It’s no secret that the art world is full of big egos. In order to get ahead in life, a little bit of confidence and self-belief are vital to make sure you survive. But, what does having an “ego” really mean? We all have one, and actually, according to Sigmund Freud, this “ego” is not a sole element, but one that tries to balance itself with two other components: the “id” and the “superego.” In a new investigation of self-portraiture at Omer Tiroche in London, a mix of paintings and photographs explore a psycho-analytical theory of personality.
Creating a “self-portrait” is an act that in modern terms, could be understood as being egotistical. You have to have a certain impression of yourself – whether good or bad – that causes you to consider yourself worthy of spending a significant quality of time depicting yourself and defining the result a work of art. According to Freud, the three components – that is the id, ego and superego – are always in internal conflict: the id being the primitive and unconscious part of someone’s personality, the ego the rational part and the superego the holder of one’s moral values. Freud also believed that artists’ creativity is powered by the id, with their impulses buried within the subconscious, only being made apparent through their work.
Amongst the display at Omer Tiroche are works by artists that include Marc Chagall, Marlene Dumas and Keith Haring. Yet, two of the most arresting works on display are by Chinese artists Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun. Fangzhi’s Mask (2009) shows a man, whose blood is boiling underneath a white mask that covers his sweating flesh. Illustrating the psychological strain of the individual, the viewer can feel the very real battle at play between each component of the artist’s personality. Meanwhile, Minjun’s Untitled (2009), illustrates the artist lifting up a t-shirt, revealing his internal organs while laughing hysterically. The giggling figure is intended to be ironic, and has been associated with superficiality and interpreted as a reflection of socio-political issues in China.
Meanwhile in the West, self-portraits have been used since the Renaissance era not only as a tool for artists to show-off their skills, but also as a means of self-promotion. Keith Haring’s Untitled Self-Portrait (1988) was made in the same year he was diagnosed with AIDs, and during a time where he was only working on projects that were important to him. The black and white portrait at Omer Tiroche is pared down compared to the works he is most known for, giving a sense that the artist wanted to perpetuate his image in a more sombre fashion. Stylistically similar, Henri Matisse’s Autoportrait (1935) comes in the same form as Haring’s work in a heavy black outline against a white background. Unlike Haring’s portrait however, Matisse’s depiction of his own visage is a caricature, zoomed in on himself, with a focus on style and form.
Other stand-out works include Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self Portrait (1983), where he pictures himself with a knife in one hand and another hand in the air, as if he has just walked out of a horror film. Conversely, Marlene Dumas’s The Luxury of Tenderness (1986) evokes a much softer ambience, with a pregnant Dumas portraying herself with her unborn child. Presenting the most basic of human instincts, Dumas’s painting presents the viewer with an intimate journey of pregnancy under a pale blue light, cradling her stomach upon which is painted an image of a face.
The exhibition culminates with works by Avigdor Arikha and Marc Chagall, both of which present the artists’ painting, illustrating the natural instinct of artists to present themselves as what they are.
Id, Ego and Superego succeeds in forcing the viewer to think about self-portraits as artworks that are multilayered and complex comments about the psychology of the artists who make them. Presenting a uniquely different understanding of self-portraiture, the works ask the audience to consider their own psyche.
Id, Ego and Superego: An Investigation of Self-Portraiture is on display at Omer Tiroche, 21 Conduit Street, London W1S 2XP until 20 December 2019