W.J.T. MITCHELL
oil on Belgian Linen
cm 30x40
VIII-2013

 


Portrait or Self-Portrait?


My first impression when I unwrapped Luca Del Baldo’s wonderful oil portrait of me was completely divided: the face was mine, but the expression felt unfamiliar.  

Every detail of the portrait seemed to me accurate. The Italian painter’s fine, careful touch had captured every blemish, every wrinkle and fold of aging skin, every stray wisp of thinning, graying, mussed-up hair. Even the two little dark spots on the left side of my forehead had been faithfully reproduced. Everything that too many years of sunshine had imprinted on my fair Irish complexion had been snared by the keen eye and hand of the painter.  

But what was strange or uncanny about the expression? It was an entirely faithful rendering of the photograph that I had sent to Luca Del Baldo. And that photograph was in a certain technical sense a self-portrait, or what the contemporary jargon refers to as a “Selfie.” That is, I had composed it carefully on the screen of my aptly named “iPhone.” When I was satisfied with my expression, I saved the picture and sent it off to Luca. My double take at the painting then, was registering a dissonance at the level of authorship. Was it a portrait? Or a self-portrait? Clearly it is both. The painting is a portrait, but the image reproduced from the photograph is a self-portrait. And that is precisely what is disturbing about it, for I read the expression (now rendered in gorgeous oils) as one of composure, complacency, confidence, and (in my darkest moments) a kind of smugness. It is, in other words, an expression of someone who has conquered his own doubts, and achieved a kind of triumphal assurance about life.  

Of course nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that I am constantly beset by doubts, second thoughts, secret questions and private fears. Luca could not possibly know any of this. He based his generous offer to paint my portrait on my reputation as a writer and scholar. We have never met face to face. In a way, his picture is of a writer’s mask, a persona constructed carefully by the agonizing work of arranging words on a page until they seem to capture a truth, convey an insight, or tell a compelling story. It is thus uncannily appropriate that it is a painting based on a Selfie, of a composed self-image. It is not “painted from the life,” but from a carefully constructed façade.  

George Bernard Shaw says somewhere that “every man over forty is responsible for his own face.” But does this apply to portraits? Or to self-portraits? Luca del Baldo’s beautiful painting is both. I will treasure it in some not very public place, where it will be my secret answer to the portrait of Dorian Gray. As I age into decrepitude, I will gaze at it to remind myself of how the magic of oil paint on canvas can sparkle with vitality, and how, for just a moment, I managed to project a calm air of clairvoyance. Or perhaps the more precise word would be acceptance, a resignation to the tragic death at age 38 of my son, Gabriel Mitchell, which occurred around the time this painting was commissioned. This seems to me visible in the eyes, which I recognize as my own. What does this picture want? Nothing, really. It has everything it needs, for as long as it lives.



W. J. T. MITCHELL, 2014
(Copyrights by W. J. T. Mitchell. All rights reserved)