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Self-Portraits at the Luxembourg (Part 2 of 2)

This is the conclusion of a review of Moi! Autoportraits du XXe siècle (Me! Self-portraits of the 20th century) at the Musée du Luxembourg, in Paris. Here is Part 1. Images for all of the works in the exhibit can seen in this Aperçu des Œuvres, including those I haven't bothered to give specific links here.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait, 1938, Private CollectionI spent a lot of time admiring a tiny self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1938, shown at right), now in a private collection, so I relished the chance to see it. (This is a Frida Kahlo anniversary here, which has gone mostly unnoticed: see my post on June 15.) The artist is shown in her typical less than flattering rendition, but with red twine wrapped tightly around her shoulders and elongated neck like a net. The image was painted on a piece of metal, like a Mexican folk santo, and then framed with curving rows of symmetrically placed small shells. A broad selection of smaller sketched self-portraits dominates one wall in the fifth room, including excellent examples by Salvador Dalí (1968), in which he shows himself with a fluffy collar that may be a reference to Velazquez, Picasso (1955), and Severini (1940–1950). Larger works in this room that caught my attention include self-portraits by Degas (1900) as an old man, Léger (1953–1954), Buffet (1948) at the easel, Chuck Close (1977), Masson (1944–1945), Mondrian (1918), de Chirico (1938), Bacon (1980) with his face blurred, Picasso (1906), Vuillard (1906), and Hockney (1974), self-importantly seated across a table from Picasso. The funny and self-referential self-portrait by Norman Rockwell (1960) appears as the main image for the exhibit on all its printed materials.

The last room in the exhibit is the largest, and it has some of the most important works in it, including self-portraits by Warhol (with a skull, 1978), Basquiat (1986), Herbert Bayer (a photograph of the artist as mannequin, with a section of arm missing and a disturbed look of realization on his face, 1932), and Henry Moore (a sketch of his own hands, c. 1974). There are also a number of paired self-portraits in this room, including Käthe Kollwitz (1893 and 1934), Man Ray (1916–1970 and 1972), André Dérain (1895–1899 and 1953), Malevitch (one shows him en artiste in Renaissance costume, 1933), Ensor (1922–1923 and, humorously, Mon portrait en 1960, from 1888, showing him as a crumpled skeleton), Matisse (1901–1903 and 1945, the latter of which is a minimalized face with spectacles), and Giacometti (a plaster Tête from 1927 and a sketch from 1964). Some of the self-portraits I particularly enjoyed were Cindy Sherman (Untitled #91, from 1981, showing the artist lying on a bed as a teen movie star) and Sandro Chia (Le jeune homme courageux, from 1982, an expressionistic and colorful depiction of the artist recalling the pose of the famous sculpture of the haughty Hellenistic ruler, holding a flag instead of a spear).

Strangely, for an exhibit focusing on the 20th century, the vast majority of self-portraits shown are by men. Except for the Frida Kahlo noted above and one or two others, the few works by women are hanging in the last room, where this is a selection of works on the theme of female nude self-portraiture. The most striking, honest, and least pretentious of these images is that by Alice Neel (1980, now owned by the National Portrait Gallery back home in Washington, D.C.), showing the artist in her later years, with white hair and a sagging, heavy-set profile, seated in a chair with her paintbrush. This is ironically juxtaposed with Egon Schiele’s Eros (1911), which depicts the artist masturbating an outrageously proportioned erection.

Although the idea behind this exhibit seemed to offer a unique perspective on the 20th century, the exhibit left me somewhat unsatisfied. Since reopening as an art museum, the Luxembourg has been criticized for its choice of glamorous shows, and Moi! has garnered a reputation, at least, as something of a blockbuster, although the crowds to see it were not nearly as dense as when I saw the Botticelli exhibit here last fall (see my post on October 8), when there was a line extending into the garden just to enter the museum. The ticket price (9€), although still not as inflated as the rumored cost of seeing the renovated MoMA (see Tyler Green’s post on this at Modern Art Notes), seemed awfully steep to me and the friend who went with me, who was bitter over not being allowed free entry with his press pass. There are many works by major artists, all of which I have listed here, but most of them are not, I felt, particularly notable. As a result, the minor works that fill out the broad selection of self-portraits (the exhibit requires a fair amount of time to take in) seemed at times like compensatory padding. I would have to spend some time with the book that inspired the show to see what might have been included that could not be, for whatever reason. The list of notable omissions might include Monet, Cézanne, Pollock, Modigliani, and many others, but perhaps they did not paint self-portraits.

You can view this exhibit at the Musée du Luxembourg, in Paris, until July 25.

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