If dreams are the royal roads to the unconscious, portraits could be royal roads to our ideal selves. Self portraits, the artful ancestors of modern day selfies has been woven into the cultural psyche, as a means to explore and express ourselves. Our desire to capture eternity by freezing time reflects our little, dispersed revolts against time that is slithering away from our hands.
Touted as one of the earliest self portraits by a woman artist, this painting depicts Sofonisba Anguissola, one of the most influential renaissance artists from Italy, in a strikingly plain, ordinary outlook. Considering the nature of usual depictions of women in paintings of that era, Sofonisba’s self portrait stands out as an exemplar of the addage, “less is more”- with no jewels or embellishments, no makeup or flair that characterized a vast majority of women’s portraits of her time.
The sophisticated simplicity achieved by shifting the focus to the replacement of the conventions that decorated the muse using fashionable accoutrements to a new convention that accessorized Sofonisba with her work and legacy requires us to go beyond what meets our eyes, alluding to the magic in the mundane.
The magic of her self portrait lies in its ability to provoke the audience to look deeper, beyond the superficial, into the person. The mundane simplicity of the portrait is ironic in its demand for attention as it invites the audience to look beyond the portrait, so as to raise the objectifying gaze to a subjective reflection of the person portrayed.
It is worth noting that Sofonisba gazes unto the eyes gazing at her. But her head, and in most cases her body is turned away from us, attending to the work she does. She looks at us, as if she was distracted by us. This is a subtle role reversal implanted in her portraits which subvert the subject and the object.
Her portrait of her mentor, Bernadino Campi is cleverly peculiar. She depicts Campi in her place- as someone looking at us as if he was distracted by us in the middle of the work. But what is more peculiar is that Campi is shown painting a portrait of Sofonisba. Reminiscing the tale of Pygmalion might have been a token of gratitude for her mentor.
But if we look deeper, things become more confusing. It can be seen that Campi rests his arm on the mahlstick. But the peculiar position of Sofonisba’s long sleeve creates an illusion that her hand supports his hand along with the mahlstick. This makes the double portrait layered with a tensed power dynamic.
Sofonisba’s portrait within the portrait of Campi is dominant, both spatially and thematically. This portrait exists, in all conventional glory to claim a major chunk of our attention from Campi. But that suggests a lot about our gaze more than the painting per se, giving us an opportunity to reflect.
Sofonisba continued to paint and she evolved as an artist over time. Yet she continued to capture the reflections of herself in the mirror of life. In a world where books are judged by its cover, being who you truly are is an act of resistance. Sometimes, it provokes first, then it evokes dormant facts and guide us to new awakenings.