What artists see in themselves

Self-portraits from the Uffizi Gallery offer insight into some of the world's greatest artists

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Visitors to Florence in Italy have long been awed by the works in two of the city’s finest museums: the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace. But, perhaps preoccupied by prime examples of Raphael, Botticelli and other Renaissance artists, many visitors let their stay come to an end without enjoying the walk along the elevated Vasari Corridor, which links the two museums (and the Palazzo Vecchio). It’s a shame, because the corridor shouldn’t be overlooked. By appointment only, a visit would reveal a vast array of other artworks, including the majority of the Uffizi’s collection of more than 1,700 self-portraits of master artists.

The corridor was built in 1564 under the order of Cosimo I de’ Medici, but art was the last thing on the mind of that first Grand Duke of Tuscany, who used it as a way to walk from his home to his offices without being troubled by the sometimes hostile populace. Designed by Giorgio Vasari, who started out as a painter but is better known today as an architect and the author of a comprehensive compendium on Renaissance (and earlier) master artists, the corridor was opened to the public in 1973.

Sixty self-portraits, many of which are usually on display in the Vasari Corridor, are now being shown for the first time in Japan at the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Museum of Art in Shinjuku.

The first room of Uffizi Gallery self-portraits is predominantly somber in tone, displaying oil paintings in dark hues, including an ominous-looking 1655 self-portrait of Rembrandt, painted just before his career and financial security took a turn for the worse. Things lighten up a little thanks to Tintoretta, the daughter of the celebrated Venetian painter Tintoretto, who depicts herself in white, standing before a harpsichord, holding a music score said to contain a disguised message to her lover.

The lack of representation of female artists in standard art histories has long caused heated arguments in art circles. On this front, the Uffizi collection of self-portraits is better than many for its inclusion of numerous works by women. Marie Elisabeth-Louise Vigee le Brun — fashionable painter to 18th-century nobility, including Marie Antionette — could be mistaken for being much younger than her then-35 years in her self-portrait from 1790. Another female artist represented here is Rosalba Carriera, whose work from 1709 delights in the delicate detail of her finery and could be thought of as a double self-portrait as she is depicted holding a picture of herself.

In bringing together so many paintings in one place, the exhibition highlights the inventiveness of artists who have created new variations on the self-portrait.

Annibale Carracci focuses on the artist’s studio, with the painter himself actually absent, his image represented on a canvas in the middle of the room. Nicola Van Houbraken paints himself surrounded, almost engulfed, by a huge bouquet of flowers, while Ludwig Guttenbrun uses the trompe l’oeil effect to make his self-portrait stand out — both literally and figuratively.

Not all attempts at the unusual are successful, however, and some even seem gimmicky. Johannes Gumpp shows the back of the artist’s head, with his face painted on a canvas on the right and reflected in a mirror to the left. With the artist center-frame and two competing images either side, the restless eye is pulled across the canvas in this fussy, unsatisfactory composition.

Many of the artist strove to leave for posterity a certain self-image. Dutch painter Job Berckheyde from the Baroque era depicts himself in his studio surrounded by objects attesting to his position as a man of culture and learning — a violin, a recorder, an open manuscript, a bust and an earlier self-portrait hanging on the wall. There are also imposing self-portraits by Ingres and Joshua Reynolds, two important artistic figures, both of which portray the artists staring down the viewer with solemn expressions.

In contrast, American painter Ivan Le Lorraine Albright’s work is refreshing for its brutal honesty: Painted just two years before his death at age 86, it shows the artist with sagging, wrinkled skin and a tired expression. That this picture dates from 1981 shows that the Uffizi’s collection of self-portraits is not simply a relic of famous bygone ages. It has been, and still is, an ongoing concern.

Up through the 20th century to today, artists have considered the Vasari Corridor a hall of fame in which they would be delighted to have their images hanging in. There are examples of self-portraits by Marc Chagall and Paris-based Japanese artist Tsuguharu “Leonard” Foujita, with his trademark cat and Beatles-like mop-cut. Italian artists of the modern era are represented by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico and, from the Futurist camp, the hardworking Carlo Carra, shown at his easel, and Giaomo Balla, who is depicted at ease with a teacup in hand.

Even today, the Uffizi is busy collecting self-portraits. This year alone, it has procured three works by Japanese artists. These include Yayoi Kusama, who lends her distinctive dot patterns to her own girl-like representation, and Tadanori Yokoo, who has fun surrounding an image of his head with Japanese flags, some of which he overlaps to resemble eyes.

For some time now, there has been rumor of the Vasari Corridor closing for renovations. Once the plan goes into effect, which could be as soon as later this year, it will remain closed for roughly three years, so this exhibition is a good opportunity to enjoy some of its hidden treasures while you still can.

“The Exhibition of The Self-portrait’s Collection From The Galleria delgi Uffizi” at the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Museum of Art, Shinjuku, Tokyo, runs till Nov. 14; admission ¥1,000; open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.sompo-japan.co.jp/museum/english.