TWO VALENTINES: ASPECTS OF SELF-PORTRAITURE
IN NOVA SCOTIAN ART
The collection of Nova Scotian portraits assembled by curator Susan Foshay for this exhibition includes a group of self-portraits. Viewers who associate self-portraits with self-love will attach special meaning to the fact that this show within a show happens to be historically framed by two valentines: William Valentine, the nineteenth-century painter and photographer, who is represented by a typical nineteenth-century self-portrait, and Storme Arden, a contemporary artist who portrays herself as a Valentine's Day cake.
I have known or at least met a number of artists who are represented here by self-portraits, and looking through this collection inevitably leads me to search for familiar details in the faces. The late Carol Fraser had dark, searching eyes that always reminded me of Picasso's, and, for me, those eyes dominate her self-portrait. E. Nancy Stevens (called Ellis in her younger years) is another artist I know. She has the bone structure of a Hollywood actress, and a physical beauty which is as evident now as it is in the self-portrait she made as a student over thirty years ago. Ken Tolmie has grown a beard and, as might be expected, gotten a little heavier since painting his self-portrait in 1962. For me, even the paintings by Storme Arden and Peter Walker, which bear no likeness to their subjects, conjure images of the artists who created them.
Comparing a self-portrait with impressions one has of the living artist seems natural, but doing so puts the other self-portraits in this show into a special category in which knowledge about an artist might contradict rather than bolster one's fancy. Paul Andrews looks like a slightly rakish Gatsby in his 1934 self-portrait, as if he were about to tie a bow at his neck and leave for a speakeasy. Too easily I conjure up a girlfriend for him out of Melda Landry's 1935 picture of herself as a confident flapper. Unlike my contemplation of the Ellis, Arden, or Tooke pictures, which portray artists I know, my thoughts about Landry and Andrews cannot be shaped by my experience of the artists. William Valentine looks like a benevolent patriarch in his self-depiction: maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. I have never met Ellen Gould Sullivan, but I have seen her house, and so an image of her bungalow emerges as I look at the hooked rug which contains her self-portrait.
After I square what I know or imagine about the artists with their self-portraits, I judge the painting a success if it encourages a second, third, or even a twenty-fifth look: if the self-portrait, like DNA, replicates a life by instilling and preserving--or perhaps supplementing--a memory, then I deem it to be successful. But if I find myself quickly diverted only by the historical circumstances of the self-portrait's production and distribution - for example, by questions about what makes a self-portrait "Nova Scotian" (and we note that there is not a blue nose in any of the self-portraits in this exhibition) - then I deem the work to be a failure. If a self-portrait is not compelling enough for a viewer to return to it again and again, then it fails in its primary purpose, which is to perpetuate a life as a memory.
The Painting and the Photograph: William Valentine
William Valentine was one of the first Nova Scotian artist/photographers. He made full scale portrait paintings, portrait miniatures and photographic portraits, few of which have survived, for the Halifax market in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Valentine could give his patrons a range of choices which few portrait-makers could offer today - he could paint a large portrait , a miniature, or he could take a photograph.
Valentine made paintings both before and after the invention of photography. Painters had used mechanical tools of various sorts for centuries before Valentine - Vermeer, for instance, certainly used a camera obscura, that is, a lens box - but only Valentine's generation dealt for the first time with the challenge of photographic images fixed on glass or paper. Painters flocked to photography, quickly realizing the significance of a medium that, even in the 1840s, was cheaper than any form of portrait painting. Perhaps Valentine himself could have anticipated the inevitable commercial extinction of the art of the portrait miniature, and the partial eclipse of the large-scale painted portrait when he took up photography.
Valentine had a commercial career, and so a self-portrait would have been, among other things, a chance to show technical skill and pleasing effects which would be of interest to potential patrons. In addition, Valentine's self-portrait displays his need to portray himself as a comfortable member of the same class as his clients.
These commercial interests were real, but it would be cynical to characterize Valentine's self-portrait, or any other self-portrait in this exhibition, simply as an advertisement or a display of skill and talent made for the sole purposes of trade, self-aggrandizement, career.
Conventions of posing and lighting which for centuries had inhabited paintings were sometimes sensitively transferred to the new medium of photography by artists such as Valentine; however, conventions which had not taken firm hold such as blurred effects and play with what in photography is called "depth of field" were given new status after the invention of photography as "mistakes." The stock-still posture, the returned gaze, the detailed and accurate physical description of a face and body in full daylight were adapted to photography from painting almost as an afterthought. The humanist and religious idea that a soul or an essence of a subject can be seen in a face easily survived the invention of photography, despite many early complaints that photographs missed the "true"
essence of a subject, paradoxically enough, because they were often too unflatteringly accurate.
Today, unless we know a person, when we ask ourselves if a self-portrait is a true representation we almost always look to photography as a standard of comparison. Perhaps William Valentine got his eyes "wrong" or perhaps he used a photograph (impossible if the date of this painting is indeed c.1840) to get his eyes "right" in his self-portrait. Before photography we have other artist's depictions with which to compare likenesses, and written accounts of physical features, but after photography only gradations of light-sensitive chemicals on a flat surface suffice as the standard basis of comparison of portraits to living faces.
The argument for photographic emulsion as a standard for measuring the accuracy of many self-portraits seems trivial. Micmac bead work can be allegorized into native self-portraiture, or, as Storme Arden and Peter Walker have done, one could use a painting of a cake or a photograph of a brain with Canadian Tire listings as a self-portrait. Of course, the iconographic traditions of Western art that have been continued by photography can be wished away by neither by argument or art. Many still believe that a human face reveals great things to us, and that its literal depiction in a painting or a photograph is a window on a soul that a picture of a brain or Micmac bead work can never be. But what, asks both the maker and the viewer of a self-portrait, is a soul?
Nova Scotian Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century
Since Rembrandt the psychology of the sorrows of a changing face have tended to smother out other approaches to self-portraiture in Western art. Self-portraits in this exhibition by Paul Andrews, Carol Fraser, Tom Forrestall, Gesner, Melda Landry, Ken Tolmie, and E. Nancy Stevens (Ellis) speak from an age - still our age - in which the psychological self-portrait attempts to allow the viewer into an artist's soul or personality. Soul-searching and the technical struggle to get a line right can be the same thing, as Gesner draws her own scrutinizing eye, Landry paints her stiffened brow, and Tolmie composes a picture so that he gazes down at the viewer with a look of youthful contempt.
So a self-portrait can be both a technical exercise and a struggle in which the artist must fight themselves for the truth. Paint conjures up whatever it is we call a soul in exactly the same way that flesh conjures up a face: that is, through an admixture of consciousness. But by the late nineteenth-century, if not earlier, the traditional psychological self-portrait got stale. With the advent of Modernism and notions that colour, line and form could be independent, abstract, expressive elements, the self-portrait was freed from its psychological condition, but also from faithful appearances. Henceforth, an artist's face could be lost or found in a tangle of lines and swathes of colour, or extinguished in a chaos of paint and collage. The traditional psychological self-portrait which we associate with great Western artists such as Rembrandt offers insight into the artist's feelings and thought -- his or her mental state -- through the use of physiognomic clues of facial expression, and through the expressive use of clothing and setting. Colour, line and form construct the expression in these portraits, and the material of paint is always put at the service of an iconic representation. In the Modernist era, however, no educated artist could make a self-portrait out of paint without wondering how colour, line and form not only supplemented a likeness, but were also independent of what is being depicted in a picture. Contemporary artists are still often unsure about what line, form and colour should do in a self-portrait if an illusion of likeness is not the goal.
Nancy Ellis, Ken Tolmie, and Tom Forrestall attended Mount Allison University's Fine Arts Department at a time when a self-portrait was expected of every graduate as a traditional demonstration of skill. Ellis and Tolmie dutifully fulfilled this assignment, and the results are shown here. Forrestall's silver point drawing is more recent, but also shows evidence of the artist's academic training at Mount Allison.
Mount Allison is located close to the Nova Scotia / New Brunswick border on the New Brunswick side. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the school was famous for its faculty, which included Alex Colville -- certainly Nova Scotia's most famous self-portraitist -- and students such as Christopher and Mary Pratt. At the time, the school had a traditional academy-style approach to art education, one which encouraged self-portraits executed with attention to harmonious colour, in which a mirror image of the artist returns the viewer's gaze. What distinguishes the Ellis (1955) and Tolmie (1962) self-portraits from the others in this exhibition is not only the facts of their production within this educational context, but also their traditional nature within the wider world of art, which at the time was dominated by Modernist ideas of abstraction.
The Ken Tolmie self-portrait displays a willful impulse to ignore Modernist methods of painting. Tolmie rejects the art most identified with his own era as he paints himself. His technical problems are evident: this is clearly the work of a student. Thirty years ago Tolmie's work, and the work of earlier Modernist artists such as Gesner and Andrews, would have been characterized as perhaps as not being contemporary art at all. One could have identified this work with regionalist painting of the Grant Wood / Thomas Hart Benton type of the twenties and thirties, but to do that would also be to label the work as backward, at least within the dominant discourse of contemporary art.
Now we are not as sure in our judgment of such works. In comparing Carol Fraser's self-portrait of 1965 to Tolmie's of 1962, one may even venture that Tolmie's regression, however stymied by his student lack of mastery in painting, is just as interesting as Fraser's more mature Modernist sensibility, because it challenged the dominant discourse within the art world. Tolmie's defiant look may signify a transgressively conservative act as much as Fraser's vulnerable-looking gaze may be seen to reflect her liberal struggle to find a place within the dominant art discourse of the time. Certainly these two artists' careers tend to reinforce this idea. Tolmie's future work -- for example, his rendering of small town life in series such as the Bridgetown paintings -- could not have differed more greatly from the formal and surrealistic explorations which mark Fraser's art. As young artists Fraser and Tolmie give the viewer hints about their future art as well as their theoretical orientation, and we read their self-portraits as a program for a show we are about to witness, in Tolmie's case, and a show we would already have been witnessing in Fraser's 1960s work.
The Self-Depicted Folk Artist
Self-portraits by Collin Eisenhauer, Eddie Mandaggio, Sam Mills, Bradford and Leo Naugler, and Ellen Gould Sullivan fit into a tradition of Nova Scotian folk art in which artists put themselves into the imaginary world which they create. Technically speaking, this means depicting themselves in the same way they depict other people: that is, as more-or-less featureless signs which represent a type and not an individual in the psychological sense so dear to most self-portraitists.
Many Nova Scotian folk artists, such as the Naugler brothers, are professionals, but without the typical professional artist's background and orientation. Their self-representations serve as visual résumés. Everything that the folk artist wants a viewer to know about himself is conveyed in the self-portrait with an economy that the written CV which the artist is often not able to write would otherwise convey: firstly, the artist lets us know what kind of work he makes, how he carves, what colour he uses, and so forth. Moreover, by putting herself in the work, the artist proclaims that he herself is "folk," that she is part of a self-created imaginary world, and perhaps even mischievously implies that, as far as the viewer is concerned, within that world she has no more of a "psychological" interior than a chair or a fiddle.
The searching gaze, the self-pitying frown, and the self-conscious dignity typical of the art-trained artist's self-portrait are absent from the folk artist's self-depictions, but the folk artist nevertheless has his or her own pretensions, however reversed. Folk artists have an estranged relationship to the people who buy their work. They are almost always charming people (one rarely hears about the moody, petulant, brooding folk artist), and they are often articulate about their work. As a professional artist, the contemporary folk artist has a different relationship to his patrons than the middle class artist. The relationship is similar to the relationship that working people have to a boss, in which the boss is flattered and the artist / worker is demeaned. Part of that flattering involves self-depictions of the artist as a piece of furniture. These depictions save a private world for the artist which the art patron cannot enter. If the middle class artist is anxious to have a viewer enter his or her psychological world, it is because that world is shared by the viewer. The folk artist has no interest in allowing access to his interior life because he or she knows that would make it the object of ridicule. Better to fade into the woodwork where one might get a little privacy.
"Self-Portrait with Yellow Streak" and Other Recent Self-Portraits
I made "Self-Portrait with Yellow Streak" in 1987 out of red, yellow, blue, and flesh tones while looking in a mirror. Most of my self-portraits are photo ID cards painted onto 3" x 5" masonite panels, but "Yellow Streak" is an exception. A few years before making this work I had hung an exhibition of artists' self-portraits called "The Hand Holding the Brush" at the Art Gallery of Mount Saint Vincent University, where I worked as a curatorial apprentice. The show was an extraordinary collection of glum, heart-felt, and stern expressions, and the exhibition made an impression on me.
Most of the faces which curator Robert Stacey included in the exhibition were male and most showed an inordinate concern for dignity, resolve, and pride in a face. "Self-Portrait with Yellow Streak" was a direct response to the tradition of the psychological self-portrait. A yellow streak goes right down my invisible back in this picture. I intended the yellow streak in the hair -- as well as the small scale of the painting -- to mock cults of masculinity in contemporary art. It is probably impossible to discuss my own self-portrait without sounding disingenuous, but I think that there is still too much psychology in this work, too much Cliff Eyland-the-sufferer, and too much masochism. "Yellow Streak" is an ingratiating reinforcement of the psychological pretensions of the artist's self-portrait despite its attempt to mock a certain male mythology. In looking at the work now I can't decide whether I dislike it mostly because of its false vulnerability, or because it shows an actual timidity which I would rather not have made public.
Recent works by Storme Arden and Peter Walker which have been included in this show seem much cleverer than "Yellow Streak." When Arden made a self-portrait as a cake, and when Walker included an image of a brain with a list from a hardware store catalogue, neither artist could have been thinking about Rembrandt. The exhaustion of the traditional psychological self-portrait has encouraged all sorts of similar responses in contemporary art, from Bruce Campbell's x-ray light box, in which the artist appears with his wife as an anonymous actor, to Susan Tooke's installation of composite photographs, sound tape and other mixed media elements. There is a recognition by the artist in such works that he or she is an individual who is also one of a type or a class of people, one of a crowd, someone whose soul, whatever that is, may be represented just as easily by something other than a face.