(portrait painted in oil over collage created from recycled materials)
“Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?”
I frequently use myself as a subject for my paintings. I started painting self-portraits after I discovered Frida Kahlo. Up until that point the idea of painting one’s face over and over seemed like something a narcissist might do. I was raised in the Soviet Union by people with old-world morals who held firm beliefs that being humble is a virtue. While I was familiar with Rembrant’s, Picasso’s and Van Gogh’s self-portraits and saw them as means of self-expression I couldn’t fathom that an artist might want to paint themselves dozens of time.
My mind was blown once I got introduced to Kahlo’s self-portraits. Her works were certainly about her, and yet they were not. They were personal and universal at the same time. I could relate to her for the same reasons people are capable of relating to each other without having exact life experiences. I felt her struggles because I’ve struggled (although for different reasons), and I could understand her pain because I’ve felt pain before (although my pain wasn’t the same as hers).
Once I understood that my face is not a direct representation of my inner ego, but rather a face that could’ve been anybody’s in the world I decided to give self-portraits a shot. BTW, it was years before ‘selfie’ was a thing. It’s hard to believe that there was ever such a time, right? So when I started on my ‘self-portrait journey’ my friends used to tease me quite a lot. Whenever I’d mention that I painted something new, one of them would always ask, “Let me guess? Is it a self-portrait?”
Oh, how the times have changed. It became perfectly normal to have thousands of pictures of yourself and most people don’t perceive it as narcissism. We have forgotten that throughout human history very few individuals were fortunate enough to have enough skills to even create a self-portrait. Not to mention how few people over the thousands of years we’ve had visual arts had portraits of them painted by others.
I’ve always felt very privileged being capable to visually recreate not just my likeness, but my inner feelings. Although, I’ve also questioned whether there is any significant difference between me and a school girl constantly taking selfies. One day I realized something significant. I realized that every human wants to matter, to be noticed, understood and hopefully remembered. However, up until recently very few of us had the means and the skills to produce something they could leave behind – a self-portrait that expresses what they feel at the moment.
With that in mind, I came to a conclusion that although I do paint myself quite a lot my desire to leave a legacy by preserving my mug for posterity is completely normal. Not to mention that from a practical perspective I’m also always available to myself as a model. Plus, I’m extremely easy to work with and to quote Ms. Kahlo: “I’m the subject I know best.”