Why do artists paint (gross) self-portraits?

You know the feeling. Accidentally flicking on the front-facing camera on your phone, and coming face to face with the horror: a double-chin and squinting eyes. So why would anyone deliberately waste time and energy to paint themselves looking, well – gross? There’s a reason this is an important question, and it’s not just about the looks.

I’ve painted self-portraits because I wanted to study the light and shadow on a face – any face – and mine was the easiest to study. I’ve painted self-portraits of myself when going through difficult stuff in my life. Technical study, examination of the outer and inner self – similar motives for painting self-portraits can be identified throughout their history.

The motives for making self-portraits have also had an effect on how they have been viewed as a form of art. When they first emerged, they were often seen and treated as not more than technical studies, signatures or even a kind of advertisement for the artists skill[1]. The nineteenth century popularized the self-portrait as a way of portraying not only the artists outer features but also their emotions and personalities.[2]

Ew, gross! What is that?

Blood, spiders, zombies – am I grossing you out? These things disgust us, and for many reasons: biological, psychological and cultural. From my (artsy) point of view, cultural reasons tie all of them together, and are most interesting. Why does stuff gross us out?

The abject is a concept developed by the french psychoanalyst, author Julia Kristeva. In her book Powers of Horror (1980) she tackles the matter of the visceral reaction of disgust which we get from for example drinking spoiled milk by mistake. Her theory requires a bit of chewing, but has raised a lot of interest among art and art theorists since its launch because of the interesting doors it opens for exploration of the self – who we are.

The abject is a thing or phenomenon – like blood or a dead rat – that questions our deepest perception of who we are, the experience of being a subject. You might know the concept from psychoanalysis, where it’s origins are. It is the most basic root of your perception of yourself – the sense of being separate from the rest of the world, which in turn is constituted of objects. Put very simply, Kristeva says that the abject is something that brings into question where the limit of you and the world (the subject and the object) lies[3]. This can make you feel nauseous, angry and afraid because you’re not sure who or where you are anymore.

Why paint a gross portrait of yourself?

You would think that gross stuff is something you’d like to steer clear from – but haven’t you ever stared mesmerized at the forming of a fresh drop of blood after you’ve gotten a papercut? Something about these gross – abject – things also tends to fascinate us, and this is also what Kristeva is exploring in her theory of the abject[4].

If you are a talented painter like say, the famous finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck, why would you paint yourself looking gross? Wouldn’t you want to rather paint your face best side forward? Interestingly, many painters, including Schjerfbeck, have done the opposite. The self-portrait has become a platform for artists to explore also the painful sides of themselves – war trauma, illness, or even bad personality traits. As did Schjerfbeck, when she dealt with issues like physical injury and heartbreak in her self-portraits[5].

Kristeva thinks its important to deal with the abject, and that art has taken the place of religion for us to collectively tackle these issues. She says that the abject – that which shakes our sense of subjecthood – can be made into a positive force of change that helps us deal with the gross stuff better. This might also be why artists like Schjerfbeck have chosen to paint themselves not in the best light, but in the most human way – fragile, and sometimes a bit gross.

[1] A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (Cumming, Laura) 2009, 302-304
[2] A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (Cumming, Laura) 2009, 1402-1404
[3] Powers of Horror (Kristeva, Julia) 1982, 2-3
[4] Powers of Horror (Kristeva, Julia) 1982, 5-6
[5] Ja kukaan ei tiedä millainen olen: Helene Schjerfbeckin omakuvat 1878-1945 (Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse) 2000, 40.
Helene Schjerfbeck,
Punatäpläinen omakuva, 1944,
öljy kankaalle (Henri Tuomi, Ateneum) CCO (Public Domain)

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