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Published 24/06/2002 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Mirror, Mirror. Self-Portraits by Women Artists

No single model of self-portraiture can stand for the experiences of women generally, or fully express the rich interplay that exists between the examination of the reflected image and the exploration of the social dimensions of lived experience, but self-representation remains critical to self-understanding and it plays a particularly important role in women’s creative lives. ‘How do I Look?’, Whitney Chadwick.1.

‘MIRROR, MIRROR Self-Portraits by Women Artists’, was shown at the National Portrait Gallery from 24 October 2001 to 24 February 2002, and since at the Leeds City Art Gallery. Organised by Liz Rideal, it focuses mainly on the National Gallery’s excellent permanent collection and includes a number on loan from public and private collections. The catalogue includes excellent essays by Whitney Chadwick and Frances Borzello. An artist herself, Liz Rideal’s own work ‘Identity’, 1985, is on show. It is made up of 1,220 photographic strips, making 4,800 individual portraits; within the mass of laminated photo-booth strips there is a large self-portrait of Rideal herself. The work also includes portraits by Helen Chadwick and Maggi Hambling. While ‘Mirror, Mirror’ includes fine portraits by Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807), Mary Beale (1633–99), Anna Zinkeisen (1901–76), Eileen Agar (1899–1991) and Gwen John (1876–1939), it also includes numerous works which challenge traditional portraiture.

The feminist revolution gave women permission to value their own lives and feelings and ideas as highly as men did theirs, and though the results often caused outrage, particularly when taboo subjects such as menstruation appeared in women's works, they were impossible to ignore. This new subject matter, the artistic arm of the feminist slogan that the personal is the political, has led to the most exciting developments in self-portaiture today: the extended self-portrait, an elaborate idea expressed through the self.2

There are some particularly fine photographs in this exhibition. ‘Eveleen Myers and her daughter’ (1856–1937) taken in 1900 (sepia platinotype) was a posed photograph of Myers and her only daughter; most of her photographs were of her children. Olive Edis (1876–1955) was an established photographer by the early 1900s and ran a photographic studio in Sheringham, Norfolk specialising in portraits and pictures of local fishermen with her sister. Following her marriage and that of her sister’s she was mostly based in London where, from 1912, she made autochrome colour photographs of people and flowers. In 1913 she was one of only eight people elected to become a member of the Royal Photographic Society, winning a bronze medal. The National Portrait Gallery’s photograph in this exhibition dates from 1918 when she was an official war photographer whose remit it was to record the work of British Women’s Services in France and Flanders. She travelled extensively in the course of that exercise and then, after the war, went to Canada where she carried out extensive documentation of the land and the native peoples; regrettably that work does not survive.

Better known is ‘Lee Miller’ (1907–77) (see review on this website). Her glamorous self-portrait reveals something of her own personal style and determination. Quickly bored as a Vogue model, Miller moved to Paris to learn photography from Man Ray. Her remarkable career and personal life as lover and wife to Man Ray and Roland Penrose respectively, is only glimpsed here, for she is certainly one of the more accomplished female photographers of her generation.

Helen Chadwick’s (1953–96) provocative image of self: ‘Vanitas II’, 1986, is a companion piece to the installation ‘Of Mutability’ shown at the ICA in 1986 which is also reflected in the mirrored self-portrait image. ‘To create this installation she obtained sponsorship for a photocopier, making 100s of copies of objects ranging from a dead lamb… to flowers and fish, includes images of herself in acrobatic positions. The blue photocopies were cut and collaged together to make compositions with her as protagonist, a lyrical sensual mermaid, and these were arranged with a set of five golden balls’.3

Deanna Petherbridge (b.1939) ‘Portrait of the Artist: Double Vision’, 2000–01 is concerned with feminist issues of ageing, using spectacles to represent notions of ‘vision’. Jennifer McRae’s (b.1959) work ‘Double Exposure’, 2001, ‘deals with issues of duality within one’s persona, and how one is perceived’.4 Daphne Todd’s (b.1947) bold painting ‘Me in a Magnifying Glass’, 2001, also deals with aspects of self: ‘The splitting of this painting into four parts suggests the juggling of the different parts of life – the ‘real’ (outside, outer, physical) versus the ‘abstract’ (inside, internal, cerebral). It is a bold and knowing work, specific, powerful, complex yet modest in scale’.5 Maggi Hambling’s ‘Self-Portrait’ of 1977–78 ‘depends not on accuracy of drawing… to reveal the self, but on a kind of schematic symbolic narrative, an accumulation of meaningful images and details that situate the self within a specific environment… Hambling’s painting calls attention to the interwoven relationship between visible world, biography, memory, fantasy and psychology that defines her artistic practice. The artist appears at the centre of this complex of images, jostling for space with the cat that has laid claim to her chair, the bird that streaks across her face, and in a juggling act that enables her to smoke, paint and drink while contemplating a nude model and giving free rein to the mental images that surround her’.6

Frances Borzello in her catalogue essay writes: ‘Far from dead, the self-portrait is continually reinventing itself and it is women who lead the way in its exciting extension into the realm of ideas.’7

  1. Whitney, Chadwick. ‘How do I look?’. Mirror, Mirror, Self-Portraits by Women Artistis, National Portrait Gallery, London; 2001: 21.
  2. Borzello, Frances. ‘Behind the image’, ibid, p31.
  3. Rideal, Liz. ‘Helen Chadwick’, ibid, p100.
  4. Rideal, Liz. ‘Jennifer McRae’, ibid, p108.
  5. Todd, Daphne, ibid, p 110.
  6. Chadwick, op. Cit, p 15-16.
  7. Borzello, op cit, p31.


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