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Discovering one’s self through portraits, self-portraits

By Yali Chen
Artists often make a few portraits and self-portraits throughout their creative journey. Why do they do that? An exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) may give you answers.
The TFAM is holding the “Face to Face” exhibition at its Children’s Arts Education Center. The exhibition showcases ten artists’ artworks from the TFAM collection and will run until October 27, 2019.
The TFAM Director Lin Ping said that the showcase has been the 8th educational program since the center opened in 2014.
Wu Cheng-yen’s “Portrait of Max C.W. Liu” and Liu’s “Self-Portrait,” which they made for each other in 1980.
Photo from TFAM
                  Wu Cheng-yen’s “Portrait of Max C.W. Liu” and Liu’s “Self-Portrait,” which they
                                                           made for each other in 1980.

From past to present, self-portraits and portraits have always been the painting motifs that artists never give up, Lin said. Their faces, inner feelings, and self-exploration can be expressed through self-portraits and portraits. This exhibition is family-friendly and suitable for teenagers to better understand themselves.
“Face to Face” is curated by TFAM member Hsu Hsuan-chun (許玄淳) and divided into two subtopics: “A Self-Introduction on Canvas” (畫布上的自我介紹) and “I am Another You” (我是另一個你). The former helps viewers to see how artists observe themselves. The latter explores the looks, inner feelings, and true emotions that artists paint of their model’s face.
“Have you ever tried to draw a picture of yourself? What are the differences between the picture of you and the way you really look?” Hsu asked.
She selected artworks by artists Guo Bo-chuan (郭柏川), Liu Shin-ruh (劉新祿), Ho Te-la (何德來), Daniel Lee (李小鏡), Hsu Yao-tung (徐耀東), Lii Jiin-shiow (李錦繡), Su Wong-shen (蘇旺伸), and Wang Wu (王午) in the “A Self-Introduction on Canvas” area.
A self-portrait is one kind of portrait, the curator said. While making portraits, artists often try to paint a picture of themselves too. Sometimes they do it to practice their painting skills. Sometimes they use a self-portrait to project their longings for real life onto their canvas. As a result, self-portraits become a medium for artists to express their own personality and uniqueness.
The “I am Another You” area showcases five pieces of artworks by Wang Wu, Ku Fu-sheng (顧福生), Hsi Te-chin (席德進), Wu Cheng-yen (吳承硯), and Max C.W. Liu (劉其偉) who drew self-portraits for their artist friends.
Through these self-portraits that artists paint for each other, viewers can understand the relationship between artists and their friends, the TFAM director said. They can also see how artists communicate with others in artistic language.
“Given young children’s cognitive development, we selected our exhibits ranging from figurative to semi-abstract (only lines or colors) and surreal paintings,” Hsu said.
During the period of Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, some artists including Guo Bo-chuan, Liu Shin-ruh and Ho Te-la, usually depicted their own appearance objectively instead of subjectively.
Artists Su Wong-shen and Wang Wu expressed themselves with colors, strokes and lines. The New York-based artist Daniel Lee specializes in digital images, combining human portraits with animal features that are startlingly lifelike.
Now close your eyes and think of a face you’ve seen before. Does it have any special feature? Does it reveal its owner’s personality? If you pick up a pencil, how will you draw this face in your mind?
“How can I make my portrait look exactly like the person I’m drawing?” Hsu said that ordinary people usually want to draw an accurate self-portrait.
Wu Cheng-yen’s “Portrait of Max C.W. Liu.
Photo from TFAM
Wu Cheng-yen’s “Portrait of Max C.W. Liu.”
While looking at portraits or self-portraits, the first thing they notice is whether the person in the painting looks like the one in real life. But artists do not simply paint “a face.” They use colors, lines, brushstrokes, and backgrounds to convey how they imagine the face in their mind. Their artworks often include their observations of the person’s personality and spirit.
Hsu quoted artist Hsi Te-chin as saying that artists use their sense of vision to reassemble a face while drawing a portrait. Some artworks seem a little exaggerated. Others look like a rough or subdued sketch. Sometimes artists just draw a picture of you based on their concepts and observations. When you see this kind of painting, you have to appreciate it as a whole. It is not about the proportions of your face, but your inner spirit and personality.
A self-portrait always contains a concept, a story, or an emotion that artists want to share. Meanwhile, taking a self-portrait is a simple way to explore, understand, and even discover yourself. It also functions as a medium of expressing yourself to others. As a result, producing a self-portrait is very introspective for the artist.
“The creative process looks like a journey towards self-discovery,” Hsu said. “For each self-portrait, the artist must ask: What expression, pose, style of dress, background, and color best expresses the real me? Perhaps it is the final picture to reveal who the artist really is. After years of work, the artist often ends up with a compilation of self-portraits essentially showing their personality, spirit, and art life.”
Some artists may draw portraits of each other. These paintings are not just imitations or reproductions. An artist would depict her relationship with another into her creations, expressing the feelings they have for each other.
Wu Cheng-yen studied sports at the ‎National Central University in Nanjing in 1942, and later switched to arts. He was very enthusiastic about art education, working with Max C.W. Liu to hold a number of children’s drawing competitions in Taiwan. The two were very good friends because they shared an interest in wilderness adventures.
In 1980, both artists drew portraits for each other. The exhibition at the TFAM showcases their creations. In Wu’s “Portrait of Max C.W. Liu” and Liu’s “Self-Portrait,” the model was Max Liu. But each has completely different appearances and styles.
Max C.W. Liu’s “Self-Portrait.
Photo from TFAM
Max C.W. Liu’s “Self-Portrait.”
In Wu’s painting, Liu wore safari clothing and cap, and held his pipe. Wu used warmhearted and harmonious colors, and a bright and friendly smile to express his friend’s personality.
In his self-portrait, Liu used red and black colors, plus vigorous brushstrokes. His eyebrows drooped with a sad look. But his powerful painting style still conveyed his childlike joy and charm, the curator said.
More interestingly, Liu signed his paintings with Mandarin phonetic symbols and his English name Max. “I unexpectedly found that Wu Cheng-yen and Su Wong-shen, as well as Hsi Te-chin and Lii Jiin-shiow were teachers and students. Thus, ‘Face to Face’ is also a joint exhibition of teachers and students,” said Hsu.
From July, the TFAM will hold a series of family-friendly events, such as a creation workshop for parents and children. Kids have to paint themselves without looking at their reflections in the mirror.
One interactive device of the “Face to Face” exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
Photo from TFAM
One interactive device of the “Face to Face” exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
We will teach them to first touch their faces with their hands, the curator said. And then use their fingers to measure the width of their nose and the length of their philtrum – the vertical groove between nose and mouth. After doing a rough sketch of their faces, they can paint them with watercolors and make their distinctive facial features out of clay.
Five interactive devices in the exhibition space allow children to experience, play, and touch. For example, mirrors with different heights, concave or convex mirrors, and tilting or reclining mirrors are set up at the exhibition entrance. Children can look at their images in the mirror and paint themselves. They use a whiteboard marker to draw on the mirror while observing the shape of their eyes and the color of their hair.
An interactive room of the “Face to Face” exhibition for children to practice drawing lines.
Photo from TFAM
An interactive room of the “Face to Face” exhibition for children to practice drawing lines.
The second interactive game is a blind contour-drawing exercise. Kids draw the contour of a subject without looking at the paper. Through their free-style lines, they can realize that a remarkable likeness is not the first priority for drawing self-portraits.
The third is an interactive color device that allows them to use different color cards to change the background color for different paintings. This game helps them learn how to use and mix colors.
The TFAM invited artist Liao Yu-an (廖堉安) to draw a self-portrait for children. He will teach them how to use animals to describe their personality, for example, to depict themselves as free as birds, or mysterious as cats.