Art Culture

Exploring the practice of self-portraiture through Chantal Joffe

Raw, vulnerable, and unguarded, Chantal Joffe’s work focuses on women and children. Her striking portraits are difficult to turn away from. In 2018, she painted a self portrait nearly every day of the year. This visual journal of her self-image began on ‘the worst day’ of her year, January the 1st 2018, as her marriage fell apart around her. Her paintings change throughout the year, affected by the time of day or night they were made. As a body of work, it varies hugely in scale – some are colossal, whilst others are small and intimate. Differences aside, Joffe’s seemingly casual brushstrokes convey a deep sense of emotion and sadness.

There is a clear disregard for catering to typical standards of beauty – Joffe is not concerned with glorifying appearances:

I was loving it because I made my body shorter and shorter and everything kind of collapsed like a telescope until I looked like a kind of monster.’

This indifference to beauty is a common theme in modern art. After the modernist movement was taken over by postmodernism in the late 20th century, most artists stopped trying to perpetuate the aesthetic as a priority within their work. The invention and popularisation of the camera along with a turbulent socio-political environment in Europe and America accelerated this change. People are generally attracted to paintings that have something to say. Joffe is often told that she isn’t as ugly as her paintings, but she says they are missing the point. Portraiture is a powerful method of expressing feeling.

8.50pm
Oil on cartridge paper, 30 x 20cm

As an artist influenced by this attitude, I have always been drawn to depicting people. There is something captivating about watching a canvas develop from nothingness into a recognisable face. Defining my practice is difficult – I am starting my BFA in Fine Art at The Ruskin next month. Painting is what I do most, but sculpture, photography and performance are all aspects of my work. Colour and texture are the most important things I consider when making a piece. After researching Joffe, I made three self-portraits. It felt very personal to paint myself, almost meditative. In silence, I sat down in front of my desktop easel with a mirror and started painting. Figurative painting is about breaking people down into basic forms and shapes – picking out definite lines and proportions felt strange with such a familiar subject matter.

Self-portraiture as a genre is not limited to painting. Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’ series, which he began in 1991, includes casts of his own head filled with 10 pints of own blood. So far there are five iterations of this, the latest one made in 2011. Tracey Emin’s photographical self-portrait, ‘The Last Thing I said to you is don’t leave me here.’, depicts herself in the nude, kneeling down in a pose that is equally suggestive and fragile. Both pieces are pinned to my studio wall, and I draw inspiration from them even if it is not directly visible in my work.

My first two paintings were done in the middle of the night after my new phone had been stolen. While not as life altering as Joffe’s divorce, I was struggling to drift off to sleep because of how anxious I felt. It got to ten past four when I decided I could not lay in bed any longer, and I crept across the landing to my studio space to start painting. Joffe has said that her mass accumulation of pieces in 2018 gave each painting a gravity that it could not have alone. Once a painting becomes part of a series, they play off each other. Each of my three self-portraits is unique. In the first and second, my mood and exhaustion are tangible but expressed differently; fine detail and a scratchy texture compared with much looser brushstrokes and intense colours. I made the third self-portrait over a longer period in the daytime. The cool-toned colour scheme and smooth background emulate calm. This painting is ‘normal’, an accurate representation of my relationship with myself every day.

 Chantal Joffe’s level of commitment throughout this series is what makes the work so interesting.The ritualistic daily process and element of performance adds a clarity to the work. Painting myself did feel performative, as you are playing the role of the subject and the artist simultaneously. Joffe does not plan out her paintings before she starts them, she thinks with her paintbrush. I am often too careful with my paintings, and this mindset is very freeing for me. Being at the very beginning of my career, the pure volume of work she has made is intimidatingly impressive. I want to revisit self-portraiture as my practice changes and develops, exploring alternative ways of expressing the self.

Art as an outlet always has something to offer in dealing with both good and bad experiences, and making these pieces was quite therapeutic for me. I would recommend anyone, even if you do not feel naturally creative, to have a go with self-portraiture as it is a fun exercise for self-expression and examining how you feel. Contemporary art is not usually concerned with a perfect, beautiful reproduction of life. Your self-portrait can be photographic, painterly, performative, sculptural, digital, ready-made, abstract, or even poetic. The contemporary American artist Rachel Rose said, ‘not knowing how to make the thing I want to make is a significant part of making it’. This quote has stuck with me because it often feels overwhelming to start painting a blank canvas… even the professionals are uncertain about their work so go make some art!

Antonia Jameson

Alongside her degree, Antonia (she/ her) is a freelance artist. She enjoys drumming, bonding with other northerners, and visiting galleries.