The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London announced last week that it had added five self-portraits by female artists, including its first self-portrait of a Black woman, to its collections. The acquisitions were made as part of the three-year project Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture, which aims to improve the representation of women — both artists and sitters — on the gallery’s walls.
The portraits that will enter the ranks of the gallery, located right off Trafalgar Square, are by artists Celia Paul, Everlyn Nicodemus, Chila Burman, Susan Hiller, and Rose Finn-Kelcey.
As part of the initiative, the NPG, with the support of the CHANEL Culture Fund, will acquire portraits of underrepresented figures and commission new ones, while also researching the gallery’s existing holdings with the goal of “enhancing the visibility of select figures.” The museum, which has been closed since June 2020, will reopen to the public in 2023 at the end of a major refurbishment and rehang.
One self-portrait, an oil-on-canvas by Paul, is entitled “Portrait, Eyes Lowered” (2019). A square painting measuring less than a foot on each side, Paul’s self-portrait is somber, rendered in ashy earthen tones. Known for her landscape paintings and portraiture of her four sisters and her mother — aside from her self-portraits — Paul infuses her drab paintings with meditation and mysticism. Aptly for this set of new acquisitions, Paul authored the 2019 memoir Self-Portrait, in which she recounts how she struggled to develop her own singular artistic vision in the face of motherhood and being passed over by others as Lucian Freud’s muse. The author Zadie Smith once described Paul as a “painter who, for ten years of her early life, found herself mistaken for a muse.”
Another oil-on-canvas self-portrait, “Självporträtt, Åkersberga” (1982) by Nicodemus, marks the NPG’s first acquisition of a self-portrait by a Black woman. It depicts not just one face but multiple ones with varying degrees of abstraction: two painted in skin tone and three in solid modern shapes and colors. The amalgamation of faces in one portrait alludes to the artist’s manifold identity and life experiences. Nicodemus, who was born in Tanzania and emigrated to Sweden before relocating to France, Belgium, and finally the United Kingdom, explores themes of racism and cultural trauma in her artistic output. “I exhibited myself as a subject, showing every part of myself, my problems, my hopes, my conflicts — my whole life,” Nicodemus said about her self-portrait. “It was a form of psychological survival.”
Hiller’s “Ace (retrieved),” a sequence of self-portraits belonging to The Photomat Portrait Series (1972-3), shows the artist playing with costumes and accessories in a photo booth. Hiller, who died in 2019, had attributed her affection for photo booths to the reversal of roles between the artist and the subject, as the latter traditionally assumes a more passive role in being portrayed.
Finn-Kelcey’s “Preparatory study for ‘Divided Self’” (1974) is a collaged photograph of the artist engaging in conversation with herself on a bench at Speaker’s Corner in Marble Arch, London. That’s where historical figures like Karl Marx, George Orwell, and Vladimir Lenin have spoken and debated publicly on their ideas. Finn-Kelcey’s work draws attention to the tenuous position that women occupy in public space and their marginalization in political life.
Finally, Burman’s “Aphrodisiacs Being Socially Constructed” (1988) is an etching and aquatint print that represents the artist in two roles: one lying down face-up on the ground, and another face-forward in the posture of a woman warrior. Surrounding her are shapes suggestive of eyes, hair, breast, and sperm. Taken together, the cumulative portrait is one of fragmented, dissociative womanhood.