As part of the Whitechapel Gallery's commitment to showcasing rarely seen collections from around the world, Self-Portrait as the Billy Goat is the first of four exhibitions from the ISelf Collection exploring the art and interpretation of self-portraiture. Its title is taken from one of the exhibition's highlight works – Pawel Althamer’s self-portrait as a contemplative, half-skinned billy goat, in the guise of Rodin's The Thinker.
Pawel Althamer, Self-portrait as the Billy-Goat, 2011, Courtesy the artist and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, Photo: Bartosz Stawiarski
But the Whitechapel Gallery is not the only institution to jump on the selfie-exploration bandwagon. Performing for the Camera, which explored the transience of performance with the permanence of photography, graced the walls of Tate Modern last summer – and the Saatchi Gallery's current blockbuster show, From Selfie to Self-Expression, traces the act of self-portraiture, from Old Masters to Instagram. Trends – they come round and round.
The display of 25 works by more than a dozen international artists, including former YBA Tracey Emin and 88-year-old Japanese sculptor Yayoi Kusama, explores how we build the sense of our own identity. Through a wide range of media, the artworks convey themes of birth and death, love and sex, pain and joy.
The physical, psychological insight into the ways in which these artists stage their own bodies is the most compelling aspect of this exhibition.
André Breton, Photomaton, André Breton, C.1929, ©ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017
Photographer and serial self-portraitist Cindy Sherman is dressed up as a mother in Untitled, 2005, alongside photobooth strips from André Breton and other surrealists, picturing them smoking, thinking or laughing. Linder’s You search but do not see, 1981/2010, is just as captivating.
The string of pearls, the painted lips, and the black lace dress that adorn the woman, scream femme fatale. But here the power is not hers. She is controlled, smothered – albeit methaphorically – by the transparent clingfilm-esque veil drapped over her strikingly fragile face. You may look one way, but feel another – nothing is ever as it seems.
Tracey Emin, Fist Clasped, 2014, ©Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2017. Image courtesy White Cube
Walking around, you will also see complex abstract paint patterns, an AIDS test and a host of nudes. Tracey Emin’s gouache on paper depicting a reclining nude woman hangs proud next to Louise Bourgeois’ rather more disturbing drawing of a pregnant woman. The pencil and gouache outline is fragile, the bunch of 3D, rose-tinted miniature eggs dominating her swollen stomach is harsh. An image of textual contrasts – a jab at gendered identity.
Curated in one of the Whitechapel Gallery’s more intimate spaces, the exploration into the complex dynamic between surface appearance and inner identity provokes a tension that is almost tangible.
Put your camera away, and look beyond the frame. Small but powerful, this exhibition will make you pause for thought. It definitely deserves a trek east.
|What||Review: ISelf Collection: Self-Portrait as the Billy Goat, Whitechapel Gallery|
|Where||Whitechapel Gallery, 72-78 Whitechapel High Street, London, E1 7QX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Aldgate East (underground)|
27 Apr 17 – 20 Aug 17, 11am - 6pm Tuesday to Sunday; closed Mondays
|Website||Click for more information|