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Narcissism and self-indulgence in self-portraiture

There is undoubtedly an element of narcissism (‘inordinate fascination with oneself, excessive self-love, vanity’) in the practice of self-portraiture, but this is true of almost every human activity. In self-portraiture just as in everything else it’s a question of degree. Narcissism and self-portraiture are linked to self-perception which:

is a curious thing. Over the years, our emotions and experiences ricochet round inside our heads, gradually emerging in our patterns of behaviour and in our faces. Brimming with confidence or shuddering with insecurity, artists are no different (Rideal, 2005: 9)

In an illustrated book of self-portraits selected from the National Portrait Gallery in London the author writes:

The self-portraits selected … show them [the artists] in many guises. Some emphasise the artist’s professional status by featuring palettes, easels, brushes and cameras, others indicate success by focusing on clothing and interiors, and some emphasise a mood or emotion through disguise, pose, gesture or expression (Rideal, 2005: 9).

Any of the three guises above could be exploited to narcissistic or self-indulgence ends. It is up to viewer of any such portrait to decide based on the image(s) itself, the motivation or story behind its creation and knowledge of the artist.

For example in the case of ‘Annunciation’ by Elina Brotherus there may be an element of seeking to rekindle a healthy level of narcissism after she has been failed by her body/self by an inability to conceive a child. Or again Gillian Wearing work ‘Album’ (2003) may seek to dissolve the self, de-emphasise it (the reverse of narcissism), to show that there is no one single self, that every self is an amalgam of primarily family both at the level of genetics and culture).


Rideal, Liz (2005) National Portrait Gallery, Insights, Self-portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery