Christie’s Selfhood exhibition: ‘We want to bring together artists who use art to explore the unique experience of being human’

An exhibition of 20th- and 21st-century works at Christie’s in London — held to coincide with the reopening of the National Portrait Gallery — examines the notion of the evolving self. Most of the works, by artists including Leonora Carrington, Lucian Freud and Cinga Samson, are available for private sale

‘Every painter paints himself,’ noted the Renaissance politician Cosimo de’ Medici, repeating a maxim widely held in 15th-century Italy that an artist’s style was in some way an expression of their personality. Over time, this concept of a painting being a surrogate self-portrait took on an existential dimension, with artists expressing themselves psychologically as well as physically on canvas.

As the deeply moral artist Basil Hallward says in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.’

Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964), Mask Series 1999 no. 12, 1999

Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964), Mask Series 1999 no. 12, 1999. Oil on canvas. 28⅝ x 22⅛ in (72.8 x 56.3 cm). Offered in Selfhood: Explorations of Being and Becoming in 20th and 21st Century Art, on show until 13 July 2023 at Christie’s in London, and available online until 31 August

Such ideas are investigated in a new exhibition at Christie’s in London to celebrate the long-awaited reopening of the National Portrait Gallery. Selfhood: Explorations of Being and Becoming in 20th and 21st Century Art  runs until 13 July 2023 (and online until 31 August) and is, says Imogen Kerr, senior specialist in Impressionist & Modern Art, a way of ‘exploring different ways of communicating the human experience’.

Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938), Femme aux seins nus (Autoportrait) (Nude Woman (Self-portrait)), 1917. Oil on canvas. 25¾ x 19¾ in (65.4 x 50.2 cm). On loan from a private collection for Selfhood: Explorations of Being and Becoming in 20th and 21st Century Art, on show until 13 July 2023 at Christie’s in London

The show of 35 paintings begins with a candid self-portrait by the French post-Impressionist painter Suzanne Valadon. In the painting — made in 1917, when she was 52 — Valadon confronts the male gaze, foreshadowing interrogatory self-portraits by post-war artists such as Alice Neel, Caroline Coon, Tracey Emin and Zeng Fanzhi. The exhibition ends with a quietly subversive picture by the contemporary South African painter Cinga Samson, an artist known for challenging clichéd Western ideas about African identity.

Cinga Samson (b. 1986), Ubuhle beenkanyezi 10 (The Beauty of the Stars 10), 2018. Oil on canvas. 45¼ x 35⅜ in (115 x 90 cm). Price on request. Offered in Selfhood: Explorations of Being and Becoming in 20th and 21st Century Art, on show until 13 July 2023 at Christie’s in London, and available online until 31 August

One of the highlights of Selfhood is a portrait by Neel of her daughter-in-law, Nancy Greene. According to Maggie Kwiecien, associate director of Private Sales, in the video above, the New York painter often described herself as a ‘collector of souls’.

Neel would scrutinise her subjects intently to capture a sense of their emotional inner lives and psychological vulnerabilities. This is painting as psychiatry, with Nancy exhibiting an anxious intelligence in the face of impending motherhood. ‘Her style was so defined, and yet the individual in each painting is so unique,’ says Kwiecien.

Also included is a painting by Leonora Carrington, who emerged as a prominent figure within the Surrealist movement through works exploring themes of transformation and the subconscious mind.

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), Belfry, 1988. Tempera on Fibracel. 14⅞ x 30 in (37.8 x 76.2 cm). Price on request. Offered in Selfhood: Explorations of Being and Becoming in 20th and 21st Century Art, on show until 13 July 2023 at Christie’s in London, and available online until 31 August

‘Carrington used Surrealism to convey a sense of self beyond the male object of desire,’ says Kerr. The artist incorporated recurring creatures, symbols and emblematic figures in her paintings as clues to her private mythology. That said, she was wary of interpretation. ‘Do not psychoanalyse my paintings,’ she counselled one interviewer. ‘If you continue I shall go on strike.’

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That is not a problem for the contemporary painter Tracey Emin, who is known for her autobiographical works. Recently the 59-year-old artist has been searingly honest about her illness. You Carried My Soul (2019), an exuberant painting made in the aftermath of her treatment for cancer, captures the anxiety and euphoria of being alive.

‘It is such a powerful work,’ says Kwiecien. Kerr agrees, adding: ‘The idea of selfhood is one we see as representing both the fixed and the evolving identity. The works in this show capture an astounding breadth of approaches, and it is these endeavours to communicate, in honesty and with courage, that provide the greatest beauty.’

Main image, clockwise from top left: Amoako Boafo (b. 1984), Portrait, 2018. Oil on paper. 35⅜ x 26 in (90 x 66 cm); María Berrío (b. 1982), I am not from Here, I am not from There, 2016. Watercolour, acrylic, gold leaf, glitter and Japanese rice paper collage on canvas. 48 x 60¼ in (122 x 153 cm); Vojtěch Kovařík (b. 1993), Battle, 2019. Acrylic and spray paint on canvas. 78¾ x 78¾ in (200 x 200 cm); Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), Belfry, 1988. Tempera on Fibracel. 14⅞ x 30 in (37.8 x 76.2 cm); Ewa Juszkiewicz (b. 1984), Portrait of Carol Rama, 2014. Oil on canvas. 19¾ x 15¾ in (50 x 40 cm); Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Portrait of a Man, circa 1955. Oil on canvas. 20⅛ x 16⅛ in (51 x 41 cm). All works price on request. Offered in Selfhood: Explorations of Being and Becoming in 20th and 21st Century Art, on show until 13 July 2023 at Christie’s in London, and available online until 31 August

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