Julian Schnabel: Self-Portraits of Others
On ViewThe Brant Foundation Art Study Center
September 9 – December 30, 2021
“It is not easy to paint yourself,” Vincent van Gogh wrote of his self-portraiture in an 1889 letter. “In any case, it is different from a photograph. And, you see, this is what impressionism is to me above all else; it is not banal, and you are searching for a more profound likeness than the one a photographer wants.”1 Most of the twenty-five plate paintings by Julian Schnabel in this exhibition, produced between 2018-2020, were inspired by photographic sources and, especially, a cinematographic source—photo reproductions of well-known artworks, and particularly images of van Gogh paintings that appeared in the 2018 film At Eternity’s Gate. Schnabel directed the film, which stars Willem Defoe; he co-wrote the screenplay that reimagines (controversially) the last years of van Gogh’s life. In a press statement, Schnabel noted that his paintings often inspired his earlier films, but never before has one of his films inspired his paintings. He created the prop canvases used in At Eternity’s Gate, and in the process immersed himself not only in van Gogh’s technique and color sensibility, but also in his angst-ridden state of mind, which Schnabel manages to convey in the highly gestural yet faithful renderings in oil on shattered pottery that appear on the top two floors of the Brant Foundation’s space on East 6 Street.
Of the six compositions in the upper-level front gallery—all identical size (72 by 60 inches) on beveled wood panels—three on one wall are based on the 1889 van Gogh Self-Portrait in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, showing the Dutch artist with red hair and beard, set against a pattern of swirling cerulean and turquoise brushstrokes. On the opposite wall, Schnabel mines the same image though with Dafoe’s recognizable features in place of van Gogh’s. The crushed crockery, painted over with Schnabel’s bravura brushstrokes in luminous blue and blue-green tones, alludes to the rich impasto of van Gogh’s work. Hardly a mere appropriation gambit, however, Schnabel’s works, with their fractured surfaces and hyperactive gestures, propose another, heightened level of tension and emotion to the original van Gogh image. Likewise, the three paintings based on van Gogh’s Self Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (1888, collection Harvard Art Museums), on the back wall and in a rear gallery, are packed with deft, feverish brushstrokes slathered over the coarse surfaces. These works call to mind some of Francis Bacon’s wrenching portraits of friends and lovers.
The blaring red and orange tones permeating the series of works in a lower-level gallery help intensify Schnabel’s studies of van Gogh’s 1889 Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, which shows the ear-shorn artist in a fur-trimmed cap, with bandaged head and a pipe dangling from his mouth. Again, on this floor, three works on one wall are based on the van Gogh painting, while the other three portray Dafoe in the guise of the wounded artist. Schnabel’s homages to Frida Kahlo in a rear gallery of the second floor match the emotional impact of the van Gogh tributes, as the splintered surfaces of the compositions seem to allude to Kahlo’s physical distress and fractured body, if not her tortured soul. Occupying most of the space here, Schnabel’s somber toned tributes to his painting gurus Titian, Caravaggio, and Velázquez look fantastic against the polished yellow brick of the cavernous second-floor hall of this former electrical power plant (and later the home and studio of artist Walter de Maria). However, while the depictions of Oscar Isaac (who played Paul Gauguin in Eternity’s Gate) as Caravaggio’s “Goliath,” and Schnabel’s son Cy as Diego in the three Velázquez Self-Portraits, are not without a degree of theatrical panache, the jagged, rough-hewn surfaces and slashing brushstrokes in these works appear too jarring a contrast to the subtly nuanced illusionism in the original works by the Renaissance and Baroque greats that they honor.
Even Schnabel has his limitations, I suppose, but Self-Portraits of Others is at once a very personal endeavor and crowd-pleasing enterprise—a canny maneuver with which Schnabel has certainly become adept. Here, while he returns to his signature plate-painting format, Schnabel seems to have followed van Gogh’s example by searching for more expressive and profound likenesses of the Dutch artist and other heroes of his painterly pantheon, as well as the actors, friends, and family members who portray them.
- Van Gogh’s Letters: The Mind of the Artist in Paintings, Drawings and Words, 1875-1890; H. Anna Suh editor, Black Dog & Leventhal, New York, 2013, p. 205.