Albrecht Dürer (Germany, 1471-1525): Self-portrait, 1500
By Matt Carey-Williams, London
OK, let’s put our cards on the table here in Amsterdam. Yes, Rembrandt knew how to paint a selfie. Yes, van Gogh knocked up some of art history’s most poignant, self-effacing images of selfhood.
But, for me, the greatest self-portrait of all time is this bad boy, executed in 1500 by Albrecht Dürer at the age of 28. It is one of the treasures of Munich’s Alte Pinakothek. So why so good? Well, that’s partly explained by the huge balls on this guy. So huge, in fact, that he presents himself not just as Albrecht the man; not just as Dürer the artist but as some higher being altogether. As, dare I say it, Christ himself. Now, portraits of Jesus in Salvator Mundi guise were usually highly symmetrical, sombre affairs. All frontal pyramids of luscious locks and steely gazes with giant glass balls. Such as here, where a porty, chestnutty tonality prevails and which offers no mortal demarcation of time or space. Are we on Earth? Heaven? Dürer, like Christ, stares directly at us, even raising his hands (which, if you look closely, make the shape of the letters A and D) as if he’s blessing us.
Whilst this is a selfie, you do still feel a little distanced from the artist, as if he’s acting out a role or wearing some kind of mask. The inscription above his monogrammed signature (AD as in Albrecht Dürer, but also as in anno domini, adds yet another layer of meta here, announcing to the viewer that this is a painting made by him of him with ‘everlasting colours’. His indelible palette, used to fashion his likeness, also, in turn, speaks of Christ’s divine immortality. And thus, maybe, of his. So Albs has a bit of a Jesus complex. Not the first time an artist would have that; nor the last. But this absolutely exquisite self-portrait remains one of art history’s most enigmatic images. Dürer liked to write often about his craft and practice, but of this painting he offered no analysis. That would have been far too earthly for something as out of this world as this fucking killer masterpiece.