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Enter the ‘universal museum’ of human creativity

Painting ourselves, we reveal a whole world

Humans started depicting their own bodies artistically with the very earliest sculptures and paintings, dating back to tens of thousands of years ago.

Yet artists have rarely crossed the line to producing accurate portraits of regular individuals, worthy of standing apart, alongside leaders, saints, and gods.

“In the Venetian Republic, they didn’t allow portraits of individuals in public spaces, because they didn’t want individuals to assert themselves, at the expense of the Republic,” explained James Hall, the author of “The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History.” “There have often been controls of the diffusion of portraiture.”

Self-portraits are rarer still. Only Europeans developed a prevalent tradition of self-portraiture before the 19th century, said Hall.

European societies traditionally had a preoccupation with the individual and individuality, in contrast with other cultures that emphasize the collective and communal.

But in the greatest self-portraits, we see more than an accurate copy of a person’s appearance, Hall explains. Whether naturalistic or not, we see the material, spiritual and cultural society the artist inhabits, and their place in it.

“The self-portrait becomes the microcosm: those are the most interesting ones,” said Hall. “You’re not just seeing someone’s face and eyes, you’re getting a sense of the whole world, the world in which they operate.”

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