The Empathy in Self-Portraits

photo by Jean Carlo Emer

Considering how vulnerable human beings are, how common it is to suffer, how easy it is to fall sick to a deadly illness that would shut off the lights of life in a blink of an eye, how a small simple act of carelessness snowballs into a massive morbid tragedy, it makes sense why the empathy has taken its place among main emotional responses along with affection, jealousy, happiness. Therefore, people, one would have imagined, would have been giant empathy machines, devoting their lives to feeling the pains of others. But no. It is far from the truth. “The highest form of knowledge is empathy,” wrote George Eliott once in her shrewd observation, “for it requires us to suspend our ego and live in another’s world.” The truth is to be truly empathetic is still challenging even though literature has long developed the habits of encouraging noble traits, and lofty ideals in us such as how to be in another person’s shoes, how to treat others the way you wanted to be treated, how to be kind, understanding, and little do we talk about the opening the gates of our world to others, letting them peer over the complex layers of our human nature. However, it must be recognised that the univocal association of empathy with only feeling the pains of others is a fallible one since there exists confelicity. In fact, one might go further as to claim that commiserating with someone’s pain is much easier than finding a delight in someone’s joy. The focus of this research paper will be the former, commiseration, and when it comes to this, there are not many rivals to painters who earned their names with the art of making self-portraits.

In terms of the pictorial genre, the self-portrait was established as an expressive exploration for the artists around the Renaissance era. During this period, artists gradually shifted from placing themselves on the periphery, surrounded by a crowd as hidden subjects such as in “The School of Athens” by Raphael to bring themselves to the foreground, becoming the stars of their own work as in “The Portrait of a Man” by Jan van Eyck. In itself, the art of making self-portraits is a paradox. How can the spectator be sure that the painters who are solely positing themselves as the main image of their artistic pursuits are not narcissistic megalomaniacs who enjoy an equally delusional sense of self and entitlement? Then it would also cast doubts over the empathetic aspects of self-portraits, rendering them completely unserviceable in terms of empathy due to the apparent yet tenuous links between empathy and altruism. Proponents of this cynical line of thought name Rembrandt as an example, who as a masterful artist, archived every emotional state he was in, ranging from happiness and sadness to humour and anger just to polish his skills for capturing various nuances of human expressions, therefore capitalising on his self-absorbed obsessions aimed at attracting the attention and meeting the demand of the commercial market for portraiture of his time. However, such acts of diminishing the self-portraits to an allegedly narcissistic venture are facile and irrelevant for the following painters.

A brief look at the works of Frida Kahlo, and Vincent van Gogh, two highly acclaimed and immensely popular artists, reveals an astonishing similarity. Both of them at one stage in their artistic career had made self-portraits. When asked, Frida said, “I’ll paint myself because I am so often alone, I am the subject I know best.” To the same question, Gogh wrote to Theo, his brother in a letter, “They say — and I am willing to believe it — that it is difficult to know yourself — but it isn’t easy to paint yourself either.” The answers give us a clue about the minds of the two greatest artists of all time. They both hint at one thing: self-awareness, being able to know oneself, one’s own soul.

Given the definingly elusive trait of the art, the viewers of the self-portraits can be categorically divided into two groups. The first one is the naive viewer; the one that views the work of art without the requisite awareness of the private stories and histories, and appreciates it based on subjective sensibilities.

When you catch a glimpse of the art they have produced, you cannot help but feel closer to them. Subtle, yet restless brushstrokes grip the onlookers like a hook, bringing their attention to the dolorous heads on the small canvases; her elegant monobrow, dark hair, tight-lipped mouth, his strong green-tinged face, red orangey hair. These are the first things naive viewers see when they look at their work.

However, behind those visibly noticeable features comes also artists’ personalities. Their life stories had been indelibly woven into the soft linen of the canvas, and the viewer who is able to view the work of art beyond the superficial features is the empathetic viewer. The main function of the empathetic viewing of self-portraits is to lend the viewer a chance to vicariously experience the suffering of one’s own, to let them resonate with the pain of one’s own in the most imaginative way, and Both Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo had a fair share of pain in their life, whether be it physically or emotionally, proving the mere fact that their self-portraits are nothing but the products of twisted yet cathartic struggles with their body and soul.

A self-portrait such as Broken Column by Frida Kahlo is a prime example of the door to the artist’s world. On the outside naive viewer is confronted with extremely tortuous imagery and grotesque bleakness. Exposed breasts, A naked body pierced with nails of different sizes all over, pearly white teardrops running freely down her cheek, smooth dark hair hanging loosely on her shoulders, fractured iron column stretching up to the neck instead of a spine, surgical sheet covering the rest of her mutilated body. There is a strikingly defiant look in her eyes despite the emotional and bodily trauma. These are the things that embellish the imagination of the viewer about the subject being presented. But the empathetic viewer is perfectly aware of the fact that the way she illustrated herself delivers a very private message; the remnants of a painful past.

The portrait itself tells us the story of a woman who had gone through private upheavals both as a person and as an artist. Having been injured in an untimely traffic accident at the age of 18, Frida Kahlo was inflicted with incomprehensibly unendurable bodily pains and underwent more than 30 medical operations in her lifetime. She once herself put the horrific details of the instantaneous trauma by saying: “the handrail pierced me as the sword pierces the bull.” The focus of this painting painted in 1944 — just right after her spinal rearrangement is to hold a mirror on her coarse life. The muse of this piece of art was the metal corset she was forced to wear to keep herself upright. Body parts painted with meticulous brushstrokes are drenched with corporeal symbolism. With her expression of her own pain channeled through the artistic elements of both realism and surrealism, the empathetic viewer is able to stitch these multiple apparent and subtle pieces together and creates a well-built image of the artist’s pain and identifies with it. The painting leaves a bitter impression on viewers as if she is holding the nails between her lips, firmly pressed to each other, and waiting to plunge them into her body with a hammer. That is the power making her self-portraits unique.

The notions such as love and jealousy are also among other chief themes she had artfully put into her works. For example, the painting that has been produced in 1931 by Frida Kahlo after two years of marriage is considered the wedding photo of herself and, her husband, Diego Rivera with whom she had travelled the world and made an eccentric, formidable couple of the elephant and butterfly, as once they used to be known as reveals a secret history. In this painting Kahlo, in her traditional Tehuana dress, seems like a nurturing wife, docile as a dove while Diego, giant brushes and palette in hand, is immense and untameable, a muralist next to her wife, almost overshadowing her. These are visible features that can be interpreted as Frida’s own view of herself and her husband by the naive viewers. Once again Frida challenges the naive viewer to look not only with the wide scrutinising eyes but also with an open heart. But when deeper attention is paid to the emotional aspects of the painting, and certainly to Frida’s tempestuous love life, a small, single detail turns out to be conveying a delicately-placed secretive message of pain. In the exact centre of the portrait, Diego’s hand touches Frida’s, who is hardly ever able to contain the massive energy that her husband exudes. Their hands are painted in the lightest grasp, lacking the kind of firmness one would expect from such a wildly famous couple for their unrelenting passion. This seemingly normal portrait, when deeply analysed, tells us about the emotional state of Frida, whose relationship with her husband was stained by infidelity, not one but multiple instances of it. During her marriage, she was frustrated over not being able to connect with her husband, as she herself admitted in one of the interviews, saying “I let him play matrimony with other women. Diego is not anybody’s husband and never will be.” In the empathetic character analysis of the Portrait, this lightest possible grasp that their hands’ form reveals the disloyal nature of Diego Rivera, depicting him as unpossessable husband.


Much of the paintings she made are resplendent with such symbolism. In some, she depicted herself as a modest tree woman, lying on rocks, and thick fleshy stems whose veins are dripping dark red blood are spreading out of her body or pet monkeys encircling their hands around her neck in an awkward camaraderie, or tiny beads of milk dribbling down from her nipple. Whatever is brought forth in her self-portraits is the graphic reconstruction of memories, the memories of her body, mutilated. Employing the gift of being sentient, the empathetic viewer cannot avoid the pain that is close-up, zoomed in like an x-ray, overexposed. The reason why she became an artistic legend, inspiration to millions, and a world icon is exactly about this sophisticated emotional response that her art provoked in the spectators that made an eye-contact with her double self, the one hanging from the wall, the mute one; the empathy. Her paintings know no future, but a humble present that momentarily and faithfully reflected the pain as the viewers continue their gaze. “Much pain is unshareable,” said John Berger, “but the will to share pain is shareable.” So did she. By picking up the brush with her dignified fingers adorned with a different ring on each or sometimes lying sick in her bed or confined to her chair. By diligently choosing the brightest shades of colours in the lonely palette. By etching the pigments into the canvas with invisible gestures. But firstly, she touched something that was there before the other things; her pain.

We also find similar intimacy in terms of the graphic depiction of pain in the self-portraits of Vincent van Gogh widely known as the Dutch painter, the mad genius, the greatest post-impressionist, and the so-called martyr of art. While looking at his daringly emotive art, we are once again reminded of the fact that most of his works too, just like Frida Kahlo’s, are the product of the darkest, sun-deprived days.

Vincent van Gogh, as one can rightly presume, is the masculine equivalent of Frida Kahlo, or vice versa, and when judged, the spectators do not focus on their artistic capabilities as much as they do on their candid, painful past. But unlike Frida Kahlo, he neither paints himself weeping the tears of sorrow to express her inner turmoil nor spilling his guts out on canvas to convey his physical suffering. We do not get to see metaphorically rendered self-portraits. There is an immense lack of symbolic imagery to them. Naive viewers of his art often confine Van Gogh to a single image of the fancy modern artist by yanking him from his own socio-historical settings and neglecting his psychological pain. The result is the commercially and dangerously romanticised representation of a mad artist with a ting of vigorous creativity. What sets Van Gogh apart from Frida Kahlo is his usage of his own pain to contribute to the advancement of the unique art movement, though it came with a great personal cost that he could not repay during his tragically short lifetime. Even his very-hard-to-pronounce name brings to mind the radiant sparkly sunflowers and star-imbued crystal blue skies, but nothing reveals his true state of self, the hapless recluse sunk in obscurity, as much as his self-portraits do.

In his self-portrait with bandaged ear, 1889, the viewers see a man of middle age in a green coat and fur winter hat, reminiscent of the panzer man cap, in a yellow room whose wall hangs a half-blurred picture. There is a bandage over his ear, left one to be specific. An easel stands tall behind him with invisible sketch outlines on it. On the outside what we see in the painting is a face of a brave man posing with a stoic buoyancy. One can even think of him happy as a clam. But as a matter of fact, the role of this self-portrait was to be a plea to his psychiatrists, showing that he was in complete possession of his mental faculties. The portrait was made after two weeks of a tragic event he had gone through between fits of mental illness and paranoia. But the gory details behind the self-portraits are unknown to the naive viewers. One Sunday evening, at a fever pitch, Van Gogh threatened another artist with a knife, Paul Gaugin, his both enemy and friend, before mutilating his own ear and handing it to a random prostitute named Rachel he called from a brothel in a wrapped paper. The fact that it was the first mental breakdown that led to his following hospitalisation in an asylum remains undisclosed to them.

In this self-portrait, his careworn moistened emerald eyes avoid the gaze of the observer. They are deeply ruminative and locked in a mirror, giving the impression that his eyes are directed towards himself. And what do we see? A strange man probing himself as an eccentric detective. Though he does not utter a word, it is easy to imagine him moving his stupefied jaw move up and down, breathing out the sound of self-reflection, Hah, as if he stumbled upon a promising clue. The billowing fusions of his compulsive brushstrokes against his bizarrely calm face reveal the expression of self-discovery, the artist’s coming to terms with his own sorrowing madness, the catastrophic consequences arising from going too far, and most importantly his loss of his own self. There seems to be a pitiful act of salvaging his own reality that the observer senses a strong connection to in this self-portrait. And something grows out of it, breaking free of the wooden frames, touching us. I am tempted to call it empathy.

They also are not aware of the fact that there is only one year separating him in the portrait with bandaged ear from him taking his own life after a relapse of debilitating depression. Not much different from the ending story of Kahlo, who overdosed herself intentionally with the medication. As for their last words. “Sadness will last forever,” said Van Gogh and “I joyfully await the exit and I hope I never come back.” Frida Kahlo. All of this brings us back to their profoundly self-referential legacy that seeps trauma, suffering but also bravery. As in the powerful description of Frida Kahlo by Andre Breton, one of the greatest co-founders of Surrealism, she was, indeed, “a ribbon tied around a bomb.” And together with her masculine equivalent, they reached for the brush to feel alive, even if it lasted only for a short time.

Both of their lives have been deliriously devoured by art critics and laypeople, and the debates over their true selves have not ceased to grab their attention. To come to a definite conclusion is impossible. We the observers simply know too much about them. But one is bound to find a deeper understanding of them if they divert their gaze from reproductions of their selves to their self-portraits. That is the power the art of making self-portraits granted to them. Their self-portraits, differing from the other self-portraits that had been and continue to be made act like the maps of empathy where the continuous dotted and dashed lines lead the viewer to the artist’s extraordinarily relatable pain.



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