Exploring the self through art

icône de pdf

When interviewed on television, performance artist Leigh Bowery stated that he saw himself as a blank canvas that had to be painted upon. Many artists have used their own body or image in the making of their art. In what way can this “staging” of the self be understood both as a reflection on individuality and art?

I. The self as subject and object of art

Self-representation may be perceived as egotism. However, artists often use their body or image to create art that explores the very notion of the self.

1) The self as a canvas

English painter and photographer David Hockney has produced over three hundred drawn or photographic self-portraits. In these works, the artist studies himself at different stages of his life, offering the viewer an intellectual reflection on the passage of time.

The work of American photographer Cindy Sherman essentially consists in series of close-ups of herself impersonating a wide range of different characters. In her landmark series, Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), Cindy Sherman deconstructs the very notion of the self by disappearing into a multiplicity of female characters.

2) Altering the ego

Many artists have created alter egos which serve as an exploration of the artist’s self. Most famously, in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) Lord Henry Wotton is a witty and provocative character based on Oscar Wilde himself, who embodies dandyism throughout the novel. Fictional doubles of Oscar Wilde are also to be found throughout his work – in both his plays and his short stories.


Dandyism is the term used to describe the style of 19th century fashionable gentlemen and the artistic movement emphasizing the sophistication that stemmed from it.

English artist Grayson Perry uses cross-dressing throughout his work, dressing up to his female alter ego, Claire, in series of photographs and performances. Through transvestism, the artist distorts and explores his own image hence questioning the traditional representation of a gendered self.


Performance art is an art form based on presenting a situation to an audience. It often involves the presence of the artist, and sometimes even his or her own body.

II. Investigating one’s art

Autobiography and self-portraiture may also be used in order to further understand art itself.

1) Autobiographical enquiries

In One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), novelist Eudora Welty discusses her childhood in the American South to understand the bond between her upbringing and her later career as a writer. She emphasizes how her early relationship with her father and taste for reading shaped her desire to become a writer.

George Orwell’s approach is more intellectual. In his essay, Why I Write (1946), he explains how political events, namely the Spanish War led him to become a writer. This “political purpose” to writing is one of the four great motives Orwell lists in this work.

2) Using a fictional double to explore art

Fictional doubles may serve as an investigation into the making of an artist. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), James Joyce experiments with new techniques and tells his own story as he is growing to become a major writer. Both his alter ego, Dedalus, and the literary technique he uses, free indirect speech, took on an even more refined form in his masterpiece, Ulysses (1922).

Woody Allen’s early work often features a neurotic New Yorker in which he portrays himself. In Deconstructing Harry (1997), the main character’s life is told from multiple perspectives underlining the link between an artist and his work – his love life finds its way into his writings which in turn impact his “real life”.