Narcissus in the Studio

Art is all around us. The refrigerator magnets are mini Matisses, there’s Van Gogh on the coffee mug. Art fills magazines and billboards, blogs and videos, and in the city of Philadelphia, wherever you turn there’s a mural stretching across the entire wall of a building.

This presents increasing challenges for museums: how can they entice visitors to fork over the price of admission when they can see art everywhere from the doctor’s office to youtube?

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia provides plenty of reasons. The building alone, in the shadow of City Hall, with its guilded Gothic arches, is worth the price of admission.

If, like me, you get off on being with artists in their studios, Narcissus in the Studio, on view through Jan. 2, 2011, is a must-see. You can almost smell the paint of these artists, including George Grosz, Roy Lichtenstein, Red Grooms, George Tooker and others. Even the original palettes of Thomas Eakins, who taught at PAFA, and William Merritt Chase are on display.

“These iconic paintings are part of an extraordinary collection of revealing and historically important artists’ portraits that span the entire history of American art,” says Robert Cozzolino, PAFA’s curator of Modern Art.

With more than 100 works in painting, sculpture, photography and works on paper, what makes this show so exciting is that it’s about people. It satisfies the voyeur in us, to look at how artists see themselves, or see others, including the details in the rooms that help to define them.

It can be argued that even when an artist paints another subject, she or he is still painting a self portrait. “Many artists over many periods and from widely different backgrounds
have restated the idea that every artist paints what/who they are,” says Mr. Cozzolino. “Some are explicit in stating that they feel every work of art is in some way a self-portrait, whether they appear in the imagery or not. Others imply
that each object or image they produce contributes to a cumulative biography and thus is inseparable from self-representation.”

An example of an artist’s own features appearing in the faces he depicts is George Tooker’s.  “Tooker’s people — almost exclusively out of his imagination — even when not meant to be self-portraits, bear his features. He has said that this is not intentional. But as an art professor I once had put it, artists carry the visual qualities of the face they know best into their representations of faces.”

For fun, there’s an artist studio set up in the gallery. PAFA students are stationed here, creating their own self-portraits from a large mirror. There’s a window where visitors can look inside the studio and see themselves in the mirror as the artists work from their own reflection.

At PAFA, the oldest art museum and school in the U.S., there is still an emphasis on the classical tradition: portraiture, based on drawing, sculpture or painting, using the figure in a realistic way is still a cornerstone of the program.

The exhibit is organized by theme, so paintings 200 years old are mixed in with more contemporary work. In the first room, all the subjects are looking straight ahead, seemingly at the viewer.

“Self-portraits arise out of a basic human impulse to contemplate who we are,” writes Mr. Cozzolino in the exhibition catalog. “Self-portraiture may be a partial representation of self but it is always an allegory of seeing… Artists have the unique opportunity to make their own portrait embody creation myths and symbolize the origin of art, echoing Narcissus’s self-recognition in the unstable pool or restaging the tracing of a shadow against a wall to invent representation.”

The artist Emily Brown’s self-portrait is a shadow in the swirling Wissahickon River that merges these two legends on the origins of art and “emphasizes the ephemeral quality of any glance into the self – whether by mirror, pool or introspection,” says Mr. Cozzolino.

“We live in the era of self-centeredness, as we upload millions of photos a day to Facebook,” says Heike Rass, PAFA public relations manager. “We’re still obsessed with images of people. This exhibit places it in a more meaningful context of the time we live in and how artists use their tools to tell a story.

“Two hundred years ago it was about the training,” she continues. “You made it as realistic and smooth as possible, so you don’t see the handiwork of the artist.” This was before photography, when painting and sculpture were the only means to create portraiture.

The self-portrait can be a conversation between the artist and the work, or a way for the artist to question herself, to look deep inside and see the naked truth, or is can be a way to conceal, says Ms. Rass, who earned a master’s in art history at Temple University.

Gregory Gillespie, a hyper realist painter, put the head of his good friend, fellow photorealist William Beckman, on his own body in his own studio. Mr. Beckman paints just heads against neat backgrounds, but as a friendly mocking, Mr. Gillespie set the figure in his own busy studio, with a large purple eggplant on a sheet of paper on the floor. “He’s making fun of the idea of what a portrait is,” says Ms. Rass.

Juxtaposed against the dark 18th-century canvases of James and Charles Wilson Peale are light contemporary works that make you laugh. Mia Rosenthal draws the clothes she wore after her pregnancy, and Gladys Nillson paints her own 70th birthday party, a wild and crazy affair.

Sue Coe wrote a graphic novel expose on the meat industry, and there is a self-portrait of her as a witness to a slaughterhouse.

Joe Fig has created a sort of dollhouse, a model of his studio. You can look inside the skylights, or the open door, to see him working at his table. Packed up in the loft are his stacks of paintings and boxes. There’s a pegboard for his tools, and teeny tiny oh-so-cute cans and tubes of paints and brushes. There’s even a model within the model!

Sometimes, the self-portrait may be the studio without the artist in it, such as “Con Te Partio II” by Amer Kobaslija. This is a bird’s eye perspective of the studio with paint splattered floor, walls filled with paintings and photos, a mirror and a towel on a hook – and a camera on a tripod aimed right at you, the viewer.

Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-1977) was largely a self-taught artist, whose style is described as a “haunting synthesis of American folk art, surrealism and 16th-century Flemish painting. She creates narrative in a spooky nocturnal landscape composed from a synthesis of memory and imagination in such works as “Girl Searching.”

In a statement for a 1945 exhibition catalog, Ms. Abercrombie wrote, “I am not interested in complicated things nor in the common place. I like to paint simple things that are a little strange.”

Her work is juxtaposed against Gina Litherlands “Queen of Uncharted Territory,” a finely dressed woman in a fur cape and leopard-skin gloves, holding a kitty in one hand and a dandelion in the other; paint brushes and milkweed pods fill her pocket and a wren perches on a nest on her hat.

“What makes this show accessible is that we all know what a portrait is, and we are comfortable with it,” says Ms. Hass. “The way it’s interpreted may cause discomfort, but you don’t have to explain this show. Some artists want that edge. Today, art doesn’t have to be beautiful. It doesn’t have to be anything.”

Narcissus in the Studio: Artist Portraits and Self-Portraits is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 128 North Broad St., Philadelphia, through Jan. 2, 2011. 215-972-7600;

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