RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
At some point in their lives, many artists spend time painting themselves - self-portraits that express who they are at a particular moment. Washington's National Portrait Gallery is showing over 70 such works. Edward Hopper, at 21, is moody in a charcoal turtleneck. Diego Rivera does not disguise his double chin. Jim Dine has no chin, eyes or mouth. He's headless. He just etches his bathrobe. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg has more.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Why are there so many self-portraits?
KIM SAJET: Artists will tell you they're available.
STAMBERG: Kim Sajet is director of the Portrait Gallery.
SAJET: In the middle of the night, when the urge strikes, you've got yourself.
STAMBERG: Or they can't afford a model or they're vain or - curator Brandon Fortune's theory - they're working out technical problems.
BRANDON FORTUNE: But they're also done as a kind of self-reflection, to present a persona to the world that may not be true or authentic but is the character that the artist wants to be remembered as.
STAMBERG: Alice Neel's self-portrait, begun when she was 75, is as authentic, as vital, as she was on NPR at age 79.
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ALICE NEEL: I am known primarily for my obsession with humanoids. That's true.
STAMBERG: Painting herself, seated in a comfy blue and white striped chair, Neel was ruthless and brave.
FORTUNE: She's entirely nude. Her breasts are sagging.
STAMBERG: Her belly bulges. Her lips turn down. There's a brush in her right hand, a bright, white rag in the left.
FORTUNE: She said at one point that this portrait was really hard to make. She said, it was so hard that my cheeks got red with the effort.
STAMBERG: No wonder. Alice Neel is taking on the entire history of nude paintings, mostly starting in the 16th century made by men. Historically, the male gaze was loving, lustful, idealistic.
FORTUNE: And she just flips it. She takes control of the gaze. It's her gaze. She takes control of the way that her body is going to be presented.
STAMBERG: An act of truth and audacity - so different from the way painter Thomas Hart Benton showed himself in 1924. He was on Martha's Vineyard, crazy about his new wife, Rita, and the movies.
SAJET: Thomas Hart Benton's portrait makes him look out to be some Hollywood, dashing superstar.
STAMBERG: Swashbuckling, black-moustached, muscled and hunky.
FORTUNE: Stripped to the waist...
FORTUNE: It is definitely an assertion of vigor, wouldn't you say?
STAMBERG: Indeed - and sexy.
FORTUNE: Very much so.
STAMBERG: The photograph Walker Evans took of himself in 1934 is neither vigorous nor preening. He was working for the Farm Security Administration, hired to document the Depression's effect on Americans.
FORTUNE: He's, at the end of the day, photographing misery and seeing how people are forced to live during this terrible time in our history.
STAMBERG: Walker Evans' eyes hold pain. His face is full of compassion. He has seen awful things, and making sure we see them, too. There's no way not to see Chuck Close's self-portrait. He has taken 16 big, Polaroid glossies, each one measuring 20 by 24 inches, and linked them mosaic-like into a huge color image - about 9 by 7 feet huge.
FORTUNE: We are seeing Close's face, bearded, wearing his round glasses, looking straight out at us.
STAMBERG: The work is especially gripping now as Chuck Close's National Gallery exhibit was recently canceled after accusations of sexual harassment, for which he apologized. His self-portrait was done following a personal tragedy. The artist was left paralyzed after a spinal artery collapse in 1988.
FORTUNE: He made this Polaroid the following year. And he's looking for ways to make art that can be done by someone who is a quadriplegic.
STAMBERG: But he's also - I mean, it's so rich with meaning or a way to interpret it is saying, I'm going to surmount this. I'm larger than what's happened to me. I'm still here.
FORTUNE: I think you're absolutely right.
STAMBERG: They're all still here in this National Portrait Gallery show on view until mid-August - messages to the future in oil, lithograph, pencil, charcoal, video - how artists saw themselves, how they wanted us to see them. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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