Self-portraiture in the 20th Century.

*This presentation was developed through a partnership with MOMA, 2019. The project is designed for primary school students in the 10-12 year range (third grade) but is adaptable for any students above age 10.

“How does an artist choose to represent herself?” The focus of the assignment is to understand and conceptualize self-portraits from a personal narrative perspective, i.e. through the lens of self evaluation & presentation, rather than striving for literal realism.

As children reach their “tween” years, self-identity becomes a regular part of life. This provides an opportunity for students to connect with some of the more conceptual aspects of self-portraiture in 20th century art. Rather than continuing earlier restrictions on portraiture, the 20th century provides us with many examples of the “expression of the self” or the “artist as muse.” Using well-known examples, students will explore the motivation, materials and personal choices of the artists. Students will then be asked to follow the example of these artists by creating their own self-portrait and do their best to interpret the self-portraits of others.

By comparing created self-portraits with direct historical photographs, students can be guided to understand the complexities of self-representation in art. (Or in modern parlance, personal branding.) Important lines of questioning for a group discussion include topics such as exaggeration of physical features, imagining the self as something else and the use of different constructive materials.

Students will create their own self-portraits which will then be co-mingled throughout the group. Now that the student has been the artist, they have a chance to be the interpreter of someone else’s work.

The first goal of the activity is for students to demonstrate an understanding of self-representation outside of photo realism. Specifically, that a self-portrait is much more than a direct representation of the artist’s physical form. Students should spend some time considering what aspects of themselves they want to communicate to the world- for example, surrounding the portrait with a landscape where they are happy or accentuating a certain physical feature in the composition. Non physical attributes should be considered as well, perhaps a student who loves basketball incorporates a lot of orange into her painting or places herself under a basketball sun.

The second goal is for the students to try on the role of interpreter by telling the group what they think is happening with someone else’s self-portrait. A successful observation might be, “Mary loves to be at the beach” or “Jeff wants us to see his really big feet.” After spending time reflecting on what to choose for themselves, the students should have an easy time imagining themselves in the self-portraits of others. This is also a good time to review the original master works and ask, “do you feel any differently about these now? Do you notice anything you didn’t notice before you did your own self-portrait?”

Teachers should prepare, with a tablet display of some kind, several works of art and a photograph of each artist for the compare and contrast discussion. The tablet can be passed around the group as the students talk about the differences between the photograph and the self-portrait. In leading the discussion, instructors should focus on the idea that a self-portrait does not necessarily “look” like the person, that it is meant to show us something important about the person. A great example of this is Frida Kahlo’s facial hair- she chose that as something to exaggerate for impact. What does that say about Frida’s concept of beauty, what feelings is she trying to elicit from her viewer? What do you think of her sense of humor?

Materials for the project can vary depending on instructor preferences, time limitations, etc. For example, paper collage and glue sticks is fast and easy with little mess to clean up: a good choice for a teaching space that is not “mess friendly.” Charcoal, crayon, pencil and paper can be added for a more mixed-media experience or teachers can choose to stick to traditional drawing, watercolor, tempera or acrylic paint. In this case the materials can be flexible, based on location, age of student and time restrictions.

While students are working on their self-portraits, teachers should circulate, ask questions and encourage students to interact with each other. When everyone is satisfied that their self-portrait is “done,” students can view and interpret everyone else’s work.

Follow up discussion of the group’s self portraits with a review of the paintings on the tablet. Ask the students if they notice anything different, or have a new outlook on the paintings, now that they have done their own self-portrait.

The slideshow click through compares self portraits to photographs.

Begin by asking the students, “what is a self-portrait?” and then ask them to help you make a list of things that a person might want to communicate about his or herself in a self-portrait:

What the person looks like
What the person *imagines they look like
A hobby or career that the person does
A landscape or place that the person most associates with

Next, compare the painted self-portraits to the ordinary photographs of each artist. How are they the same? How are they different? Key points can include:

Exaggeration of features (Kahlo)
Exposition of painterly style (Cassat)
The artist as the muse (Picasso)

Students will be asked to create their own self-portrait, focusing on the things they want to communicate to their viewer, going back to the list of items that the group discussed. For example, if a student likes to sing, could she portray herself holding a microphone? Perhaps only draw or paint her mouth? Create a collage out of old sheet music?

Students will review the group’s portraits and describe each other based on what they see. After being both artist and audience, students will review the original masterworks with a new, more finely honed perspective on self-portraiture.

The goal of the self-portrait is to understand the relationship between materials choice, perspective / exaggeration and style in creating a self-portrait. 

Below is a modified version, adapting the presentation to meet Girl Scouts of the USA art badge requirements.

Small scale canvas examples from the Girl Scouts and my self portrait.

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