Self: Image and Identity at Margate’s Turner Contemporary presents more than 100 self-portraits by artists from the sixteenth-century to the present day, artists which include Sir Anthony van Dyck and JMW Turner to recent work by Louise Bourgeois, Gavin Turk, Damien Hirst and many more.
Traditionally the self portrait has been connected to mortality and the fragility of life, often including ‘hidden clues’ within the painting as a shorthand way of giving information about the subject’s wealth, sexuality and outlook on life. It can be a way of documenting something that has happened in your life or showing off your skill – painting yourself is technically difficult and also requires you to look honestly at yourself. This isn’t just the case in art; similar clues are often present in the ‘selfies’ proliferating online. So when Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Self-Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare shows herself holding a stuffed hare, the hare is not only a traditional reference to a lust for life but also a nod to the hair loss you usually suffer during treatment for cancer. This self-portrait documented a significant moment in Taylor-Johnson’s life: her recent battle with a second occurrence of cancer, which resulted in a mastectomy at a very young age, hence the ‘single-breasted’ suit. Taylor-Johnson explains: ‘The hare symbolises lust and passion, so here I am with a head of hair, in a single-breasted suit, holding on to lust and passion.’
Maggi Hambling’s self portrait is also swirling with clues, although not always clear. Hambling said of the painting: ‘This is the painting of the muddle of my life… a recently departed lover…people ask about the arms, well, arms move around, it seemed quite sensible to me to have one for the glass for a drink when you’ve had a day of complete frustration, a hand for the brush and, of course, a hand for the cigarette.’
Damien Hirst’s piece, a vitrine within a vitrine, full of exactly what you’d expect to find in an artist’s studio, is funny, hopefully deliberately. I LOVE YOU written in lipstick on the full-length mirror works on several levels – it could be either a declaration of self-love, a message from an admirer or a message to YOU, the viewer! Likewise the roll of toilet paper attached to the easel – is he mischievously indicating that (his) art is basically crap?! Where the more traditional self-portraits from past centuries are harder to decipher unless you have an arts history background or have researched the subject ahead of your visit, Hirst is almost oversharing, throwing quite a lot of information at the viewer.
The range of expression at Self is vast. The more traditional self-portraits may look mannered initially till you know the back-story. The van Dyck, which is the natural centerpiece, was painted at the height of his considerable fame – he was the most influential portrait painter ever to have worked in Britain and his legacy was to last for the next three centuries.
Yet when you discover he died soon after at the fairly young age of 42, the haughty ‘yeah, what of it?’ expression softens into a slightly haunted look, wistful even, a man who was possibly overworked, who maybe even had an inkling that his allotted life span was drawing to a close.
Obviously the queen of the ‘yeah, wot of it?’ expression, the geezer bird’s geezer bird, the formidable Sarah Lucas has no less than 12 portraits, all simmering with attitude and a point blank refusal to play along with conventional heterosexual norms. I love her fierceness and strength, what an inspiration. Her expression while posing with two fried eggs over her breasts is one of defiance. ‘I dare you to say even one word’.
Stepping gingerly round Jeremy Millar’s Self-portrait as a Drowned Man, which is almost too realistic, right down to the wet looking dirty clothes and the grains of coarse sand – especially considering the nearby beach and Margate’s rough and ready charms – I reach the little oasis that is Tracey Emin’s short film Why I Never Became A Dancer. Any exhibition relating to the self taking place in Margate would be incomplete without its most famous daughter. Watching Emin triumphantly dancing to Sylvester’s Mighty Real while mentally waving two fingers at those princes amongst men who first had her teen-age self then rewarded her tattered virginity with a chorus of SLAG, SLAG, SLAG while she was competing for the Disco Dancing Final in 1978 (and the chance to go to London. London!), thus causing her to fail. Well, Shane, Eddie, Tony, Doug and Richard – Emin decided living well truly is the best revenge and promptly left Margate to eventually become a rich and famous artist. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d love to see where those guys are now. The film itself is a bitter-sweet love letter to the Margate Emin grew up in, a jerky recording of the illustrious ‘Golden Mile’ on the sea front in the days before Turner Contemporary was built, the title written by hand using the local soft chalk on an algae covered wall, Emin herself talking about her experience of growing up in this small town.
The comedian Hugh Dennis has made an audio guide to ten of the works, available for £4, which I recommend, it is funny and insightful. Turner Contemporary is a charity and is working very hard to reach a goal of one million pounds by April this year so any help is extremely welcome. Turner Contemporary has a very ambitious program, most of which is free or very reasonably priced, that it is only fair to give a little love back.
Self – Image and Identity
Till 10th May 2015
Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 6pm
Words by Anna Bang
Tagsanna bang, Jeremy Millar, Louise Bourgeois, Maggi Hambling, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin,