Sunday, 8 November 2015


From a Jack...

I recently read something in an essay by John Berger on Rembrandt's self-portraits that intrigued me.  He wrote:
A painter can draw his left hand as if it belonged to somebody else. Using two mirrors he can draw his own profile as if observing a stranger. But when he looks straight into a mirror, he is caught in a trap: his reaction to the face he is seeing changes that face [...]  It is the same for all of us. We play-act when we look in the bathroom mirror, we instantly make an adjustment to our expression and our face. Quite apart from the reversal of the left and right, nobody else ever sees us as we see ourselves above the washbasin. And this dissimilation is spontaneous and uncalculated. It’s as old as the invention of the mirror.
The face arranges itself ... Nobody else ever sees us as we see ourselves above the washbasin.  A troubling thought, that.  I've been trying to catch my own "real" face in the mirror ever since.

Or, at least, one or two of the many real faces we all wear.  I think of the way I must have looked in countless meetings, struggling with boredom or irritation or slipping quietly away into a rapt doodling session.  Or when giving presentations beneath the PowerPoint screen, or telling a funny story over coffee, or listening to outrageous get-out-of-here gossip.  Then there are the faces I make when driving, or playing with my children, or just buying stamps in the Post Office, or any number of public or intimate circumstances.  Face it (oops), to everyone else you are that person -- those people -- not the one you imagine yourself to be, gurning winningly at the bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand.

As W.B. Yeats put it, with a conscious level of irony:
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity's displayed:
I'm looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.
Yeah, right.  So are all those other seekers, checking themselves out in the shop window.

I presume the same observation holds true for the smartphone selfie, where the reflexive subject sees a face without reversal but with every opportunity for that face to rearrange itself before the shot is taken.  It's mirror time!  Maybe that's why selfies are nearly always so ridiculous.
O, wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!
To a Louse, Robert Burns
Thank you, Robert, but I think we'll leave dress and gait out of this for now, and stick to faces.

... to a King

Now this version definitely trumps the original; you might even say it's an ace portrait, though I suppose the joker might have been more appropriate.  The open-hand "sceptre" is a fly-swat we bought in Spain one year.  If you can read the inscriptions, the Latin words aetatis suae LIX are the conventional Renaissance portraitist's formula for "at the age of 59", and Rex stultorum is, of course, "the King of Fools".  Though it is salutary to see how much more I am beginning to resemble the Duke of Prunes...
And I know
The love I have for you
Will grow & grow & grow
(I think)
And so my love
I offer you
A love that is strong
A prune that is true! 

(Frank Zappa, Duke of Prunes)
But I do like the idea of adding a little Photoshop wizardry to portraiture.  For a suitably enormous fee, I should start taking commissions...  You, too, could look like an idiot.


Kent Wiley said...

Hail the Regal Swatter.

Mike C. said...

You're welcome. I was waiting for "Lord of the Flies", but no takers so far...


Debra Morris said...

Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down

on it

e e cummings

Mike C. said...


Ha! I knew I'd sat on something, but hadn't figured out what it was...