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Ionarts in Paris: Self-Portraits at the Luxembourg (Part 1 of 2)

Having done some research on WiFi hotspots in Paris before coming here, I arrived all ready to blog from several cafés I had selected. Well, at many of those places you have to ask for a card to get you onto the network, which is good only for 20 minutes. Ironically, there are good, free, and non-time-limited WiFi connections in most McDonald's restaurants, which in Paris can be found about every 100 meters or so. Because of my sympathy for the ideals of José Bové, I would normally not set foot in a "McDo," as they say in French, but there I was with my laptop having a milkshake. Now I have found a bar, the Polly Maggoo on the Rue du Petit-Pont in the 5th, with an unlimited WiFi, so here I am. After coming here in the early afternoon, when I was the only person in a quiet bar, I discovered that the place becomes insanely noisy with people and loud music in the evening. (By the way, if you are in France and want to know if there is a WiFi signal in your bar, it is prounounced "wee-fee" in French!)

Pablo Picasso, L'Ombre (The shadow, 1953, Musée National Picasso, Paris)On my first afternoon in Paris, I avoided falling asleep and succumbing to jet lag by going to see the exhibit at the Musée du Luxembourg, Moi! Autoportraits du XXe siècle (Me! Self-portraits from the 20th century), which I first mentioned in a previous post (The Game of I, April 5). This show was inspired by Pascal Bonafoux's book, L'Autoportrait au XXe siècle: Moi je, par soi-même (ed. Diane de Selliers, Gallimard), and it’s a subject that sounds good theoretically on paper: a survey of the 20th century through a selection of some 150 artist self-portraits (with images for all of them in this Aperçu des Œuvres, which is very much to my liking: all museums should take note) in varying styles. The idea is not original, as you can see in the first image in the first room, a reproduction of an engraving showing an 18th-century view of the self-portrait room in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence (not there anymore, I believe).

This first small room features self-portraits by Léon Bonnat (1905), Franz von Stuck (1906), Lucio Fontana (Io sono Fontana, 1966), and Thierry Vidé (1998). Safet Zec’s Autoportrait volé (Stolen self-portrait, 2000) shows a mirror hanging on the wall reflecting only an empty room. Two of the self-portraits in this room feature only text: Marcel Duchamp’s large signature (1964) and Ben [Vautier]’s Regardez moi cela suffit (Look at me that’s enough, 2001), with those words written in black on a white background. The most interesting work in this first room is the first of a handful of self-portraits by Pablo Picasso, perhaps one of the most self-absorbed artists of the century, L’Ombre (The shadow, 1953, now owned by the Musée National Picasso), which is shown here. This work shows the artist from the back as an almost shapeless black silhouette, hovering over a canvas in progress that merges eerily with the figure of his nude model behind it, lying on a bed. This was one of the best paintings in the show, I thought, and it has some sort of weird rapport that I can't quite explain with Matisse's Studio, Quay Saint-Michel, from 1916. Picasso did this painting the year before Matisse died.

The second room collects self-portraits dealing with the theme of masks, including works by Popovic (1947), Felix Nussbaum (1928), Adami (1983), Jean-Charles Blais (Reviens [Come back], 1982, which shows the artist thinking of a beloved woman), Friedrich Hundertwasser (the creepy, Klimtesqe Tears of an Artist, 1976), Yang Shaobin (2000), and Wols (Autoportrait nerveux, 1947). Jean Michel Alberola’s series of four photographs (2000–2003) show the artist’s face in each panel covered with a sign bearing a letter, which spell out from top to bottom R-I-E-N (nothing). Jan Vercruysse’s photographed self-portrait (1984) shows the artist holding a recently removed mask. Albert Marquet (1904) depicted himself winking. The names in this list may not be all that familiar, which illustrates how the curators of the exhibit, apparently limited by the availability of major self-portraits, have padded the show with lesser-known artists, sometimes interesting and sometimes not. Also worth noting in this room are works by Klee (Autoportrait d’un expressioniste, 1919), Claes Oldenburg (a sort of engineer’s sketch, with ice pack, Symbolic Self-Portrait with "Equals", 1971), and Francis Picabia (1923).

Magritte’s L’heureux donateur (The happy donor, 1966) and Botero’s Nature morte au journal, which shows the artist only as a picture on the newspaper under the still life, appear in the third room. You may not know this, as I did not before seeing this exhibit, that in J. Montgomery Flagg’s iconic poster I Want You, Uncle Sam pointing his finger is none other than the artist himself. Other works here include self-portraits by Alberola (1992), Eric Boulatov (1968), Jacek Malczewski (with the artist as the prophet Ezechiel, with Jesus clasping his head, 1919), Zoran Music (1989), Ron Kitaj (1986), and Tony Cragg. The latter’s self-portrait consists of a bicycle leaned against the wall and the artist’s outline pasted in pieces of beach toys and other common debris.

Go to Part 2.

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