Carracci, Annibale: Self-portrait on an Easel (1605)

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The Independent Culture

The picture gives you a face and a character to gaze at, but more than that, it creates a relationship. You're in an encounter with this person. They offer you eye contact. They meet and return your gaze. At least, that's how we normally see such images, how we can hardly help seeing them.

But in 1967, the Italian artist Giulio Paolini, a member of the Arte Povera group, checked that response in a surprising way. He took a black- and-white reproduction of a small portrait by the Renaissance painter Lorenzo Lotto, and gave it a new name. This portrait shows a young man's head and little else. He's facing front and looking straight ahead, staring steadily and rather mesmerically out at you " or so you would say, if it weren't for the new title that Paolini gave this image: Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto.

With that, the look on his face is strangely and sharply refocused, relocated. He's no longer communing with you, now, in a gallery. His gaze is transferred to another person, time and place. We see the young man's eyes as they were, one day 500 years ago, in a painter's studio, fixed on the artist who was painting his picture. And put like that, it seems obvious. This Renaissance youth, whatever he's looking at, it isn't us.

Still, the suggestion rankles. We resist this withdrawing of the image's gaze. When we're looking at a face that so obviously looks back, it's a wrench to relinquish our strong sense of contact. And of course that's what the new work wants. It wants that strain, that oscillation, the ambiguous feeling that the young man's eyes both are and are not gazing into ours.

Paolini wasn't the first to try this kind of trick. You could write a short history of eye-contact-that-isn't in European painting. In the gallery of great blank looks, you find (say) the glazed, unfocused gaze of the barmaid in Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergères, looking at her customer, looking at the viewer, not really looking at anything. You have the mad staring eyes of Fuseli's tormented heroes, who look out directly at the viewer only to show that they don't see us at all " their burning gaze is turned inward, in terminal brooding or derangement. You have Velazquez's self-portrait in Las Meninas, where what he's looking out at is actually the king and queen, who are standing approximately where we are, their figures distantly reflected in the mirror at the back of the scene. But leave mirrors and madness out of it. Look at the simple, straight, stopped eye contact of Annibale Carracci's Self-Portrait on an Easel.

It's a painting that has a picture-within-the-picture. It shows a dark and undefined studio space, with some kind of window at the back. In it stands a tripod easel. A dog and cat skulk dimly around its feet, an artist's palette hangs from it, and propped on its ledge there's a painted canvas, a portrait of the artist, a sensitive man with a beard. The face in the portrait stares out.

The studio appears to be empty. Unlike many pictures with a picture-within- the-picture, there aren't any 'real' people in the rest of the scene. The only person here is this man on the painted canvas. He's unquestionably the most real inhabitant of the picture. He's much more firmly painted than the animals, and the vague shape (a statue?) at the back window is hardly realised at all. There's just this portrait, this self-portrait; it's the only thing really, and it sits in the centre of the picture. And as in many portraits and self-portraits, it has a face that catches and holds your eye, that directly communes with the viewer.

Yes " but on the other hand, Carracci does all he can to baffle that sense of communion. The portrait may be centred, but it's small and isolated, something you could imagine picking up and moving around. It sits on its easel, unfinished, a painting in progress, the colours still on the palette for next time. It lies at a slant, not completely facing us, turned away slightly, with the nailed side of the stretcher showing, and the rough white unpainted edge of the canvas. In short, it's presented as an object, an artefact, a plain, inanimate, portable thing.

This puts a strain on the gaze of the man with the beard. One way, here's a face that looks at us with the usual vivid eye-contact effect. Another way, here's an area of paint, put on a canvas, that's stretched over wood, that's propped on an easel, all as dead as a doornail. This image before us oscillates between communion and objectification. Focus on the eyes, and there's the look. Focus on the whole scene, and there's a piece of work in a workshop.

Self-Portrait on an Easel is a picture that displays the twofold nature of the image, the lifeless medium that can conjure up the living human presence. And even the artist's own face seems a little unsure of its status. It peers out with a tentative expression, betraying a doubt about whether it's really there for us, whether its gaze can ever get through.

THE ARTIST

Annibale Caracci (1560-1609) was the most versatile visual artist of his time. Born in Bologna, active mostly in Rome, he worked in styles high and low. He made comic pictures of bean-eating peasants, and elevated frescos of mythological panoramas, in which he revived the High Renaissance manner. He invented the genre of Ideal Landscape, and made some of the earliest experiments in graphic caricature. He devised picture riddles, such as the horizontal line with a semicircle and a triangle resting on it. (What's this? A mason's head and his trowel just above a wall.) This self-portrait is on the low end of the scale.

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