Self Portraits: The Me Generation

Artists’ self portraits through the ages provide us with images of the Self, of what it is to be human, not just the look of people generally in different periods, but an intense sustained self-scrutiny. Award winning art critic Matthew Collings examines the changing nature and decodes the meaning of the Self-portrait from the Renaissance to the present day.

Part I: Togetherness
Part II: Loneliness
Part III: Shattered Artists’ self portraits through the ages provide us with images of the Self, of what it is to be human, not just the look of people generally in different periods, but an intense sustained self-scrutiny. No one can exist in a void — we recognise ourselves in other people. We get what we are from others. Even to feel isolated and apart — we need a model for how to be that: we need a model for sulking. Identity is made up of bits: we’re never quite sure which bit is the purest, the most wholly ‘us’. A Renaissance self portrait is a marvel of believability. A more contemporary self portrait tends to be a puzzle of disconnections. More and more in our own times, artists’ don’t believe anything is really them, because there is very little belief in anything in contemporary art — the main thing artists believe in now is suspicion. A Renaissance Self is centred. A post-Renaissance Self is doubtful, alone, trembling, seeing the void beyond all certainties, feeling that all certainties are illusions — the only real thing is the doubting fearful outsider self. But a very modern Self is transparently unreal. Renaissance Selves don’t need a profound inner Self because they are Selves defined by their connection to all sorts of powerful structures — religion, politics, society. Post Renaissance Selves see through all those structures: they know they don’t belong there — they have great depths of inner-ness to compensate for being rejects from the crowd. While a very modern Self is a wholly sampled stapled-together collaged transparent construct — a bit here, a bit there, one thing one day, different the next — nothing within, all surface — and not even worried or anxious about this, in fact perfectly OK about it.

Executive producers: Liz Hartford & Janet Lee Written and Presented by: Matthew Collings Director: Chris Rodley Producer: Sara Mortimer