Eye Level: Self-Portraits from the Permanent Collection

  • Dec 3, 2006 – Feb 25, 2007

Portraits are an ancient and powerful means of communication. Among the earliest known portraits are those that were made to commemorate ancestors. Heads made of clay or carved from stone were used in religious ceremonies to revere the dead, who were believed to live in the spirit world. Later, portraits made during the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman Empires were of gods, political leaders, and military heroes. Such images identified for the community in no uncertain terms who the important people were. The historical function of portraits, then, has largely been social: for religious rituals, as political propaganda, and as emblems of economic status.

Closer to our own time, portraits became a common way of honoring family members and creating sentimental keepsakes. Finally, they became art objects in their own right.

The Eye Level exhibition from the permanent collection demonstrates some of the many ways that this subject—of the individual self—remains a viable one for emotional, political and philosophical investigation as we continue to see ourselves in complex, often frank, and disarming ways.

Often, a self-portrait is not designed to be placed in a public setting or serve a public function and thus the possibilities open up for intimacy, spontaneity, experimentation, and even casualness. Self-portraiture might seem inherently limited but in practice its possibilities are as broad as the imagination.

One of the more challenging directions that self-portraiture has taken in contemporary art is use of the genre as a way to subvert or question the whole idea of identity. Cindy Sherman has received acclaim for her series of photographs in which she assumes in costume and pose the attributes of a movie star, a housewife, a tourist, etc. Her self-portraits, then, are not portraits of Cindy Sherman, artist (though they are), as much as of Cindy Sherman, poseur.

What seems initially a simple aesthetic ploy is actually a more complicated critique of the various roles we all assume at different times for different reasons. Is a real self-portrait possible? If a portrait is merely a likeness, then yes, but if it captures the “identity” of the self, that is a separate question.

 

We have six galleries located on the first and second levels of the museum, view our gallery map.