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New Smithsonian exhibit offers illuminating self-portraits of 66 famed artists
“Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century”
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The National Portrait Gallery's just-opened exhibition has about 70 self-portraits of renowned artists as a young man or woman, a dog, an empty bathrobe, and even a brick.

“Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century” includes Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, Jim Dine, Elaine de Kooning, Ellsworth Kelly, David Hockney, Chuck Close, and other famed 20th century artists.

They may have been influenced by James Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', Dylan Thomas's 'Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog', even Pink Floyd's 'Another Brick in the Wall'.

But surely, these great artists were deeply influenced by Freud, Darwin, World War One and Two, and Marcel Duchamp who revolutionized portraiture.

“Reflections/Refractions: Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century” runs concurrently with the National Portrait Edward Hopper's self-portrait as a young man.

The 500-year-old tradition of self-portraiture as a single, fixed identity based on the face, and also gender, transformed into a far more complex concept of identity as changing, fluid, multiple, re-inventable -- and disguiseable.

Pele de Lappe, like several artists in 'Reflections/Refractions', is represented by self-portraits when young as well as old. Her 1938 portrait is representational, around the time she published her racy autobiography. More than 50 years later, in 'Self-Portrait (On Being Female)' she holds a mask, symbolizing women's need to hide their true selves to play expected roles.

In Susan Hauptman's 'Copper Self-portrait with Dog', she sports hyper-feminine ruffles, a be-flowered veiled hat, but has a mannish haircut, stance and stare, and holds her alter-ego dog. What dualities she reveals, evoking Duchamp's most famed other identity, Rrose Sélavy.

The self-portrait of Peter Arneson, primarily a ceramic artist, is a brick he cast with his last name 'Arneson' on top, and his signature inscribed on the side. Was he thinking of Pink Floyd's lyrics 'All in all, you're just another brick in the wall'? And/or the impotent character Brick from Tennessee Williams' 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'? Arneson's 'Brick' is accompanied by 'California Brick', his etching of it shattered -- made after he hemorraghed due to cancer.

Jim Dine's 1964 etching of an empty bathrobe, made after he saw a bathrobe advertisted in the 'New York Times', was the first of his many empty robe self-portraits. Later Dine, like most of these artists, became very interested in 'what life has done to the face. I love people's tracks,' he has said. 'I want all that history.'

Many of the artists' faces reveal the horrifying effects of war and dictatorship. George Grosz's 1916 self-portrait 'showed his very real psychic turmoil, with subsequent breakdowns, that very much informed his future work,' said the show's curator Wendy Wick Reaves, NPG's Curator of Prints and Drawings. Grosz, a leading figure in Berlin's Dada movement, moved to America in 1933 and later became a U.S. citizen.

One of Louis Lozowick's works in the exhibit portrays him being lynched. This terrifying 1936 image, reacting to lynchings of blacks in the South and murders of Jews in Nazi Germany, warned of what could happen if Nazi fascism came to America.

The works represent not only a wide diversity in concepts, but also in techniques, like Chuck Close's 'Self-Portrait/ Manipulated', a series of handmade liquefied rag pulp paper in separate patches of varying gray hues, coalescing into a huge mug shot.

All of these 'Reflections/Refractions' works, and the stories behind them, are intriguing. All belong to the Smithsonian's NPG, and most are from the collection of art educator Ruth Bowman and the late investment banker Harry Kahn. He hated her collection of contemporary art, except for a Calder self-portrait which Kahn loved.

So the Calder work became the founding piece of their joint collection of self-portraits. It's also on the cover of the exquisite, fully illustrated catalogue (Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press), edited by Reaves with essays by her and Anne Collins Goodyear, NPG's Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings.

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