pays far less. But for this one Thursday evening at least, studying my face in the mirror, it felt like I was doing Art. Assessment rating: Seven out of ten. Very fair.


So why do artists’ make self-portraits? Certainly not for money. The general public are not keen to purchase the portrait of a complete stranger for their home. One answer to the question can be found in the work of the two greatest masters on the subject. Rembrandt and Van Gogh both used the painted selfie to document their respective journeys through life. Rembrandt ageing with dignity, tinted by sadness; Van Gogh striving against mental instability.

For infinitely lesser mortals like myself the motives are usually much simpler. As long as one has a mirror one has a model; a challenging subject on which to develop the skill of recording from observation. However, no matter how simple the intent, can capturing a likeness ever be the sole outcome of a self-portrait? Or is some other aspect always destined to show through the surface image and disclose more about the person inside? Recently, as I use my own life experiences to inform a book I am working on, I looked back through my sketchbook selfies and was surprised at how much they reveal.


July 1972. I am living below street level in a basement flat. Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral is so close its shadow merges with those of the feet passing by my window. The feet are all I can see and, as I’ve developed the fatal art student practice of “staying at home to do some work”, life is decidedly subterranean. This month nineteen bombs will explode across Belfast in eighty minutes, Garry Glitter will begin his abuse of the pop music charts, and I am on a poorly tutored graphic design course rapidly losing all enthusiasm for art let alone the ability to draw. It was all foretold in Revelations somewhere.


August 1979. The Yorkshire Ripper is afoot. The Trade Unions refuse to listen to their own Labour Party Prime Minister and make the ensuing Thatcher Years inevitable. Former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe is cleared in court of allegations of attempted murder, whilst Syd Vicious dies in his prison cell before reaching trial. I am living under a pitched roof high above it all. It is a time of much after hours drinking and introvert music. Ironically I teach myself more about art and its history whilst working as a full time teacher in Nottingham than I ever learned as a student. After a couple of years in the profession I feel confident enough to devote more time to my own painting. To my amazement my first serious artworks gain a one man showcase in Nottingham Castle. I may have peaked too soon.


For obvious and understandable reasons a full time teacher adopts a kind of alter ego, and I see now in retrospect a clear division between self-portrait sketches made during classroom lunch hours and the more expressive, perhaps more personal studies produced at home. This was also the time when rejection slips started coming thick and fast, as the political landscape turned art galleries which once took risks into formulaic commercial craft shops.


1990. Glasgow is awarded Culture Capital of Europe whilst London streets are beset with poll tax riots. I am the son of a carpenter. Our relationship is not close, and I can’t walk on water. But I can modify my approach to self-portraiture. Less raw, hopefully no less expressive, the result is exhibited in the Bonnington Gallery, Nottingham.


January 2006. James Blunt and Coldplay win Brit Awards. Thinking this must surely herald the “end of times” I resign from full time employment and, as a bonus for never buying their records, award myself a five year playtime. There will be no self-portraits. Self-portraits are like diaries; happy times fill the least number of pages.


2013. The ghost of Mrs B returns to tell me playtime was long since over. I must not have heard the bell, having been accepted by ten Open Exhibitions, published twice, and awarded a truck full of sketchbooks which still spill from the loft. She leads the way back to class.


2014. Twitter becomes a good place for feedback and further experimental self-portraits. According to Rembrandt, “Life etches itself onto our faces as we grow older, showing our violence, excesses or kindnesses.” If that’s the case I really should smile more.